Ben Johnston (composer)

Ben Johnston (composer)

Benjamin Burwell Johnston, Junior (born March 15, 1926 in Macon, Georgia) is a composer of contemporary music in the just intonation system.

Johnston's music

Ben Johnston is best known for extending Harry Partch's experiments in just intonation tuning to traditional instruments through his system of notation. Johnston's compositional style is eclectic, employing serial processes, folksong idioms (String Quartets 4, 5 and 10), repetitive processes, traditional forms like fugue and variations, and intuitive processes (Fonville 1991, 120–21), as well as twentieth-century experimental modernism and neoclassicism (though extending into jazz ("Revised Standards," for string quartet), and rock music (the rock-opera "Carmilla")Fact|date=November 2007; one of his compositional goals is to demonstrate the versatility of just intonation tuning in many styles.Fact|date=November 2007

Most of his later works use an extremely large number of pitches, generated through just intonation procedures. In them, Johnston 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.

Johnston's early efforts in just composition drew heavily on the accomplishments of post-Webern serialism. His String Quartet No. 4 "Amazing Grace", however, ushered in a change of style in which tonality plays a central role.Fact|date=November 2007 The String Quartet No. 4 was recorded by the Kronos Quartet and is perhaps Johnston's best-known composition. His "Amazing Grace" quartet was also recorded by the Kepler Quartet on a CD for the New World Records label, the first of a proposed series to document Johnston's entire cycle of string quartets. It is on this CD that String Quartet No. 3 was recorded (for the first time) to create a pairing, with String Quartet No. 4, called "Crossings". The two quartets were premièred this way by the Concord Quartet at New York's Alice Tully Hall, on March 15, 1976 (the composer's fiftieth birthday).Fact|date=November 2007


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). Johnston struggled with just how to integrate just intonation into his compositions for a number of years.Fact|date=July 2008 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.Fact|date=November 2007

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.Fact|date=November 2007 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.Fact|date=November 2007 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.Fact|date=November 2007

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.Fact|date=October 2007

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 Stuart Saunders Smith, Thomas Albert, Manfred Stahnke, and Kyle Gann.


* 2006. Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 4 & 9. Kepler Quartet. New World Records CD 80637.
** Ben Johnston: "String Quartet No. 9"
** Ben Johnston: "Crossings: String Quartet No. 3"
** Ben Johnston: "Crossings: The Silence"
** Ben Johnston: "Crossings: String Quartet No. 4 (Amazing Grace)"
** Ben Johnston: "String Quartet No. 2"

* 2005. Susan Fancher: Ponder Nothing. Innova Records.
** Includes Ben Johnston: "Ponder Nothing"

* 2002. Cleveland Chamber Symphony. Vol. 1, 2 & 3. Troppe Note Records.
** Includes Ben Johnston: "Songs of Loss"

* 1997. Phillip Bush: Microtonal Piano. Koch International Classics.
** Ben Johnston: "Suite for Microtonal Piano"
** Ben Johnston: "Sonata For Microtonal Piano"
** Ben Johnston: "Saint Joan"

* 1996. Michael Cameron: Progression. Ziva Records.
** Includes Ben Johnston: "Progression"

* 1995. Music Amici: Ponder Nothing. New World Records.
** Ben Johnston: "Septet"
** Ben Johnston: "Three Chinese Lyrics"
** Ben Johnston: "Gambit"
** Ben Johnston: "Five Fragments"
** Ben Johnston: "Trio"
** Ben Johnston: "Ponder Nothing"

* 1995. The Stanford Quartet. Laurel Records.
** Includes Ben Johnston: "String Quartet No. 9"

* 1995. Sound Forms for Piano. New World Records.
** Includes Ben Johnston: "Sonata For Microtonal Piano"

* 1995. The Kronos Quartet: Released (Compilation). Nonesuch Records.
** Includes Ben Johnston: "String Quartet No. 4 (Amazing Grace)"

* 1994. Dora Ohrenstein: Urban Diva. CRI Records.
** Includes Ben Johnston: "Calamity Jane to Her Daughter"

* 1987. The Kronos Quartet: White Man Sleeps. Nonesuch Records.
** Includes Ben Johnston: "String Quartet No. 4 (Amazing Grace)"

* 1984. New Swingle Singers and New Vocal Workshop. Composers Recordings, Inc.
** Ben Johnston: "Sonnets of Desolation"
** Ben Johnston: "Visions and Spels"

* 1983. The New World Quartet. Composers Recordings, Inc.
** Includes Ben Johnston: "String Quartet No. 6"

* 1980. The Fine Arts Quartet:. Nonesuch Records.
** Includes Ben Johnston: "String Quartet No. 4 (Amazing Grace)"

* 1979. Music from the University of Illinois. Composers Recordings, Inc.
** Includes Ben Johnston: "Duo for flute and contrabass"

* 1971. New Music Choral Ensemble, Kenneth Gaburo, conductor. Ars Nova/Ars Antiqua Records.
** Includes Ben Johnston: "Ci-Git Satie"

* 1970. Carmilla: A Vampire Tale. Vanguard Records.
** Ben Johnston: "Carmilla: A Vampire Tale"

* 1969. John Cage & Lejaren Hiller - HPSCHD/ Ben Johnston - String Quartet No. 2. Nonesuch Records.
** Includes Ben Johnston: "String Quartet No. 2"

* 1969. Bertram Turetzky: The Contemporary Contrabass. Nonesuch Records.
** Includes Ben Johnston: "Casta Bertram"


* Johnston, Ben. 2006. "Maximum Clarity" and Other Writings on Music", edited by Bob Gilmore. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252030982


* Duckworth, William. 1995. "Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers". New York: Schirmer Books; London: Prentice-Hall International. ISBN 0028708237 Reprinted 1999, New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80893-5
* Elster, Steven. 1991. "A Harmonic and Serial Analysis of Ben Johnston's String Quartet No. 6". "Perspectives of New Music" 29, no. 2 (Summer): 138–65.
* Fonville, John. 1991. "Ben Johnston's Extended Just Intonation: A Guide for Interpreters". "Perspectives of New Music" 29, no. 2 (Summer): 106–37.
* Gilmore, Bob. 1995. “Changing the Metaphor: Ratio Models of Musical Pitch in the Work of Harry Partch, Ben Johnston, and James Tenney”. "Perspectives of New Music" 33, nos. 1–2 (Winter-Summer): 458–503.
* Kassel, Richard. 2001. "Johnston, Ben(jamin Burwell)". "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians", ed. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell, London: Macmillan.
* Shinn, Randall. 1977. "Ben Johnston's Fourth String Quartet". "Perspectives of New Music" 15, no. 2 (Spring-Summer): 145–73.
* Von Gunden, Heidi. 1986. "The Music of Ben Johnston". Metuchen, NJ, and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. ISBN 0-8108-1907-4

External links

* [ Living Composers Project]
* [ "A New Dissonance"] has video interviews with the composer, blog entries, and documentary footage of the rehearsals of Johnston's 10th String Quartet performed by the Kepler Quartet.


* [ Ben Johnston at the Avant Garde Project] has FLAC files made from high-quality LP transcriptions available for free download.

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Ben Johnston — may refer to:* Ben Johnston (rugby player) British rugby player * Ben Johnston (composer), contemporary composer of concert music * Bennett Johnston Jr., Washington, D.C. based lobbyist * Ben Johnston (Scottish musician)ee also* Ben Johnson * Ben …   Wikipedia

  • Johnston (surname) — Family name name = Johnston imagesize= caption= pronunciation = John ston meaning = John s town John s son region = Scotland origin = Scotland related names = footnotes = Johnston is a surname which in most cases is a habitational surname derived …   Wikipedia

  • Andor Toth — TOC Violinist Andor Toth [] (1925 2006) earned international celebrity as a soloist, concert artist, conductor and educator with a musical career spanning over six decades. Toth played his violin on the World War II… …   Wikipedia

  • List of Maconites — Notable people from Macon, GeorgiaMusic*Young Jeezy (American rapper) *Luc Rugah (currently signed to Young Jeezy s label [ [ Corporate Thugz Entertainment] ] ) *Jason Aldean (country music singer) *The Allman… …   Wikipedia

  • Microtonal music — Composer Charles Ives chose the chord above as good possibility for a fundamental chord in the quarter tone scale, akin not to the tonic but to the major chord of traditional tonality.(Boatright 1971, 8 9)   …   Wikipedia

  • Partch — Harry Partch (* 24. Juni 1901 in Oakland, Kalifornien; † 3. September 1974 in San Diego, Kalifornien) war ein US amerikanischer Komponist. Er gehört zu den ersten Komponisten, die sich mikrotonaler Musik zuwandten. Die meisten Musikstücke schrieb …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Semitone — This article is about the musical interval. For the printing method, see halftone. semitone Inverse major seventh (for minor second); diminished octave (for augmented unison); augmented octave (for diminished unison) Name Other names minor second …   Wikipedia

  • List of symphony composers — Among composers who have composed symphonies are (listed in chronological order of birth): From the earliest symphonies to 1800 (Date of Birth) *Andrea Zani (1696–1757). Italian composer of the earliest securely dated symphonies (part of his op.… …   Wikipedia

  • List of 21st century classical composers by name — See also List of 21st century classical composers by birth date and List of 21st century classical composers by death date.Composers of 21st century classical music include:A*Keiko Abe (born 1937) *Muhal Richard Abrams (born 1930) *Juan Manuel… …   Wikipedia

  • List of 20th century classical composers by name — See also List of 20th century classical composers by birth date and List of 20th century classical composers by death date.Composers of 20th century classical music include:A*Juan Manuel Abras (born 1975) *Miguel Álvarez Fernández (born 1979)… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.