Ben Johnston (composer)

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Benjamin Burwell Johnston, Jr. (born March 15, 1926) is an American contemporary music composer using just intonation. He has been called "one of the foremost composers of microtonal music" by Philip Bush (1997) and "one of the best non-famous composers this country has to offer" by John Rockwell (1990).

Just intonation

In music, just intonation or pure intonation is the tuning of musical intervals as (small) whole number ratios of frequencies. Any interval tuned in this way is called a just interval. Just intervals and chords are aggregates of harmonic series partials and may be seen as sharing a (lower) implied fundamental. For example, a tone with a frequency of 300 Hz and another with a frequency of 200 Hz are both multiples of 100 Hz. Their interval is, therefore, an aggregate of the second and third partials of the harmonic series of an implied fundamental frequency 100 Hz.

Microtonal music use in music of microtones (intervals smaller than a semitone)

Microtonal music or microtonality is the use in music of microtones—intervals smaller than a semitone, also called "microintervals". It may also be extended to include any music using intervals not found in the customary Western tuning of twelve equal intervals per octave. In other words, a microtone may be thought of as a note that falls between the keys of a piano tuned in equal temperament.

John Rockwell American critic

John Sargent Rockwell is an American music critic, editor, arts administrator, and dance critic. He studied at Phillips Academy, Harvard, the University of Munich, and the University of California, Berkeley, earning a Ph.D. in German cultural history.



Johnston was born in Macon, Georgia, and taught composition and theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1951 to 1986, before retiring to North Carolina. While there,[ where? ] he was in contact with avant-garde figures such as John Cage, La Monte Young, and Iannis Xenakis ( Gann 1995 ). Johnston's students have included Stuart Saunders Smith, Neely Bruce, Thomas Albert, Michael Pisaro, Manfred Stahnke, and Kyle Gann. He also considers his practice of just intonation to have influenced other composers, including James Tenney and Larry Polansky ( Bermel 1995 )

Macon, Georgia Consolidated city–county in Georgia, United States

Macon, officially Macon–Bibb County, is a consolidated city-county located in the state of Georgia, United States. Macon lies near the geographic center of the state, approximately 85 miles (137 km) south of Atlanta, hence the city's nickname "The Heart of Georgia."

Avant-garde music is music that is considered to be at the forefront of experimentation or innovation in its field, with the term "avant-garde" implying a critique of existing aesthetic conventions, rejection of the status quo in favor of unique or original elements, and the idea of deliberately challenging or alienating audiences.

Johnston began as a traditional composer of art music before working with Harry Partch. He helped the senior musician to build instruments and use them in the performance and recording of new compositions. Partch then arranged for Johnston to study with Darius Milhaud at Mills College ( Duckworth 1995 , 122). In 1952, Johnston met Cage, who invited him to come to New York to study with him in the summer. Though Johnston decided he did not have sufficient time to prepare for such studies, he did go to New York for several weeks and assisted, along with Earle Brown, in the production of Cage's eight-track tape composition, Williams Mix ( Von Gunden 1986 , 22).

Art music serious music, as opposed to popular or folk music

Art music is music that implies advanced structural and theoretical considerations or a written musical tradition. The terms "serious" or "cultivated" are frequently used in relation to music in order to present a contrast with ordinary, everyday music. At the beginning of the 20th century art music was divided into "serious music" and "light music".

Harry Partch composer from the United States

Harry Partch was an American composer, music theorist, and creator of musical instruments. He composed using scales of unequal intervals in just intonation, and was one of the first 20th-century composers in the West to work systematically with microtonal scales. He built custom-made instruments in these tunings on which to play his compositions, and described his theory and practice in his book Genesis of a Music (1947).

Darius Milhaud French composer and teacher

Darius Milhaud was a French composer, conductor, and teacher. He was a member of Les Six—also known as The Group of Six—and one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century. His compositions are influenced by jazz and Brazilian music and make extensive use of polytonality. Milhaud is considered one of the key modernist composers.

Later, in 1957 and 1959, he studied with Cage ( Von Gunden 1986 , 22), who encouraged him to follow his desires and use traditional instruments rather than electronics or newly built instruments ( Bush 1997 ). Unskilled in carpentry and finding electronics unreliable, Johnston struggled with how to integrate microtonality and conventional instruments for ten years. He also struggled with how to integrate microtones into his compositional language through a slow process of many stages ( Gann 1995 ). However, since 1960 Johnston has almost exclusively used a system of microtonal notation based on the rational intervals of just intonation, what Gann describes as a "lifelong allegiance" to "microtonality" ( Gann 1995 , 1). Johnston also studied with Burrill Phillips and Robert Palmer (Tyranny 2011; Von Gunden 1986, 23).

Burrill Phillips was an American composer, teacher, and pianist.

Robert Moffat (variously "Moffatt" and "Moffett") Palmer was an American composer, pianist and educator. He composed more than 90 works, including two symphonies, Nabuchodonosor, a piano concerto, four string quartets, three piano sonatas and numerous works for chamber ensembles.

Johnston composed music for multiple productions by the E.T.C. Company of La MaMa, Wilford Leach and John Braswell's company-in-residence at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in the East Village of Manhattan. His most significant work was Carmilla , which the company performed as part of their repertory throughout the 1970s ( La MaMa 2015a ). He also composed music for the company's production of Gertrude, a musical about the life of Gertrude Stein ( La MaMa 2015b ).

Carson Wilford Leach was a Tony Award-winning American theatre director, set designer, film director, screenwriter, and professor.

La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club

La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club is an Off-Off-Broadway theatre founded in 1961 by Ellen Stewart, African-American theatre director, producer, and fashion designer. Located in Manhattan's East Village, the theatre began in the basement boutique where Stewart sold her fashion designs. Stewart turned the space into a theatre at night, focusing on the work of young playwrights. La MaMa has evolved during its fifty-year history into a world-renowned cultural institution.

East Village, Manhattan Neighborhood in Manhattan in New York City

The East Village is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan. It is roughly defined as the neighborhood east of the Bowery and Third Avenue, between 14th Street on the north and Houston Street on the south.

His other works include the orchestral work Quintet for Groups (commissioned by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra), Sonnets of Desolation (commissioned by the Swingle Singers), the Sonata for Microtonal Piano (1964), and the Suite for Microtonal Piano (1977). Johnston has completed ten string quartets. The Kepler Quartet has recorded all ten of his string quartets for New World Records, finishing in April 2016 just after the composer's 90th birthday ( New World Records n.d. ).

Suite for Microtonal Piano (1978) is a suite for specifically microtonally tuned piano(s) by Ben Johnston written in 1977. According to Bob Gilmore the piece, "take[s] extended just intonation well beyond the point reached by Harry Partch."

New World Records is a record label that was established in 1975 through a Rockefeller Foundation grant to celebrate America's bicentennial (1976) by producing a 100-LP anthology, with American music from many genres.

Johnston has said:

Tempered tuning is not the acoustically simplest kind. In just tuning, any interval is tuned so as to eliminate 'beating' (the result of vibrations interfering with each other). Just intonation is the easiest to achieve by ear. In this kind of tuning, all intervals have vibration rates related by small whole-number ratios. The larger the integers of the ratio, the greater the dissonance. (Johnston 2006a, 42).

He has received many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959, a grant from the National Council on the Arts and the Humanities in 1966, two commissions from the Smithsonian Institution, and the Deems Taylor Award. In 2007, the American Academy of Arts and Letters honored Johnston for his lifetime of work. His Quintet for Groups won the SWR Sinfonieorchester prize at the 2008 Donaueschinger Musiktage ( Lamparter 2008 ).

Heidi von Gunden wrote a monograph on the composer, and Bob Gilmore has edited the composer's complete writings, which were published as "Maximum Clarity" and Other Writings on Music by the University of Illinois Press. A three-part oral history covering all stages of his career is housed at the Oral History of American Music through Yale University.


He is best known for extending Harry Partch's experiments in just intonation tuning to traditional instruments through his system of notation.[ citation needed ]

Johnston's compositional style is eclectic. He uses serial processes, folk song idioms (string quartets 4, 5, and 10), repetitive processes, traditional forms like fugue and variations, and intuitive processes ( Fonville 1991 , 120–21). His main goal "has been to reestablish just intonation as a viable part of our musical tradition" ( Bush 1997 ). According to Mark Swed, "ultimately, what Johnston has done, more than any other composer with roots in the great American musical experiments of the '50's and '60's, is to translate those radical approaches to the nature of music into a music that is immediately apprehensible" (Swed 1995 , [ page needed ], quoted in Bush 1997).

Most of Johnston's later works use a large number of pitches, generated through just-intonation procedures. In these works, he forms melodies based on an "otonal" eight-note just-intonation scale made from the 8th through 15th partials of the harmonic series, or its "utonal" inversion. He then gains new pitches by using common-tone transpositions or inversions. Many of his works also feature an expansive use of just intonation, using high prime limits. His String Quartet No. 9 uses intervals of the harmonic series as high as the 31st partial. He uses "potentially hundreds of pitches per octave," in way that is "radical without being avant-garde," and not for the creation of "as-yet-unheard dissonances," but in order to, "return... to a kind of musical beauty," he perceives as diminished in Western music since the adoption of equal-temperament ( Gann 1995 ). "By the beginning of the 1980s he could say of his elaborately microtonal String Quartet no. 5... 'I have no idea as to how many different pitches it used per octave'" ( Gilmore 2006 , xviii).

Johnston's early efforts in just composition drew heavily on the accomplishments of post-Webern serialism. His 7-limit String Quartet No. 4 "Amazing Grace", was commissioned by the Fine Arts Music Foundation of Chicago, and was first recorded by the Fine Arts Quartet on Nonesuch Records in 1980 (then reissued on Gasparo as GS205). His String Quartet No. 4, perhaps Johnston's best-known composition, has also been recorded by the Kronos Quartet. The Kepler Quartet (Sharan Leventhal, Eric Segnitz, Brek Renzelman, and Karl Lavine) also recorded the piece for New World Records, as part of a complete 10-quartet series documenting Johnston's entire cycle of string quartets. The Third Quartet was premiered as part of this series by the Concord String Quartet at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, on March 15, 1976, the composer's fiftieth birthday ( Rockwell 1976 ).

Staff notation

Just perfect fifth on D
Play  (help*info)
. The perfect fifth above D (A+, 27/16) is a syntonic comma (81/80 or 21.5 cents) higher than the just major sixth above C (A, 5/3) (Fonville 1991, 109), 27/16 / 9/8 = 3/2. Just perfect fifth on D.png
Just perfect fifth on D Loudspeaker.svg Play  . The perfect fifth above D (A+, 27/16) is a syntonic comma (81/80 or 21.5 cents) higher than the just major sixth above C (A, 5/3) (Fonville 1991, 109), 27/16 ÷ 9/8 = 3/2.

Beginning in the 1960s, Johnston had proposed an approach to notating music in just intonation, redefining the understanding of conventional symbols (the seven "white" notes, the sharps and flats) and adding further accidentals, each designed to extend the notation into higher prime limits. Johnston‘s method is based on a diatonic C major scale tuned in JI, in which the interval between D (9/8 above C) and A (5/3 above C) is one Syntonic comma less than a Pythagorean perfect fifth 3:2. To write a perfect fifth, Johnston introduces a pair of symbols representing this comma, + and –. Thus, a series of perfect fifths beginning with F would proceed C G D A+ E+ B+. The three conventional white notes A E B are tuned as Ptolemaic major thirds (5:4, Ptolemy's intense diatonic scale) above F C G respectively. Johnston introduces new symbols for the septimal ( 7 rightside up.png & 7 upside down.png ), undecimal ( & ), tridecimal ( 13 rightside up.png & 13 upside down.png ), and further prime extensions to create an accidental-based exact JI notation for what he has named "extended just intonation" ( Johnston 2006b , 77–88).

Though "this notation is not tied to any particular diapason" and "what remains constant are the ratio relations between pitches" ( Johnston 2006b , 77), "most of his works utilize A = 440 as the tuning note", making C 264 Hertz ( Fonville 1991 , 136n3). Thus, a string quartet is tuned C-, G-, D-, A, E.


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Further reading