Evaluating Ben Johnston

Kepler Qrt and Johnston

The Kepler Quartet with composer Ben Johnston, lower left.

When the reclusive pianist-composer Charles-Valentin Alkan died in 1888, after 40 years of retirement during which he gave only a few recitals in the early 1870s, the French newspapers said “it was necessary for Alkan to die in order for people to suspect his existence.” Sadly, the same could be said of American composer Ben Johnston, who died a week ago (July 21, 2019) at the age of 93.

Johnston was little known partly by design and partly due to his temperament. A gentle, modest man, he never pushed himself into the limelight. He taught composition and theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—scarcely one of the most prominent conservatories in America—from 1951 (the year I was born) until 1986 before retiring and moving to North Carolina. He studied music with both Darius Milhaud, a solid modernist of the French school, and Harry Partch, the furthest-out avant-gardist of his time, a man who invented and built a number of microtonal instruments to play his music on. This split musical personality caused Johnston considerable angst since, unlike Partch, he was untalented at carpentry or other building skills and thus took several years figuring out how to integrate microtonalism into his music, much less how to supply the instruments to play it on. Throughout his career, he would vacillate between a personal interpretation of Milhaud’s aesthetic and microtonal music as influenced by Harry Partch.

How little was he known? Well, even I, who has been involved in classical music all my life and in modern music particularly since 1973, had not heard of him, even though I had one piece by him on a CD: Calamity Jane to Her Daughter, a vocal work sung by American soprano Dora Orenstein on a potpourri disc. I liked the music but had no idea who this composer was. But his death, and the accolades of writers who I generally admire, led me to investigate this quiet but talented maverick and his music, and what I found impressed me greatly.

Before we get into a description of his music, a word about microtonalism. This type of composition can sometimes lead to cheap effects or sterility, but in the hands of inspired creators like Partch, Johnston and Julián Carillo, it was a vehicle for a vast range of expression. Just about the only Partch works I don’t like are those written primarily for percussion instruments because, quite frankly, I don’t like all-percussion ensembles playing anything. In Johnston’s case, writing microtonal music for wind instruments, which can play glissandi and slide into the cracks between notes with relative ease, and string instruments which can do the same, came relatively easy. The problem was in discovering how and who would make microtonal pianos, harpsichords and marimbas for him. These are instruments tied to what fellow-composer Leif Segerstam has called “that bonehard order of twelve notes,” and thus are harder to work with and conceive music for. Even as early as 1964 Johnston wrote a microtonal duo for flute and double bass, and it worked out very well for him. The first recording of it was a live performance by husband-and-wife duo Nancy (flute) and Bertram (bass) Turetzky, issued on the small Advance label. You can listen to it for free on Spotify HERE, along with many of the other recordings mentioned in the article below.

New World Records ‎– 80432-2

PONDER NOTHING / JOHNSTON: Septet. Gambit / Music Amici / 3 Chinese Lyrics / Dora Orenstein, sop; Marti Sweet, Matthew Raimondi, vln / 5 Fragments / Stephen Kalm, bar; Melanie Feld, oboe; Mark Shuman, cel / Trio / Charles Yassky, cl; Raimondi, vln; Shuman, cel / Ponder Nothing / Yassky, cl / New World 80432-2

This 1993 album is one of the earliest issued on CD of Johnston’s music. The performances are mostly played by the chamber group Music Amici in various combinations, with the 3 Chinese Lyrics being performed by Dora Orenstein with two of the group’s violinists, including leader and founder Marti Sweet, and Five Fragments performed by baritone Stephen Kalm (who had also appeared in Meredith Monk’s wordless opera, Atlas, two years earlier) and two members of the group. In addition to being available on CD, you can also hear it streamed for free or download it as an MP3 album at Amazon. The whole album is also available on the Spotify link given above.

The opening Septet is typical, I have found, of Johnston’s style when he wasn’t trying to write microtonal music. It is quirky, almost humorous music, somewhat in the style of Françaix or Poulenc. Also usual for Johnston is the tight structure: none of his music rambles, goes off on tangents or overstays its welcome. Johnston uses a great deal of counterpoint and it is generally laid out like a sinfonia concertante, with various instruments playing solos while the rest of the group plays rhythmic figures behind them. An utterly charming work and a great introduction to his oeuvre. One interesting sidelight: in this 1993 recording, French hornist Robert Carlisle is NOT playing with his hand stuck deep into the bell of his instrument, as most players do today (which gives the instrument a dull sound) but rather only partway in which allows some of the bite and brightness of the instrument to be heard most of the time.

The Chinese Lyrics, set to poems by Rihaku, are sung beautifully by Orenstein, surely one of the most underrated sopranos of my lifetime. (We always hear about Bethany Beardslee and Marni Nixon, and yes, they were pioneers, but somehow Orenstein gets neglected.) This music is more in the Neoclassical style of Stravinsky, resembling some of the music he recorded with mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, and you don’t need to have the text to read because Orenstein is singing in English and her diction is perfect. Johnston creates an interesting mood with the two violins, one playing isolated single notes in the extreme upper register while the other plays more lyrically in the mid-range.

Gambit is a piece for 12 musicians, including a trumpet, trombone and alto saxophone in addition to the usual complement of strings, winds (oboe, clarinet and bassoon), piano and percussion. I found it interesting that the trombonist on this track, Jim Pugh, was a mainstay for many years in the big jazz band led by Japanese-born pianist-composer Toshiko Akiyoshi. This piece walks a tightrope between Milhaud’s French style and Stravinskian neo-classicism; it also reminded me of some of the wonderful music written in the early 1960s by the equally ignored British composer, Leonard Salzedo. Despite the use of trumpet, trombone and sax, not to mention a traditional jazz drummer’s percussion kit, the music is only very slightly inflected with jazz rhythms (the fifth and sixth movements) but is more in line with classical syncopations, yet it’s still interesting and very inventive and, again, his subtle sense of humor is again prevalent in some spots.

The 5 Fragments are set to excerpts from Thoreau’s Walden. The music here is more angular and atonal, even for the vocalist, using wide-ranging intervals in a strophic style. The baritone, in fact, opens the cycle of five pieces singing a cappella; only near the very end of the first piece does the oboe come in, and the cello doesn’t appear until the third piece, but almost as soon as the oboe enters, playing a much more lyrical theme, the vocal line calms down as well, moving into long-held notes phrased beautifully by Kalm. With the entrance of the cello, playing its own widely-spaced, edgy figures, the vocal line again becomes serrated, smoothing out again near the end of this track and continuing into the next piece, which returns to oboe accompaniment. It’s fascinating to hear now much Johnston makes of just these three “lines” of music and their interaction; only in the last piece do both instruments play together behind the singer.

The Trio returns us to Johnston’s perky, modern French-influenced style, but Ponder Nothing, a strange and somewhat forlorn solo clarinet piece, is more abstract in its form. Also available on the Spotify link are pieces not available on this CD, the 12 Partials for flute and prepared piano, played by John Fonville (a composer himself) with pianist Virginia Gaburo.

New World NW80730

JOHNSTON: String Quartets Nos. 5, 6 (“Legato Espressivo”), 7 & 8: I. Vigorous, Aggressive; II. Lazy, Rocking; III. Fast, Skimming – Light; IV. Extremely Light and Rhythmic. Quietness* / *Ben Johnston, spkr; Kepler String Quartet / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking numbers or movement titles above; Quartets 6-8 also on New World CD NW80730

The highly talented Kepler Quartet (Sharon Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violinists; Brek Renzelman, violist and Karl Lavine, cellist) formed as a group in 2002 for the sole purpose of playing and eventually recording all 10 of Johnston’s string quartets, which they did for New World Records. No. 4 is often the most popular because it uses the popular hymn “Amazing Grace,” which I personally can’t stomach, thus I was attracted to these four quartets as a group.

This puts us squarely in the midst of Johnston’s microtonal style, but one notes that unlike Harry Partch, he tried to make his microtonal music melodic, which has an odd effect on the listener. Sharon Leventhal gives an excellent overview and musical analysis of Johnston’s quartets on her website, and in it she brings out one of Johnston’s quips, that “The overtone series is there for everybody because you can’t get rid of it.” Or, as Leventhal puts it:

Overtones vibrate in direct proportional relationship with the fundamental. For example, each half vibrates twice as fast as the whole (2:1), which produces the first overtone, the octave. Three equal divisions of the string creates a vibration ratio of 3:2. From this you get the second overtone, the fifth (one octave higher). Each subsequent division produces another overtone, which is always higher in pitch than the previous one. All of these overtones can be expressed in terms of mathematical ratios. Because the vibrations of the overtones are perfectly synchronized with the fundamental, there are no interference patterns in the sound waves. The intervals are pure; their sound is smooth and harmonious.

The overtone series is the kernel from which our Western harmonic language has grown. We experience simple pitch relationships—ratios of 2:1, 3:2, etc.—as consonant, and our scales emerged from these relationships. Yet the intervals derived from these naturally occurring phenomena are irregular. Fixed-pitch instruments cannot adjust to the particular characteristics of successive fundamentals. Therefore, temperament systems, which manipulate the distance between intervals within the octave, were devised to mitigate dissonance when moving between different tonal centers.

Very heady, technical stuff, couched in the kind of jargon generally used by academics. Yet even though Johnston was himself an academic, he still wanted his music to be played, and thus he tried to make it at least approachable if not entirely digestible by the average listener. Apparently he didn’t succeed, however, because the Kepler Quartet’s recordings of these works are the only ones in existence, and they aren’t usually programmed by other groups because they are very difficult to play properly. I suppose most quartets just figure, Why bother if no one’s going to like them?

But as I’ve said many, many times, great art is not meant to be “likable.” The late Jon Vickers, who was always up for a challenge, said this over and over again both during his active career and when giving lectures in retirement. You have to make an effort to come at least halfway to great art; its purpose is not to entertain you, but to make you think about things that may never have occurred to you before; and this is something Ben Johnston’s string quartets do very well. In these works, in addition to the microtonalism, Johnston works in extremely long lines, in part because he has the luxury of using strings which can extend a legato almost indefinitely via bowing techniques, and in these long structures he extends his structures, sometimes (as in the Quartet No. 5) moving quite leisurely through a long legato theme while the inner voices move, also rather slowly, in different directions. Oddly enough, the fifth quartet maintains its slow pace more fully than the sixth, subtitled “Legato Espressivo.” In the sixth quartet, the tempo gradually but noticeably increases even as the volume and intensity level increase as well. At about the time that the fifth quartet is almost over (13:12), the sixth is moving into some very fast and intense repeated rhythmic figures before moving back into its legato course. Yet legato or not, the rhythmic elements in this piece become ever stronger as it goes on, particularly in the almost intrusive serrated lines of the cello, which helps the piece build to an almost unbearable intensity.

The seventh quartet is an entirely different animal from the preceding two. It starts with ominous, edgy string tremolos that slowly increase in volume, leading to screaming violins and pizzicato viola within the mix, then recedes again as the edgy tremolos continue to build towards rhythmic two-note motifs before moving into screaming upward portamento. That’s the first movement (this quartet is in three movements instead of one long, continuous one). The second movement is a variant on the first; here the violin tremolos are quieter and a little less edgy as the viola and cello play pizzicato behind them. This movement is titled “Palindrome – Eerie,” thus it probably uses the thematic material from the first in reverse. The last movement, “Variations – With Solemnity,” returns us to edgy, microtonal blends in sustained notes, but played quite loudly and extending through almost 17 minutes (the first movement is only 2 ½ minutes long and the second close to five). Here, the volume gradually decreases rather than increases, although there are spikes of loud moments here and there. Eventually, however, the music slowly makes its way up higher and higher in pitch as well as increasing in volume until it is almost screaming in your ear. Then, suddenly, it stops.

The eighth quartet begins “Vigorously, Aggressive,” although not quite as aggressive as the opening of the seventh, at least at first. Johnston then doubles the tempo for a few bars, and when he relaxes he introduces a surprisingly lyrical violin theme, albeit one played microtonally. The second movement (this one is in four) reverts to Johnston’s floating, more lyrical mode. A solo cello passage at about 2:30 leads into a sort of canon played by the strings. The third movement sounds like a waltz played by musicians high on LSD, so microtonally skewed that it never quite establishes a home key but keeps on going nonetheless. The final movement, “Extremely Light and Rhythmic,” almost sounds like a hoedown, perhaps recalling some tunes that Johnston heard as a youngster down in Georgia. Eventually he introduces some string pizzicato to emphasize the hoedown feeling as the music continues on its merry way.

Quietude is a short, lyrical piece for quartet with narrator, and in this recording Johnston himself is the speaker. Influenced strongly by Partch, the narration is not entirely spoken but follows a microtonal path as he rises and falls in tuned cadences. It’s a pretty grim piece, however, including such lines as “Your former life was a frantic running from silence”…”die and be quiet!”


MICROTONAL PIANO / JOHNSTON: Suite for Microtonal Piano. Sonata for Prepared Piano. Saint Joan / Phillip Bush, pno / Koch International Classics 3-7369-2-H1

This 1997 disc is fairly elusive, and even online all I could pull up was the Suite, which is on YouTube in three separate movements: I. Alarum, II. Blues and III. Etude. But the sonata is available on both YouTube and the Spotify link I gave you earlier played by Robert Miller, who does an excellent job with it. The Suite, however, is not only shorter but more rhythmic and attractive, having certain passages and rhythms related to jazz and blues (Bush plays the second movement particularly well). Sadly, I could not find a performance of Saint Joan online at all.

The piano sonata is a much denser and more serious work, in fact one of the most complex pieces Johnston ever wrote. One can get an idea by likening it to Charles Ives’ “Concord” Sonata, or Charles Griffes’ piano sonata. In addition to its being microtonal, the music works its way through crashing, falling microtonal chords played in rapid succession, left-hand runs up the keyboard and other such devices. This is a piece that requires repeated hearings in order to figure out everything that’s going on because there’s just so much in it. The second movement is more atmospheric than the first, and this mood carries over to the third, although after the hallway mark there are some dramatic gestures followed by a section that almost sounds Middle Eastern. The last movement is the slowest and strangest of all, using sparse notes and chords and one section around 1:08 where it sounds as if the pianist is playing the inside strings.

Microfest Records MF5 - cover

RUMINATIONS: SETTINGS OF RUMI & BILLIE HOLIDAY / JOHNSTON: The Tavern / John Schneider, gtr/voice / Revised Standards. Set for Billie Holiday. I Concentrate on You / Eclipse String Quartet / Parable / Karen Clark, sop; Jon Sullivan, cl; Sarah Thornblade, vln / Ben Johnston discusses The Tavern / Microfest Records MF5

If this album weren’t on Spotify, you’d have a heck of a time finding it, since Microfest Records is one of those really small boutique labels typical of the kind that issue unusual material like this. The Tavern is a very Partch-like piece, influenced by that composer’s Barstow (see my Partch review on this blog), although in the beginning the microtonally-tuned guitar sounds more tonal than in Partch’s work. The narration, however, is somewhat more serious in its analysis of the human condition, only funny in one or two spots. “God has given us a dark wine so potent that drinking it we leave the true worlds” is one line.

Johnston describes his “revised standards” as “just-tuned jazz,” but despite his love of the music and his just tuning, the actual arrangements are pretty tame stuff, nowhere near as inventive as the work done by such actual jazz string groups as the Turtle Island String Quartet. The violins and viola play the melody with fairly standard harmony, and there is only a very little rhythmic variance in them. The first of these combines the Gershwin brothers’ How Long Has This Been Going On? with Rodgers and Hart’s Little Girl Blue. The second, a “Set for Billie Holiday,” moves from Lover Man to No More before ending with Einar Swan’s pop classic, When Your Lover Has Gone, The third uses just one tune, Cole Porter’s I Concentrate on You. The results are pleasant but unexceptional. The third of these was, to me, the most interesting rhythmically at least. It swung better than the first two, using the cello like a string bass in a jazz group, and Johnston got a good feel for the syncopations.

The final piece on this album, however, is Parable, using a soprano voice (Karen Clark) with violin and clarinet. The piece opens with the solo violinist playing a strange theme, mostly on the edge of the strings, before the clarinet enters in its lower register. When the soprano enters, her lines are as much spoken as sung but clearly designed to be sung at many points in the score. Oddly, it almost sounds like a more sophisticated version of The Tavern despite using the poetry of Rumi. Clark has an almost androgynous-sounding voice, which I found fascinating in the context of the poetry, which could be spoken by either a man or a woman.

The one thing you can say about Ben Johnston is that, although he developed his own individual style, he had more than one style and thus more than one “voice,” as composers are wont to say. He moved in different directions as the spirit moved him, and thus had fun writing his music because he was always “in the moment.” Would that more modern composers would follow their muse where it leads them instead of (in my opinion) trying to force things.

An excellent composer, indeed!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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