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For the past fifty years Ben Johnston has been the most genuine kind of radical: a composer who has made a mark on American music in the late twentieth century not by loudly espousing a cause but by the persuasiveness of his thought and the appeal and fascination of his music. He has been described by critic Mark Swed as "probably our most subversive composer, a composer able to make both radical thinking and avant-garde techniques sound invariably gracious."
Born in Macon, Georgia, in 1926, Johnston studied in Virginia, Ohio, and northern California, and taught for over thirty years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He now lives and works in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He is proof positive-if proof be needed-that much of the most inventive and refreshing music of the composers of his generation in the United States was created away from the urban centers, in the supposed backwater of university towns. His large body of compositions includes opera and musical theater, music for dance, orchestral and chamber works, choral and solo vocal works, piano music, tape pieces, and indeterminate works. And although his music is still not as widely known as it deserves tobe, it has an ever-increasing number of committed advocates among performers, composers, musicologists, and the general public.
Johnston's output as a whole defies easy classification. The entry on his work in the 2001 New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians states that "Johnston's reputation has rested primarily on his work in microtonality": while this statement is true, it offers only a partial view of his overall compositional achievement. His work indeed took the direction that most strongly characterizes it as a result of his period of study (in 1950-51) with the American composer, instrument builder, and theorist Harry Partch. Johnston is, together with Lou Harrison and James Tenney, one of the small but significant number of American composers whose work was crucially transformed through their encounter with Partch. But just as Johnston's music sounds nothing like Partch's, neither does it much resemble that of Harrison or Tenney; the listener in search of some degree of stylistic consistency in these composers' music will be disappointed. Nonetheless, because of the lineage from Partch and Johnston's subsequent commitment to extended just intonation as a tuning practice, Johnston has often been bracketed together with other American microtonalists roughly his age, such as Ezra Sims and Easley Blackwood. But this association is also misleading: Johnston has never been a card-carrying microtonalist, and such affinity as he feels with other composers exploring extended pitch materials does not necessarily extend to an identification with their aims or overall aesthetic standpoint. In being close to but always somewhat apart from most of the main directions in American composition in the second half of the twentieth century, Johnston perhaps more closely resembles composers of his generation such as Robert Erickson, Kenneth Gaburo, Roger Reynolds, and Alvin Lucier; their careers were, like his, forged in a university milieu, but their unorthodox music has operated freely from the fashions and constraints of that milieu. Another form of kinship might be with the various nonconformists who were his colleagues at the University of Illinois, such as Herbert Brün, Lejaren Hiller, or Salvatore Martirano.
Johnston belongs equally to another tradition: that of the truly literate composer, able to write and speak about his own music (and that of others) with great eloquence and charm. Throughout his life he has acceded to requests to contribute a variety of texts-technical articles, discussion papers, position statements, studies of other composers-to a wide range of publications. Some of these were written for small-circulation journals or were published in books of conference proceedings and have until now been difficult to obtain, especially outside the United States. This volume gathers together, for the first time, all of Johnston's significant writings, together with a body of texts of more modest scope that help illuminate other aspects of his work. As editor I have tried to be as inclusive as possible, placing informal lecture texts alongside technical articles, personal reminiscences alongside texts that ask searching questions about the role of the composer in the modern world. I have included also a sheaf of Johnston's program notes for his own compositions, to point the reader more directly to the body of music that is Johnston's primary achievement.
The papers collected in this volume span more than forty years, from Johnston's earliest writings on music theory and the rational proportions of pitch and rhythm to recent texts such as "Maximum Clarity," the title of which indicates a quest that has characterized the whole of his life and art. They cover a broad spectrum of issues, from the minutely technical through the personal to the broadly humanistic. Their greatest appeal will surely be to those already interested in the composer's music; by collecting them in book form I hope to fuel the growing interest in Johnston's work and to raise awareness of the issues it addresses.
In this introduction I aim to present some of the main outlines of Johnston's thought for those encountering it for the first time. Because the most technical articles in this collection make for demanding reading (particularly those on tuning theory and the structure of the microtonal scales employed by Johnston in his compositions from 1960 onward), some preliminary discussion of the ideas contained within them may be of use.
* * *
It has never been Johnston's intention to build up a systematic body of music theory, and the writings in Part One of this volume must be considered as a collection of snapshots of unfamiliar terrain rather than as a full-scale map. And yet the value of these texts is enormous, presenting as they do a new conceptual milieu and a vocabulary in which matters of harmony and subtleties of musical pitch relations can be addressed. Johnston's work continues that of his teacher Harry Partch in reaffirming a connection between music theory, number, and acoustics, the roots of which stretch back to antiquity-in the Western world to Pythagoras, to whom is accredited the discovery that proportional lengths of a vibrating string, in small-number ratio relationships, produce basic musical intervals. But Johnston's theoretical work goes further, refining and generalizing Partch's investigations, and proposing starting points of more general applicability.
The core of Johnston's thought on matters of tuning theory is contained in three texts: "Scalar Order as a Compositional Resource," first published in 1964; "Proportionality and Expanded Musical Pitch Relations," first published in 1966; and "Rational Structure in Music," first presented as a lecture in 1976. Alongside these I have included several others that now seem, in retrospect, like background papers. Some are relatively well known and have had some degree of circulation in the new-music community ("Tonality Regained"); others are previously unpublished early texts in which we see Johnston's characteristic ideas beginning to take shape ("Aesthetic Theory; Philosophical Background for Mathematical Theory; Musical Background for Application of Mathematical Theory," "Divergence of Traditions"). Still others carry the discussion into areas of practical application ("A Notation System for Extended Just Intonation"). On occasion Johnston positions his own theoretical concerns with regard to those of other composers ("Microtonal Resources," "Music Theory").
The tuning system described in these writings, and employed in Johnston's music since 1960, is just intonation, the principle of tuning by pure intervals (in acoustical terms, those intervals without "beats"). This is a wholly different system from the equal temperament of the piano keyboard. Just intonation is the tuning system of the later ancient Greek modes as codified by Ptolemy; it was the aesthetic ideal of the Renaissance theorists; and it is the tuning practice of a great many musical cultures worldwide, both ancient and modern. These acoustically pure intervals are compromised and distorted in equal-tempered tuning. Twelve-note equal temperament sacrifices purity of intonation in favor of a system with a small number of fixed pitches and artificially creates equivalences between pitches that had previously been intonationally distinct (for example, between C# and D[flat], or between F# and G[flat]). The main advantage of equal temperament, historically, was the freedom it gave to modulate from one key to another (so that a piano sonata in C major can modulate, say, to A[flat] major and later to E major without needing different black keys for A[flat] and G#). The main drawback was the sacrifice of the pure intervals that had existed in earlier forms of temperament (in the various meantone temperaments, and in the well temperaments, such as those of Werckmeister, Kirnberger, Valotti, and others). A further disadvantage, as Johnston has pointed out, is the limited pitch resources that twelve-note equal temperament offers contemporary composers, resources that he feels have long since been explored to the point of exhaustion.
By the early 1960s-the heyday of total serialism, tape music, and indeterminacy-Johnston had come to feel that pitch, and its musical correlatives melody, harmony, and counterpoint, had become devalued as a musical parameter in contemporary composition. The increasing emphases placed on explorations of rhythm and timbre (to name only two areas), while refreshing in themselves, were often necessarily carried out at the expense of pitch interest; pitch relationships were being relegated to a position of lesser importance. Feeling that pitch listening "was too basic a parameter to be allowed to fall into disuse," and not wishing to see the art of music split into "an art of tone and an art of noise," Johnston felt the need to work toward a revivification of pitch relationships from a fresh standpoint. He felt, as Harry Partch had, that as long as music continued simply to exhaust the resources of the equal-tempered scale, no significantly new advances were possible.
At the core of Johnston's response to this situation is his adoption of the ancient practice of describing musical pitch relations as ratios-that is, in mathematically precise, quantitative terms. Throughout the texts in this book he uses both the familiar system of letter names (A, B, C#, etc.) and frequency ratios, a system in which the octave is represented by the ratio 2/1, the just perfect fifth by 3/2, the just perfect fourth by 4/3, the just major third by 5/4, the just minor third by 6/5, and so on, literally ad infinitum. The rationale for this adoption is provided first in his article "Scalar Order as a Compositional Resource" and is restated and developed in subsequent texts.
Johnston's music does not simply revivify an ancient conception of tuning but extends that conception of pitch materials to previously unexplored realms. His use of the term extended just intonation (which first appears in the 1967 text "Three Attacks on a Problem") implies a pitch system in which intervals deriving from the relatively unfamiliar seventh partial of the harmonic series (in ratio terms, 7/4) and/or higher partials-the eleventh, thirteenth, seventeenth, and so on-are used together with the more familiar intervals that form the basis of conventional triadic tuning. This concept, as Johnston has been at pains to stress, is evolutionary rather than revolutionary; he joins with other twentieth-century theorists, notably Schoenberg, in the belief that the ear is able to make much finer discriminations in its perception of pitch than is conventionally assumed, and that there is a slow but continual progress in our perceptual abilities toward ever-greater refinement.
This concern with extended just tuning leads to the use of microtones, intervals smaller than a semitone that are now common currency in new music but were still considered strange and exotic when Johnston began to use them at the beginning of the 1960s. (A contemporary perspective on this subject can be found in his 1967 article "Microtonal Resources.") He has been an important leader in this domain, both in his actual compositions and in the theoretical underpinnings he has given such materials in the texts collected in Part One of this book.
Far from being a purely technical matter, the use of just tuning is a matter of great symbolic import for Johnston. His ideas provide a refreshing new perspective on music history, especially on the crisis of tonality of the early twentieth century. In several of the texts collected here, Johnston offers a diagnosis of this crisis: the difficulty of forging new nontriadic harmonic relationships and the ultimate unsustainability of the atonal language overall are, he argues, the consequences of a conceptually exhausted pitch framework-twelve-note equal temperament-that was incapable of realizing them. Johnston takes the position that Schoenberg, "in tacitly accepting as an arbitrary 'given' the twelve-tone equal-tempered scale ... committed music to the task of exhausting the remaining possibilities in a closed pitch system" ("Three Attacks on a Problem"). A different path was suggested by Debussy, "whose harmonic language approximates as well as can be in equal temperament a movement from overtone series to overtone series, with an emphasis upon higher partials ... Schoenberg is an example of a radical thinker motivated strongly by a claustrophobic sense of nearly exhausted resources. Debussy, in sharp contrast, seems motivated by an expansion of harmonic resources and a greatly widened horizon" ("A.S.U.C. Keynote Address"). By the mid-1980s, Johnston had come to see his own work retrospectively as an attempt "to connect Debussy and Partch, to complete the revolution [begun earlier in the century] and connect it with a redefinition of older values" ("A.S.U.C. Keynote Address").
* * *
It was to be nearly ten years after Johnston's six-month "apprenticeship" with Harry Partch in Gualala, on the far northern California coast, in 1950-51, before he himself began to compose music in extended just intonation. Once he had decided to confront head-on the challenge of writing music for conventional instruments using complex microtonal tunings and to work with performers in finding these new pitch materials, the transformation in his musical language was rapid. The breakthrough works were the Sonata for Microtonal Piano and String Quartet no. 2, both completed in 1964 (Johnston discusses both these compositions in Part Three of this book). This music aligns his radically new approach to tuning with the concepts and concerns of "new music" as a whole. The language of these works is complex, their tone of voice intense. In 1963 Johnston wrote: "If contemporary music produces ... images of tension and anxiety (and worse states) we cannot deny it is holding up a mirror ... A habitual psychological state of high tension such as contemporary life tends to produce is a matter for serious concern. Art can help us by bringing to recognition, analyzing and making intelligible the complex patterns of these tensions ... To extend musical order further into the jungle of randomness and complexity ... that is perhaps the fundamental aim of contemporary serious music" ("Musical Intelligibility: Where Are We?").
The concern with systems of order within complexity is the hallmark of Johnston's compositions of these years. Indeed, regardless of the changing stylistic orientation of his eclectic output, the underlying aesthetic agenda of all his work has remained how "the extreme complexity of contemporary life [can] be reconciled with the simplifying and clarifying influences of systems of order based upon ratio scales" ("Extended Just Intonation: A Position Paper"). This concern is parallel to the explorations of complexity in the 1960s by composers such as Xenakis, Stockhausen, and Cage, with the difference that Johnston was interested primarily in "the kind of complexity needed to understand the intricate symbiotic interdependence of organic life on earth" and much less in "the kind which clarifies the statistical behavior of inanimate multitudes" ("On Bridge-Building").
Excerpted from "MAXIMUM CLARITY" AND OTHER WRITINGS ON MUSIC by Ben Johnston Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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|Ben Johnston : a chronology|
|I||On music theory|
|Aesthetic theory; philosophical background for mathematical theory; musical background for application of mathematical theory||3|
|Scalar order as a compositional resource||10|
|Proportionality and expanded musical pitch relations||32|
|Rational structure in music||62|
|A notation system for extended just intonation||77|
|II||On musical aesthetics and culture|
|Musical intelligibility : where are we?||91|
|A talk on contemporary music||103|
|Festivals and new music||107|
|Three attacks on a problem||109|
|Contribution to IMC panel||122|
|How to cook an Albatross||126|
|Art and survival||134|
|Art and religion||151|
|Extended just intonation : a position paper||153|
|A.S.U.C. keynote address||156|
|Just intonation and mere intonation||163|
|On string quartet no. 2||183|
|On sonata for microtonal piano||185|
|The genesis of knocking piece||187|
|Qunitet for groups : a reminiscence||192|
|On crossings (string quartet no. 3 and string quartet no. 4)||199|
|On the age of surveillance||201|
|On string quartet no. 5||203|
|On string quartet no. 6||204|
|On sleep and waking||207|
|IV||On other composers|
|Letter from Urbana||211|
|To perspectives of new music re. John Cage||216|
|The corporealism of Harry Partch||219|
|Harry Partch/John Cage||232|
|Harry Partch's cloud-chamber music||235|
|Beyond Harry Partch||243|
|Regarding La Monte Young||251|