Photo credit: Jon Roy

From Folk Song to the Outer Limits of Harmony—Remembering Ben Johnston (1926-2019)

Like so many American experimentalists, Ben Johnston (1926-2019) was stylistically multilingual. His conceptual achievement leaves Boulez and Stockhausen in the dust, but moment by moment the music can sound as mild as Ned Rorem.

Written By

Kyle Gann

I first saw Ben Johnston when I was a student at Oberlin, maybe 1976. The composers at the big Midwest music schools were in continual rotation as each other’s guest composers, which in itself was an amazing education. Ben lectured and played a recording of his Fourth String Quartet, based on the song “Amazing Grace.” He was a Quaker-bearded, good-humored, gruff, not very talkative fellow, and there was a peculiar contradiction, I think we all sensed, in this composer who had invented his own pitch notation and 22-pitch scale and written a score nearly black with ink using all these crazy polyrhythms of 35 against 36 and 7 against 8, 9, and 10 – all at the service of an old folk song anyone’s grandmother could sing. Conservative versus avant-garde was how we divided the music world up at that time. Where the hell did this fit?

Ben Johnston sitting and writing on a piece of music paper.

Ben Johnston in 1976.

Forty-odd years later, several of them spent working with him, I still think there’s an essence to Ben that in the current musical climate can only be seen as a paradox: he was a down-to-earth, populist visionary. I truly think that he thought there were no limits to what pitch and rhythm relationships musicians could learn to play, as long as the approach to the difficulties was gradual and intelligible. Famously, the third movement of his Seventh String Quartet contains more than 1200 pitches to the octave. It is structured around a 176-note microtonal scale that glacially traverses one octave over 177 measures, and, written in 1984, it remained on the page until the Kepler Quartet recorded it a couple of years ago. But it is carefully written so that if the players can get their perfect fourths and seventh harmonics in tune, they can creep securely, interval by interval, through this free, gridless, infinite pitch space – astronauts of harmony, floating beyond the gravity of A 440. The conceptual achievement leaves Boulez and Stockhausen in the dust. Moment by moment, the music can sound as mild as Ned Rorem.

The conceptual achievement leaves Boulez and Stockhausen in the dust.

Ben had a strange mind, and I say that up front only because he often frankly said so. He thought he had some kind of mental disorder, possibly caused by being taught to meditate wrong by the Gurdjieff cult in the early ‘60s – this is what he repeatedly told me, even in interviews. He was always trying various remedies. When I studied with him privately in 1983-86 (post-doctorate), he was on medication that made him very quiet. He would look at my score for fifteen minutes without speaking, and then say something incisive and profound. A few years later he was controlling his problems via diet. I went to a conference with him, where I was going to interview him onstage: the night before, he kept me up until two in the morning, talking nonstop. His Catholic priest in Champaign-Urbana recommended he go to a Zen temple in Chicago, and so for a couple of years that’s where he and I met, and I started going through the Zen services with him. Those were wonderful, and the lessons afterward took place in a blissful haze.

Ben Johnston in 1962

Ben Johnston in 1962

I do think that, whatever was strange about Ben’s mind, it was what made his music possible. At age twelve, attending a lecture on Debussy, he was introduced to Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone, the foundational treatise on acoustics that first appeared in English in 1875. He spoke about it as though it confirmed for him what he already sensed: that the music we play has something wrong with its tuning. At age 17, after a concert of his music, he was interviewed by the Richmond Times Dispatch (where his father was managing editor, admittedly), and predicted, “with the clarification of the scale which physics has given to music there will be new instruments with new tones and overtones.” This was 1944. Harry Partch’s Genesis of a Music wasn’t even published yet. By 1950 Ben was in grad school at Cincinnati Conservatory, and someone gave him a copy of Partch’s then-new book, with its outline of his 43-tone microtonal scale and perceptive history of the vicissitudes of tuning over the centuries.

Thrilled to find another musician who shared his misgivings about tuning, Ben wrote to Partch asking to study with him. Partch, who once wrote that he would “happily strangle” anyone who claimed to have been his student, took him on as an apprentice and repairman instead, and so Ben went to live for six months on Partch’s ranch in Gualala, California. Partch liked to have only young men in his orbit, and was affronted when Ben’s wife Betty arrived in tandem, but Betty Johnston was a powerhouse, and eased her way into Partch’s reluctant affections. Ben later wrote that Partch

could have wished for a carpenter or for a percussionist… But he had one thing he had not counted on: someone who understood his theory without explanation, and who could hear and reproduce the pitch relations accurately.

Ben Johnston, wearing a jacket and tie, sitting outside with Harry Partch in 1974

Ben Johnston with Harry Partch at Partch’s home in 1974.

Ben’s preternatural ability to hear and reproduce exotic intervals was the one intimidating thing about studying with him. My brain not being strange in the same way, I spent years training myself to hear eleventh harmonics and syntonic commas using primitive digital technology, and to this day I would never attempt to coach an ensemble to play one of his string quartets. When I came to his house he liked to play me whatever he was working on. Once, in the early weeks, it was a piece for trumpet and piano called The Demon-Lover’s Doubles, of which he played me the piano part. His piano was tuned for maximum consonance in G major with some peculiar pitches outside that diatonic scale, and as he started, it seemed like an oddly homespun, tuneful little piece. Then, magically, his piano started going sourly out of tune and got weirder and weirder, and I was thinking, “Man, you’d think Ben would tune his piano.” Finally, of course, he returned from his modulations into distant keys, and in G major the piano sounded fine again. I just remember sitting there thinking, “Huh.”

In that experience is the alpha and omega of Ben’s vision. What fascinated him, I think, was how vastly just intonation and the higher harmonics expand the range of consonance and dissonance, in both directions. You can have so many flavors of harmony: triads purely in tune, edgy Pythagorean triads, chords with exotic upper harmonics, dark chords from a subharmonic series, excruciating chords specifically out of tune by a comma here or there, bell-like chords related by higher harmonics, grating seventh chords with deliberately mismatched ratios, tight clusters – the route from purity to noise is no longer a line but a large three- or four-dimensional space.

One of Ben Johnston's pitch charts.

One of Ben Johnston’s pitch charts.

Many, many microtonal composers, I think, are looking for a total alternative to our tuning system, total exoticism, experimenting with how far we can adapt to new intervals, adding new complexities beyond what twelve-tone music provided. Ben wasn’t. Ben was never disappointed in the major triad. For Ben, the tonal music system that we’d developed over the last few centuries was a template, a first draft, a worthwhile approximation, but only a fragment of the universe he could hear. Seventeenth-century theorists like Marin Mersenne and Christiaan Huygens had argued for including the seventh harmonic as a consonance; Giambattista Doni (c. 1594-1647) wrote music using the eleventh harmonic. Theoretically, Ben goes back to that era and accepts those arguments. Keep the system, but add back in what was prohibited. Thus, unlike the general run of modernists, he could envision a brave new world without ever having to reject or exclude anything.

Cage and Xenakis may have wanted to reinvent music, but Ben saw a way to keep the foundation and keep building.

And so we have “Amazing Grace,” which so anchors one of the most avant-garde works of 1973 that the audience can hum along with it the first time they hear it. Also the sentimental old tune “Danny Boy,” which gradually emerges from the last-movement variations of Ben’s Tenth Quartet, and the folk song “Lonesome Valley” which is the subject of his Fifth Quartet, and the folk tune in The Demon-Lover’s Double. Cage and Xenakis, whom he knew well, may have wanted to reinvent music from the ground up, but Ben saw a way to keep the foundation and keep building.

Ben Johnston with The Kepler Quartet in 2015

Ben Johnston with The Kepler Quartet in 2015 (Photo by Jon Roy).

What’s amazing about his use of old folk tunes is how devoid of nostalgia it is. He’s not like Charles Ives, with “Beulah Land” faintly heard above the dissonant chords below; there is no modernity with which the songs’ innocence is contrasted. His “Amazing Grace” grows step-by-step from five pitches to twenty-three as though all those pitches were implicitly in there to begin with – which I imagine to his ears they were! It is difficult, probably, for most of us new-music types to take “Danny Boy” as seriously as he did, but for him it was simply a familiar item of our culture from which new implications could still be drawn. He didn’t have to renounce the naïve perspective on music to see through to the other side of the musical universe. And this is why some of Ben’s works will always appeal even to people who don’t like abrasive modernism.

That’s certainly not to deny that Ben’s music could be thorny. He kept writing twelve-tone music, in just intonation, and I once asked him why. He replied, “Well, I had learned all that theory, and I didn’t want it to go to waste.” Since he said almost everything with a slight smile, I’m not sure I ever knew when he was kidding. His Sixth Quartet draws the principle of endless melody from a twelve-tone row that consists of the first six non-repeating harmonics of D and the first six subharmonics of D#. The row matrix for the piece contains 61 different pitches. Even though it uses a twelve-tone row, though, each hexachord is actually a tonality in itself, so you do hear the harmony shift back and forth between major and minor – or between otonalities and utonalities, as we microtonalists say. At the time I wrote a rave review of the Sixth Quartet for the Chicago Reader and Ben said, “I think you like that piece better than I do.”

One piece I analyzed had some repeated pizzicatos in the cello that didn’t fit into the structure, and I asked him where they came from. He looked, and said, “Oh, that was to give the audience something to listen to while I worked out this contrapuntal problem.” That was a lesson: that the composer and the audience could want different things from a piece, and that both could be satisfied.

The composer and the audience could want different things from a piece, and both could be satisfied.

As with Partch, I also insist that Ben should get credit for his rhythmic innovations as much as for his microtonality. In the Fifth Quartet “Lonesome Road” floats above a bobbling sea of polytempos, and in the Fourth Quartet there’s a long rhythm of 35 against 36 (analogous to what we call the septimal comma), involving different meters in the various instruments. Back when I was younger and smarter, I once successfully parsed it, but I’ve never figured it out again since. He was a great proponent of Henry Cowell’s theories that pitch and rhythm, both being number based, could be developed analogously and in the same directions – that was the principle, of course, of his first hit tune, Knocking Piece, which became a percussionist’s standard. That he was focused on extending musical language in terms of both pitch and rhythm has limited his influence among the mass of composers who think there’s nothing new to be done in those directions, but when we’re ready he’s left us a foundation for a radically new music.

Ben never proselytized for microtones or just intonation. He imposed no stylistic dogma. Like so many American experimentalists, he himself was stylistically multilingual: he wrote chance music, twelve-tone music, conceptualist works, a musical, and a surprising amount of his output is in a neoclassic vein, with standard forms like sonata-allegro and variations. Neo-romanticism, I think, is the only idiom he avoided, which is not to say his music couldn’t be deeply moving; he just wasn’t sentimental. In 1983 I asked to study privately with him because I loved his music (I never attended the University of Illinois where he taught for 35 years), but I didn’t want to get into microtonality, which seemed like too much work. That was fine with him, but at my first lesson he looked at a chord I’d written and remarked how beautiful it would be if tuned properly, and he reeled off the ratios. With a shock I realized I understood just what he was saying. It was as if a huge iron door had slammed shut behind me. I was in his world and couldn’t go back.

I didn’t need to. The microtonal notation he invented opened the universe to me, and I learned to think in it fluently. My own microtonal music, more single-minded and homogenous than his (not to mention more cautious – god, that Seventh Quartet!), inherited his worldview of microtones as an extension of tonality rather than an alternative. I would be remiss here if I failed to mention another of his microtonal students, Toby Twining, who, in his Chrysalid Requiem (2002), developed Ben’s ideas into one of the most impressive feats of musical architecture ever perpetrated, incredibly complicated yet unearthly beautiful. That’s a legacy.

Ben Johnston as a child driving a toy car.

A 10-year-old Ben Johnston in 1936. He was already eager to explore.

I remember once in Ben’s medicated days we had him over for dinner, and he played solitaire obsessively while we were preparing dinner. After he retired we visited him in Rocky Mount, where Ben and Betty, equally strong characters, practically barked at each other, but clearly with no lack of affection. He was a crucial link between me and several other people I didn’t meet until later, all of whom were devoted to him: Bill Duckworth, Neely Bruce, Bob Gilmore. I last saw Ben in 2010 at a microtonal conference. He could barely get around. After I delivered a paper about his music he tottered up to say “thank you,” and I replied, “No, thank YOU!” He looked up from his walker with a big grin and gruffly growled, “YOU’RRRE WELCOME!” That meant the world to me: I needed him to acknowledge how much he had done for me. A few years later I called to tell him that he appeared as a character in Richard Powers’s novel Orfeo, about the University of Illinois’s music department in the 1960s. His mind was deteriorated by Parkinson’s, and the next day his caretaker called me saying Ben was under the impression that some kind of copyright infringement had taken place and he needed a lawyer. I set his mind at rest and assured him it was a compliment.

And once when I was a young, new home-owner with a lawn to keep up, I was driving Ben somewhere and we passed a vacant lot covered with blooming dandelions. I made a slighting reference to the plant, and Ben just said, “But they’re awfully beautiful, aren’t they?” That was a lesson too. He was a lovely soul, and a caliber of musical mind we will not see again.

Ben Johnston and Kyle Gann c. 1994 (Photo by Bill Duckworth)

Ben Johnston and Kyle Gann c. 1994 (Photo by Bill Duckworth, courtesy Kyle Gann)