Johnston, Ben

Ben Johnston (1926-2019)

Benjamin Burwell Johnston, Jr., born in Macon, Georgia, is a composer of contemporary music in the just intonation system. Johnston taught composition and theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1951 to 1983. Johnston began as a traditional composer of art music before working with Harry Partch, helping the senior musician to build instruments and use them in the performance and recording of new compositions. After working with Partch, Johnston studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College. It was in fact Partch himself who arranged for Johnston to study with Milhaud (Duckworth 1995, 122). It should be noted that Johnston struggled with just how to integrate just intonation into his compositions for a number of years. Since 1960 Johnston has used, almost exclusively, a system of microtonal notation based on the rational intervals of just intonation. Johnston also worked with John Cage, who encouraged him to pursue the composition of just-tuned music for traditional instruments.

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 opera Carmilla, the Sonata for Microtonal Piano (1964) and the Suite for Microtonal Piano (1977). Johnston has completed ten string quartets to date. The Kronos Quartet, led by David Harrington, has a standing offer to record all ten quartets, but its label, Nonesuch, has thus far refused the offer. In 2006, the Kepler Quartet issued String Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 4 & 9 for the New World Records label. As of 2006, the Kepler Quartet plan to follow up with String Quartets Nos. 1, 5, 6, 8 & 10, for New World Records. Also as of 2006, New World Records, through its Database of Recorded American Music (an online subscription service for colleges, universities and libraries), plans to make the Kepler release(s) available, along with the rest of New World Records’ catalogue (including Johnston’s Sonata for Microtonal Piano, Five Fragments for voice, oboe, bassoon and cello, Gambit for 12 instruments, Ponder Nothing for solo clarinet, Septet for woodwind quintet, cello and contrabass, Three Chinese Lyrics for soprano and two violins, and Trio for clarinet, violin and cello), to students, faculty and scholars affiliated with a subscribing university, without charge to the individual.

Following on the ideas of Theodor Adorno, Johnston believes that music has the power to influence and even control social trends. Johnston believes that an equal tempered tuning system based on irrational intervals contributes to the hectic hyper-activity of modern life. The wildly beating sonorities of equal temperament are thought to resemble (and perhaps foment) the fast-paced, unmeditative current of present-day Western existence. Many just intervals lack the sharp vibrancy of irrational intervals (and higher-order rational intervals) and thus are sometimes felt to convey an affect of stasis and meditative calm. Indeed, cultures whose tuning systems draw heavily on purely tuned intervals (e.g., North Indian classical music) tend to value meditative social attitudes more greatly than in the West.

Johnston has received many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959, a grant from the National Council on the Arts and the Humanities in 1966 and two commissions from the Smithsonian Institution. An interview with Ben Johnston can be found in Duckworth 1995. Heidi von Gunden has published a monograph on the composer (von Gunden 1986), and Bob Gilmore has edited the composer’s complete writings (Johnston 2006). Johnston’s students include Thomas Albert, Manfred Stahnke and Kyle Gann.