Underrated: Ben Johnston
For the first subject of this column I’ve picked Ben Johnston, someone who has gotten some coverage on this site but remains criminally neglected. Born in Georgia in 1926, Johnston was variously taught by Harry Partch, Darius Milhaud, and John Cage. All three composers had an obvious effect on his music, but he quickly developed his own distinct voice. Best known for expanding on Partch’s experiments with just intonation, Johnston has contributed not only as a composer, but as a theorist and writer as well.
Johnston has written for orchestra, voice, and chamber ensembles, but his most important works as a composer have been his ten string quartets. Due to the intonational flexibility of the instruments, he has been able to fully explore his ideas concerning pitch and form. His quartets are arguably (and it’s an argument I’m willing to make) the most important works by an American composer in that medium. In his earliest works with non-tempered scales (Sonata for Microtonal Piano, String Quartets 2 and 3), Johnston pulled off the nifty trick of using a basic triad based tuning (5-limit JI) with pitch choices based on serial rows. The results are fascinating, but the cognitive dissonance of such an approach didn’t last long. A major change in Johnston’s thinking was heralded in 1972 by his fourth and most popular (and populist) string quartet, a set of variations on Amazing Grace. His latest works have explored the question of how European music would have developed unconstrained by temperament.
The University of Illinois Press recently released Johnston’s compiled writings on his musical theories and philosophies (and some other miscellany), Maximum Clarity, for which NewMusicBox conducted an interview with Johnston and published an excerpt.
While many of his works are unavailable, a sizeable portion have been recorded. The most significant Johnston recording is the disc of string quartets 2, 3, 4 and 9, put out by the Kepler Quartet last year (it deservedly made Jerry’s top 10 list for 2006). Kepler intends to record all 10 string quartets when funding allows. Head over to their website to see how you can support this important project… or just buy the recording on iTunes. Also, a CD of Johnston’s chamber works is available on New World, and Philip Bush has recorded his piano works for Koch. Those wonderful people at Counterstream Radio have put most of these recordings into their regular rotation.
For those of you who can’t possibly wait to hear any of Ben’s music, the Avant Garde Project is hosting two now out-of-print CRI LPs, containing Johnston’s fantastic 6th string quartet and two very different choral works.
I imagine that many of the readers of this site have at least a passing familiarity with the tuning concepts talked about above. To anyone who isn’t as familiar, Ben’s work is a wonderful starting place for acquainting your ears with these intervals, both because of the extent of which he employs them, as well as the general accessibility of his music. For those who have further interest, I encourage them to check out Kyle Gann’s page “Just Intonation Explained”. Jim Altieri has also designed some free software for calculating and hearing any of these intervals, available at his website.