Ben Johnston (b. 1926), called “the best non-famous composer this country has to offer” (NY Times), writes challenging works using “just intonation” that incorporate elements of neoclassicism, serialism, jazz, hymns and songs. Born in Macon, Georgia, he began piano lessons at the age of six and started composing at age 11. He pioneered the use of microtones and non-tempered tuning, to which he was introduced through the work of Harry Partch while earning his Master’s degree at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Johnston worked with Partch in CA, studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College and later with John Cage. He taught theory and composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign for 30 years, retiring as Emeritus Professor of Music. Johnston’s compositions include works for opera, theater, dance, orchestra, chamber ensembles, voice, piano, and tape. In 2007 the American Academy of Arts and Letters honored his lifetime of work, and he has received other national an international grants, awards and commissions. More information from at Wikipedia or A New Dissonance.
An Introduction to Ben Johnston’s music (by the Del Sol Quartet)
A Description of Crossings (by Ben Johnston)
Crossings is a traverse, a transformation/journey from one leaf of a diptych to the other, from one rim of a canyon to the other, from one quartet to another. One is invited to try which pairings the work-asperceived will accept: old world/new world? international style/world music? serial emphasis/proportional emphasis? personal/transpersonal? The philosophical game is still more challenging when only one leaf of the diptych is contemplated, when only one half of the mapping is known. String Quartet No. 3, issuing into silence, asks us an urgent question. And what is the question? One may equally well consider Crossings a triptych, since The Silence, the middle movement, is a more than merely pregnant pause, but constitutes a tenuous and breathless traverse of a ridge or bridge between two opposite canyon walls, the nether the post-Viennese expressionist ethos, submitted to the liberating but at the same time strait-jacketing abolition of twelve-tone equal temperament in favor of ultra-chromatic microtonal just intonation; the farther the deceptively simple and direct-seeming American folk hymn “Amazing Grace,” generating variations of steadily increasing rhythmic and microtonal profusion, always securely grounded in new-old once more frontier-fresh modal tonality capable of wide proportional spaces: new reaches of consonance and metrical intricacy which push the boundaries of intelligible complexity beyond horizons conceivable in the confines of conventional tuning. This is the world of String Quartet No. 4, The Ascent.
© Del Sol Performing Arts Organization • Photos by RJ Muna