Thursday, May 10, 2007

Mr Cogito Rediscovers A 'Wanderer' Composer, Ben Johnston, And Discovers That He Is Able To Read All About His Ten String Quartets For Free On-line

'The ten string quartets of Ben Johnston are among the most fascinating collections of work ever produced by an American composer. And yet, like similarly imposing peaks in the American musical landscape—Ives’s Universe Symphony, for example, or the Studies for Player Piano of Conlon Nancarrow—these works have, for decades now, remained more known about than known, more talked about than played. All the quartets have been performed in public (with one exception, the immensely difficult String Quartet No. 7), but only four have previously been recorded. The scores have been analyzed by musicologists and theorists fascinated by their fusion of advanced compositional techniques (serialism with just intonation, for example; microtonality with a kind of neoclassical revisionism), but they have been too little heard. The Kepler Quartet’s recordings—this disc is the first of a series of three, prepared with Johnston’s active support and supervision—offer lively and scrupulously accurate readings that unlock the door to these marvelous pieces. Like Ives and Nancarrow before him, there is the sense that Johnston’s time has finally come.

Ben Johnston was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1926. His interest in music showed itself early on, and he began piano lessons at the age of six. When he was eleven the family relocated to Richmond, Virginia, where he continued his studies and, at the age of thirteen, began to compose. By the age of seventeen he had already produced enough pieces to mount a whole Sunday afternoon concert of his music at Richmond’s College of William and Mary; prophetically, from our point of view, a feature on the young Johnston in the Richmond Times Dispatch quotes him as looking forward to a musical future in which “there will be new instruments with new tones and overtones.” Later that year, with war raging, he entered the Navy and was sent to the Navy School of Music in Washington, D.C., where he studied analysis, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration for dance bands, and pursued studies of piano and trombone. Personal and medical problems curtailed this activity; in 1947 he returned to Virginia for undergraduate study at the College of William and Mary, graduating in 1949. He then studied for a Masters degree at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

During his year in Cincinnati one of Johnston’s teachers showed him a book that was profoundly to reshape the course of his musical life: Harry Partch’s Genesis of a Music, the classic account of the work of the visionary American composer, theorist and instrument builder, the first edition of which had then just been published. Johnston was fascinated by Partch’s rejection of equal temperament and the whole instrumentarium of Western music; and he read avidly his description of his “new” system of just intonation (taken out to microtonal lengths to yield an expandable source scale of more than forty divisions of the octave) and its application in the tuning of his newly invented instruments. It was not the first time Johnston had been inspired by the science of music. When only twelve he had been taken by a family friend to a lecture at Wesleyan College in Macon on the relationship of Debussy’s music to the acoustic theories of Helmholtz, which made a big impression. It is no exaggeration to say that much of Johnston’s career has been, as he himself has written, an attempt “to connect Debussy and Partch, to complete the revolution [begun in earlier twentieth-century music, of realigning music and acoustics] and connect it with a redefinition of older values.”1 Johnston has never shared Partch’s anti-establishment stance and has worked all his career to bring Partch’s theoretical ideas closer to the mainstream of contemporary music, where they have exerted a fruitful influence.' ...

BEN JOHNSTON (b. 1926)

String Quartet No. 9 (1988)
1. Strong, calm, slow 6:18
2. Fast, elated 3:39
3. Slow, expressive 4:08
4. Vigorous and defiant 5:46

5. Verging, String Quartet No. 3 (1966) 11:10
6. The Silence 1:38
7. The Ascent, String Quartet No. 4, “Amazing Grace” (1973) 10:29

String Quartet No. 2 (1964)
8. Light and quick: with grace and humor 4:33
9. Intimate, spacious 4:56
10. Extremely minute and intense; not fast 7:34

Kepler Quartet: Sharan Leventhal, violin I; Eric Segnitz, violin II; Brek Renzelman, viola; Karl Lavine, cello

All compositions published by Smith Publications. Recording available from
New World Records, A Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc.

© 2006 Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc. All rights reserved. Author, Bob Gilmore.

[Bob Gilmore is the author of Harry Partch: A Biography (Yale University Press, 1998) and has recently edited a collection of Ben Johnston's writings, Maximum Clarity and other writings on music.]

Full Liner Notes

Deborah O’Grady 'Before the world ended the people were to destroy all their property so they buried this thing or threw them in the lake,' from the series: Talking Lake, 1998, c-print.

Photo credit: (c) Deborah O’Grady. All rights reserved. Via With thanks.


Re-Imaging the West: A New History
Ken Gonzales-Day · Eirik Johnson · Simon Norfolk · Deb O’Grady · Matt O’Brien · Pipo · David Taylor · Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie · Joo Kyung Yoon


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