Archive for the “Just Intonation” Category
On Wednesday, September 21, 2016 the innovative Soundwaves concert series continued at the Santa Monica Public Library featuring the music of Lou Harrison and John Luther Adams as performed by the group Just Strings. Alison Bjorkedal, John Schneider and T.J. Troy comprise Just Strings, who specialize in performing music in just intonation. Ms. Bjorkedal brought two harps – one orchestra-sized instrument tuned in Pythagorean temperament and a second smaller Celtic harp also tuned in JI. John Schneider came equipped with two guitars and there were an array of percussion items surrounding T.J. Troy.
The concert opened with Yup’ik Dances (1995), a collection of short pieces by John Luther Adams. An active environmentalist, Adams has spent most of his composing career in Alaska, inspired by both the landscape and the people there. Although not precise transcriptions of Native indigenous music, Yup’ik Dances is informed by their sturdy directness. He writes : “These little pieces are part of a larger cycle based on traditional dance songs of Alaska’s indigenous peoples. It is my hope that they convey something of my deep admiration for Native cultures, as well as my love of the forests, rivers, lakes and mountains of this place.” Invitation to the Dance begins Yup’ik Dances and a light percussive drumming lays down a solid beat. The harp dominates with an appealingly exotic, but never alien melody. Overall, this has a warm and welcoming feel. Jump Rope Song followed, and this featured a simple back-and-forth between the guitar and harp, trading playful passages. The percussion was tacet, but the rhythm was ably carried along in the strings.
Shaman’s Moon Song was next, and this had a more purposeful feel as the drumming rejoined the ensemble. A dramatic melody from the strings added to the sense of importance as the piece proceeded, leading up to a nicely executed ending. Juggling Song featured the guitar and harp interweaving rapid phrases and rhythmic patterns so that even without the percussion there was a convincing sense of balance and motion. Yup’ik Dances concluded with It Circles Me and this had repeating, syncopated harp passages offset with a strong guitar counterpoint in the lower registers that was very effective. There was a slightly vexing feel to this, even as the light drumming contributed a reassuringly regular beat to the texture. Yup’ik Dances is an artful sketch of indigenous Alaskan music, elegant in its simplicity and yet realized with fullness by the players.
Harp Suite #1, by Lou Harrison followed and this is a collection of miniatures composed from 1964 to 1972. Jahla (1972) was first and this opened with finger cymbals and a lightly tapped tambourine. The harp joined with a quick rhythmic figure that established a nice groove as the piece progressed. The intricate development in the melody gave this a light, airy feel. Music for Bill & Me (1967) followed and for this Ms. Bjorkedal took up the smaller harp. A slow, deliberate melody arose that evoked a quiet, introspective ambiance. The distinctive character of this had all the markings of Harrison’s well known Asian influences. Avalokiteshvara (1964) was next and this featured two sets of small xylophones played by T. J. Troy and John Schneider that issued a complex set of repeating patterns. This established a solid, purposeful groove, and the orchestral harp entered with a syncopated melody that was most effective. Avalokiteshvara was precisely played by Just Strings, who imparted all the virtues of classic minimalism in good form.
The suite concluded with Beverly’s Troubadour Piece (1967) and for this the finger cymbals, bongos and the smaller harp wove a series of different rhythms in and around each other in a delightful pattern – all projecting a courtly, almost formal feel that was perfectly suited to the title. Harp Suite #1 is a brightly beautiful group of pieces, expertly played in this performance, and a telling example of how much Lou Harrison could extract from even small musical forces.
Another Lou Harrison piece, Lyric Phrases (1972) followed, and this began with the scraping of a stick on a gourd by T. J. Troy. A light knocking here also set a steady beat. The guitar joined in with the melody and the orchestral harp repeated a two-note repeating rhythm underneath. All of this had a light, easy feel with an overall sound that was reminiscent of near eastern music. The optimistic character of this piece filled the room with a cheerful buoyancy, abetted by the fine ensemble playing.
The concert concluded with Athabascan Dances (1995) by John Luther Adams and this series of five short pieces formed a natural book-end with the opening suite. Grandpa Joe’s Traveling Song was first, and this included the orchestral harp, guitar and what looked to be a group of rattles from the percussion that set down a rhythmic groove. There was a rural, almost country music feel to this – a sound more familiar than that of the Yup’ik Dances. A nice harp solo was heard towards the end followed by a da capo finish. They Will All Go was the next piece and here bongos were played with a mallet to set the beat while the harp carried a light melody above counterpoint in the guitar. This graceful lyricism here clearly revealed the influence of Lou Harrison, longtime mentor to JL Adams.
Deenaadai’ followed, slower and more dramatic. The harp, guitar and what looked to be a small dulcimer all contributed separate melodies – barely connected – and yet the sum of them coalesced nicely. Deenaadai’ sets a serious mood, crowned by the sounding of mystical bells at the end. By contrast, Grandpa Joe’s Hunting Song had a bright, happy feel, and a more dance-like rhythm. The joy of time spent in the outdoors and in nature was clearly evident and it seemed, again, like our own country music but with a generous Asian influence. Potlatch Song of a Lonely Man completed this set and conveyed a solemn, declarative sense that also felt a bit distant. Odd rhythmic figures were scattered throughout in a way that increased the solitary feel. As this piece progressed, it became more animated with the addition of a strong, rattling percussion. The guitar and orchestral harp engaged in a lively duo, as if duplicating the potlatch gift-giving ritual. As Potlatch Song of a Lonely Man approached its conclusion the drumming and strongly syncopated harp produced a more plaintive feeling, as if summarizing the plight of a lonely man in the clannish Athabascan culture.
All of the works performed by Just Strings in this concert were skillfully played and the alternate tuning smoothly realized. The small scale of these pieces by Lou Harrison and John Luther Adams served to highlight the importance of the craft and detail so artfully employed in the creation of this music.
A recording of many of the pieces performed in this concert is available from Microfest Records.
The next Soundwaves concert is Wednesday, November 16, 2016 at 7:30 PM and will feature pianist Vicki Ray.
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On Saturday, May 14, 2016 Microfest presented a concert of string quartet music at Boston Court in Pasadena. This is the latest in a series of concerts around Los Angeles featuring music created with alternate tuning. The Isaura String Quartet performed works by Kraig Grady, John Luther Adams, Gloria Coates and a world premiere by Andrew McIntosh.
Chippewayan Echoes by Kraig Grady opened the program, and this began with a smooth melody that started in the violins and was passed around and down to the lower strings. New lines were started and similarly shared, the various instruments weaving the melodies into a pleasing pattern. The harmonies were full and plaintive with perhaps a hint of sadness and solemn introspection. Chippewayan Echoes is a re-imagining of Native American melodies, as Kraig Grady writes in the program notes: “There is no attempt to produce an authentic historical rendition. Such a thing is not even possible. What is sought here instead is an emphasis on their melodic qualities that a translation to string quartet brings forth.” The piece is based on a single seven-note scale, with 7-limit just intonation. The result was a full sound, internally consonant and very smooth to the ear as played by the Isaura String Quartet. Chippewayan Echoes succeeds through the simplicity of its construction and the economical use of natural harmonic materials to impart a convincing encounter with primal sensibilities.
Tread Softly, by Andrew McIntosh, followed and this was the world premiere Tread Softly was written earlier this year for the Isaura String Quartet as a gift from the composer. This piece was originally envisioned as an etude for harmony in just intonation for string quartets, but ultimately became, as Andrew McIntosh writes: “…a small song with speech-like rhythms and miniature arpeggiated melodies.” Tread Softly begins with a sequence of soft tones coming from all the instruments and a bouncy feel – a bit like being on a boat rocking in a gentle swell. If the harmonies sounded a bit unusual, they were always agreeable. The second section sounded a bit more dramatic with some added tension in the chords. A pattern of alternating tones and single pitches prevailed and this produced some interesting harmonies. The last section was lush and flowing, with a settled, comfortable feel. Tread Softly offers a fine sampling of feelings and emotions, artfully expressed through just intonation
The Wind in High Places, by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams was next, and this three-movement work sets out to sketch some of the more remote places in North America. The music of John Luther Adams is informed by his commitment to environmental causes and a long-time residence in his adopted state of Alaska. Above Sunset Pass is the first movement and the title refers to an isolated opening in the Brooks Range near the Arctic coast. This begins with high, needle-sharp tones in the first violin and sustained tones from the other strings, entering in turn, that evoke the sense of blowing wind in a mountain pass. The entire piece is played on open strings and this contributes a wide, expansive feel that adds to the feeling of majestic inaccessibility. As the pitches descend, inviting harmonies develop that are remarkable for their cordial warmth – the landscapes throughout this piece are never portrayed as harsh or inhospitable.
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On Tuesday December 3, 2013 the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group presented LA Now: Four New Angeleno Composers, the latest in the Green Umbrella series of new music concerts. Curated by no less an eminence than John Adams, works by Sean Friar, Julia Holter, Andrew McIntosh and Andrew Norman were performed for a mostly young and enthusiastic audience that filled three quarters of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
In the pre-concert panel discussion we learned that over 100 compositions were considered during the selection process and that Mr. Adams sought music that “speaks of Los Angeles” and displayed a sense of provincialism – in the best sense of that word. The composers were each asked to identify what makes new music in Los Angeles unique, and comments such as “freedom to try things”, “dispersed”, “experimental” and “entrepreneurial” were heard. Noting that the musical forces specified in these four pieces were generally on the small side, moderator Chad Smith – LA Phil Vice President of Artistic Planning – asked “Is the orchestra still relevant? Do you write music for a full orchestra?” To which Julia Holter quipped “Only if you need to write such a piece to graduate…” and this provoked a knowing laugh from the many music students present. But the mood was upbeat – there is a lively new music scene in and around downtown Los Angeles, and Disney Hall is situated at the center of it.
The first piece on the program was Little Green Pop by Sean Friar and the instrumentation consisted of piano, trombone, soprano and tenor saxes, electric guitar and percussion. This seemingly small assemblage produced an unexpectedly large sound, beginning with a run of light staccato tones that evolved into a series of louder chords. The quick tempo and syncopated rhythms were guided nicely by the precise and clear conducting of John Adams. The tones seem to pop out of the instruments, the harmonies and textures changing with almost every beat and this created a kind of pointillist construction of sound that was very effective. At other times, separate lines would pile together combining into a wonderful mash. Cymbals added an element of majesty and motion that eventually culminated in a great blast from the horns. Sustained and quiet tones followed, producing a moment of calm reflection before building again in tempo and volume and leading to a rousing finish. This was a work whose architecture delivered impressive constructions of sound from relatively small musical forces and Little Green Pop was received with enthusiastic applause.
Memory Drew Her Portrait by Julia Holter followed and this was a world premiere commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This piece featured a more conventionally arrayed chamber orchestra consisting of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone and keyboard, with a string section consisting of four violins, two violas, two cellos and a double bass – all presided over by John Adams conducting. The composer sang the solo vocals whose text was based on an extended original poem that forms the focus of this work. The opening mournful horn solo immediately sets the tone for this piece – a story of lovers parted. Ms. Holter was mentioned as being in the same league with Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro in the pre-concert discussion and the comparison is apt, less because of the purity of her voice but more in the way that the music, text and voice are joined seamlessly to propel the serious emotional trajectory of the piece. The voice is an equal partner here and the smooth passages in the orchestra serve to effectively reinforce the mood of the text. The accompaniment is direct and accessible, yet adds the requisite atmosphere to the poignant lyrics. The combination of powerful poetry, insightful orchestration and the strong emotional component in the vocals fully connected with the audience, who responded with sustained applause.
After the intermission, Etude IV by Andrew McIntosh was performed by James Sullivan and Brian Walsh playing clarinet with Mark Menzies on violin. This is a quiet piece consisting of a series of scales that repeat in various combinations of intervals and pitches. This piece employs just intonation – a type of microtonal music that employs tuning based on the natural harmonic ratios of pitches and not the conventional 12 equal divisions of the octave. Etude IV is one of a series exercises that Andrew wrote to help the players practice in these different tunings. In the program notes Andrew states that “…present in the pieces is my fascination with some of the more orderly facets of the natural world so the forms and harmonic constructs of the pieces are often very geometric or symmetrical in some way… In Etude IV (my personal favorite) the symmetry is reflected in time as each phrase goes out of phase with itself…” The sound of this occasionally had an Asian feel and often produced interesting harmonies and timbres as the instruments ascended each of the scale patterns. The hearing was good – even in the higher elevations of Disney Hall where I was sitting – but some of the subtleties of the harmonic interplay were undoubtedly lost given the sizable space; this music is most often performed in a much more intimate setting. On the whole, it was a generally restful and almost meditative experience, a fine contrast to much of what was heard in the first part of the concert. Etude IV is very representative of the work being done with alternate tunings in the Los Angeles new music scene and the structure of this piece also owes something to process, another historical West Coast influence.
The final piece of the concert was Try by Andrew Norman and for this John Adams resumed his role as conductor of a group identical to that of Memory Drew Her Portrait, save the addition of a trumpet. But the sound could not have been more different – Try is a furious, high energy stringendo-on-steroids wall of sound that jumped off the stage and seemed barely contained by even the spacious Disney Hall. Swirling, always moving ,yet able to turn on a dime, this piece most reminded me of the old Warner Brothers cartoon music – and this, of course, is a compliment. The playing was precise and deadly accurate despite the frenetic pace and the ensemble managed to keep a keen edge on the river of sound that was sent flowing from the stage. Percussion and brass added an almost explosive element to the ever-building torrent and just when you were sure it couldn’t get any wilder – it went quiet. Piano and flute traded soft phrases and eventually the piano alone was left to repeat a theme of just a few notes. A slight acceleration in the final phrase, then some quiet quiet chords… and an audience sitting in stunned silence. This piece was an emotional roller coaster ride and received a loud ovation in response. It is hard to believe that the music of Andrew Norman won’t find its way to a movie screen or a TV series sometime soon.
LA Now: New Angeleno Composers was an exciting event much appreciated by the sizable audience. Credit goes to John Adams for what must have been no small effort to curate and produce such a concert. Congratulations to all the composers whose work was performed, it was a night to remember.
Concert notes, composer links and more information about this performance are here.
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The San Francisco Bay Area is home to a sizable community of sound artists, instrument inventors, and intonation innovators who spend all their time developing original and never-before-heard ways of relating to music and sound. The local scene got a big national nod in 2008 when Walter Kitundu got the mysterious and exhilarating phone call and windfall that is the MacArthur Fellowship.
With such a lively local pool of talent, it’s natural that it has its own festival — Music for People and Thingamajigs — celebrating its 14th year from September 22nd to 25th, 2011. Edward Schocker and Dylan Bolles started it at Mills College in 1997, and it’s grown up to include a non-profit parent organization, Thingamajigs, and a profusion of programs including performances and arts education.
The festival Call for Proposals just went out this week. Artists and composers working with invented instruments and/or alternate tuning systems, and performing ensembles featuring either one or both, are invited to submit proposals. The deadline is June 15, 2011, although proposals which come in on or before May 15, 2011 will be included in festival grant proposals “and will have a greater chance of receiving outside funding,” says founder Schocker.
Proposals should include a bio of the artist/performer/composer(s), a specific description of the work or performance to be considered, and documentation of the submitted work (CD or link to a website). Thingamajigs prefers electronically submitted proposals, sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, but will accept hard copies at Thingamajigs.org, 5000 MarcArthur Blvd PMB 9826, Oakland, CA, 94613, USA.
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Like Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham‘s fame will always be for his use of multiple electric guitars, often in non-standard tunings and often at just-about-ear-splitting volume. The slight shame is that the guitar stuff is only one part of Chatham’s long and restless musical exploration: there’s also all his work as a trumpeter, as well as works for everything from two gongs to just-tuned piano to wind ensemble to full orchestra. And while the massed guitar resources may be similar to Branca, I’ve always felt that Chatham’s clang/clash/drone carried something almost ‘lyrical’, compared to Branca’s body blows.
A major force in the 70s-80s ‘downtown’ NYC scene, Chatham has spent the last 20 years as an ex-pat in Paris, where he’s continued ramping up the ambition of his musical visions. One of those visions became reality in 2005, when the City of Paris commissioned Chatham to compose a piece for their all-night La Nuit Blanche Festival. The result, A Crimson Grail, gathered 400 guitarists (w/ bass and percussion) in a marathon, three-movement sonic assault focused on Paris’ largest church, Sacré-Coeur. 10,000 people watched live, and 100,000 more on national TV. A fuzzy audio snapshot of the performance has been released on CD, but this Grail was so much a spectacle of a specific moment that any future performance would likely be nearly impossible, and in any case would be a very different beast indeed.
Well, that ‘beast’ has arrived, and this time on our side of the Atlantic. Chatham has reworked A Crimson Grail, this time for a slightly more ‘modest’ 200 guitars (and 16 bass guitars), and is in town to present it (along with section leaders David Daniell, Seth Olinsky, John King, and Ned Sublette) this Saturday, August 8th, as part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors. The performance is from 7:30 to 10 pm, at Damrosch Park (Southwest corner of the Lincoln Center Plaza, 62nd Street near Amsterdam Avenue).
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I’ve been working so hard today I’ve forgotten to eat, and it’s in that spirit of lightheadedness and poor impulse control that I share with you the following San Francisco Bay Area new music scene update.
The Lab’s 25th anniversary performance series is well underway, and in just one night, they’ll run the gamut of styles celebrating their audacious artistic vision. On Thursday, July 2nd, Mills College’s own Chris Brown will curate and perform in a concert featuring Charles Johnson, Chad and Curtis McKinney, Tom Nunn and William Winant.
When Johnson et. al. take the stage, you’ll hear amplified string and percussion instruments tuned in just intonation, combined with analog electronics configured to create difference tones. Chad and Curtis McKinney are twin brothers whose SuperCollider-based computer network music makes a tightly interwoven, visceral and strongly rhythmic combo. Chris Brown will put on his electroacoustic hat, teaming up with instrument inventor Tom Nunn to tangle with legendary percussionist William Winant.
If you can’ t make it this week, never fear, since the series will continue next week with Miya Masaoka and Tomas Phillips on Thursday, July 9th, and a multimedia event the next night with Nao Bustamante, Margaret Tedesco, and Cliff Hengst. Performance artist Bustamante will embody 1940s Dominican movie starlet Maria Montez, using video and the body as a source of backdrop, narrative, and emotion, taking audiences on a journey all over the body and its bejeweled parts.
The Lab is conveniently located at 2948 16th Street, San Francisco, near the 16th and Mission BART station. They’ll let you in for $8.00 at the door. For more information, call (415) 864-8855.
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Thursday morning I talked with composer Terry Riley, who is in New York this week to collaborate with the Bang on a Can All-Stars in the US premiere of his work Autodreamographical Tales at Le Poisson Rouge on 8 November.
Riley is famous for being one of the “Big Four” of American minimalist composers (the others: LaMonte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass). But while his early works, such as A Rainbow in Curved Air, Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band, and the seminal In C, were musical rallying cries during minimalism’s ascendance in the 1960s, Riley’s been involved with many other important pieces, styles, and activities since then. His palette encompasses North Indian music, jazz, electronics, various intonation systems, and increasingly in recent years, projects incorporating guitar and spoken word.
As an admirer of his music, it’s somewhat frustrating to read review after review in which he’s asked to talk about the importance of In C and his work is then pigeon-holed as minimalist in style. In planning for the interview, I promised myself that both minimalism and In C would be off-limits. When the composer mentions in passing an upcoming performance of In C (April 24, 2009 at Carnegie Hall, but you didn’t hear that from me), I tell him of my secret pact and he enthusiastically agrees! Instead, we focus on recent, current and future projects.
Riley says, “Autodreamographical Tales started out a while ago as a piece for radio in which I narrated and played all the instruments. There were overdubs and samples. The Bang on a Can All Stars wanted me to create a new version of the piece to perform with them. My son Gyan, who’s also a guitarist and composer, helped me to orchestrate the piece. While there are still a few samples, we’ve figured out how to perform live many of the things that were looped or overdubbed.”
“The piece is based on a dream journal that I was keeping at the time. Some of my dreams had evocative images and stories that I felt would work well in the piece for radio and, now, in this new version for Bang on a Can. We got together and rehearsed it this past summer during a week-long residency in Italy. A performance there was the world premiere and this one in New York is Autodreamographical Tales’ second performance.”
Riley also spent time this past summer in New England at Bang on a Can’s Summer Music Festival at MASS MoCA. “It was an inspiring setting: a number of talented composers and performers, the galleries, and so many excellent concerts.”
We return to the subject of his son, a talented musician in his own right who encouraged the elder Riley to explore composing for the guitar. “Gyan came home with all of these recordings of the guitar: he was just crazy about it and wanted to share his enthusiasm with me. We listened to all sorts of players, especially classical and Brazilian artists.”
During the past two decades, Riley has created a number of works for the instrument, including the solo collection Book of Abbeyozzud and Cantos Desiertos, a beautiful set of pieces for flute and guitar. When I comment that Riley has managed to combine expected, idiomatic passages with some very fresh-sounding guitar writing, he replies, “It was challenging to write for the guitar as a non-guitarist. I really worked hard to learn about the instrument: there’s a lot to know in order to compose effectively for it.”
New music guitarist David Tanenbaum, Gyan’s principal instructor, has also been the beneficiary of several recent works for the instrument, including a 2008 piece for national steel and synthesizer entitled Moonshine Sonata. Riley says, “The national steel for which I wrote the sonata is a special model, redesigned so that it’s tuned in just intonation. The company that made the instrument for David loaned me one while I was composing the piece; it’s amazing how resonant, how loud it is all by itself – it doesn’t need amplification!”
Tanenbaum and Gyan Riley, along with violinist Krista Bennion Feeney, premiered another 2008 Riley work: the Triple Concerto Soltierraluna. The concerto form is one to which Riley is drawn of late: a project in the pipeline is a violin concerto commissioned by a symphony orchestra in Bari, Italy for soloist Francesco D’Orazio. “I don’t approach the concerto form in the conventional manner, as this heroic thing; I like to find ways to integrate the soloist into the ensemble; to foster interactions between them that you don’t get in the big Classical or Romantic pieces. In a sense, what I’m writing is more akin to the concerto grosso form.”
Since the 1970s, Riley has frequently collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, producing a number of pieces for them. He’s currently at work on another, titled Poppy Nogood and the Transylvanian Horns. The title refers to one of Riley’s best known early works, Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band; but this successor also includes the Kronos group playing some newly adopted instruments. The “Transylvanian horns” in question are called “stro instruments:” string instruments fitted with trumpet or trombone bells. The composer seems to relish the challenge of learning about and composing for these hybrid instruments. Even when called upon to revisit ideas from his past, Terry Riley is ever eager to try something new.
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So with all pleasures of life.
All things pass with the east-flowing water.
I leave you and go—when shall I return?
Let the white roe feed at will among the green crags,
Let me ride and visit the lovely mountains!
How can I stoop obsequiously and serve the mighty ones!
It stifles my soul.
His Dream of the Skyland – A Farewell Poem.
Li Po (Li Bai) (~701-763 CE) is universally recognized as one of the greatest Chinese poets of the Tang period, or for that matter, of the entire Chinese literary tradition. His poetry shows the influences of the interwoven philosophical religions of his time, Taoism, Neo Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, as well as a particular fondness for nature and wine. Well educated, highly regarded by everyone, he had lifelong trouble securing a post and spent his life as a wanderer, preternaturally creative and prolific. Over one thousand poems remain, along with the stories of his improvisations, drunkenness and generosity. Legend has it that he drowned while trying to grasp the moon in the water, but he is generally regarded to have committed suicide after leaving a farewell poem (partially quoted above). (This poem is the 10th of the set of 17 Lyrics).
The parallels between Partch and Li Bai are so striking as to imagine that they are the same person, re-cycled after a period of 1200 years. Hoboes, brilliant, often drunk, deeply admired, suspicious of authority, unable to find peace or security, and spectacularly creative, they are the irritating grain of sand in society’s eye that add the full dimension to our humanity – the rememberers of forgotten things.
“I am first and last a composer. I have been provoked into becoming a musical theorist, and instrument builder, a musical apostate, and a musical idealist, simply because I have been a demanding composer. I hold no wish for the obsolescence of the widely heard instruments and music. My devotion to our musical heritage is great — and critical. I feel that more ferment is necessary for a healthy musical culture. I am endeavoring to instill more ferment.” –Harry Partch 1942
In 1930, the composer Harry Partch (1901-1974) broke with Western European tradition and forged a new music based on a more primal, corporeal integration of the elements of speech, rhythm and performance using the intrinsic music found in the spoken word, the principles of acoustic resonance and just-intonation. Borrowing from the intonation systems of the ancient Greeks, he created a scale of 43-tones per octave, in part to enable him to capture the nuances of speech in his music, and to forge purer harmony. Read the rest of this entry »
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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.
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Thanks for your kind words earlier this year about the Ben Johnston String Quartet release on New World Records. I am the producer of that disc, and also the 2nd violinist in the Kepler Quartet (so, not an unbiased perspective…)
I am writing you and your readership with a plea, an invitation (however you wish to frame it) to become a part of bringing this great composer’s legacy into broad daylight. We recently received a Copland grant towards finishing the recorded cycle of Ben’s 10 string quartets, but still need to raise significant dollars to make it happen.
Mr. Johnston just turned 80, is in reasonable health, and has just moved to Wisconsin for family reasons-which means that his expertise is now wonderfully available to us. We have have a talented, committed ensemble, schooled in the challenges of Just Intonation, and a stable, supportive label behind the project.
All the pieces are in place to finish this project except for getting past the aforementioned monetary hump.
Wouldn’t it be a healthy scenario if we could get a grassroots, Howard Dean-like campaign going, and include as many individuals as possible from the new music online community, at modest contributions, in support of this truly great, and largely-overlooked composer late in his career?
Could be worth a small investment for the Karma alone, not to mention the accessibility of this ground-breaking music…
We’re going to attempt it, because we know it’s the right thing to do, not the commercial thing to do—anyone out there with us?
For details, please see
May we all have each other’s support when we need it!
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