Ben Johnston: A Tribute by John Harbison

Written and delivered by John Harbison for the American Academy of Arts and Letters on February 24, 2021. Reprinted by permission.

From the very first evidence of music on our planet its practitioners have been aware of the overtone series, the sounds produced above a sounding tone that reach to the very upper limits of our hearing and contribute to each tone's resonance, quality, and distinctiveness. Already the Greeks recognized fundamental mathematical ratios which determine our most stable musical intervals.

Deep and creative further study of possible further divisions of the pitch space of music was the driving force in the later career of Ben Johnston, whose music explores, in the most musical and thorough way, an inclusive, liberated world of pitch—both melodically and harmonically. This sounds formidable, but in Johnston’s world, it never is. He writes with an accurate sense of the listener’s stance, elegantly retaining the oldest and most familiar musical markers— development of themes, repetition, symmetry, and rhetoric.

Born and formed in the south, nurtured by his true kindred spirit, Harry Partch, and constantly attuned to “daily music,” especially southern folk tunes, Johnston composed music that is challenging to describe, make, and perform, but predominantly gracious and transparent to hear.

After composing many kinds of early pieces, he concentrated on a series of ten string quartets. These pieces are variously and determinedly “microtonal”—that is, they dislodge and reorganize the pitch-factor in music, which is where listeners have located their greatest security. (Schoenberg’s pitch adventures still bring resistance, while the rhythmic innovations of Bartok and Stravinsky are quickly absorbed.)

Johnston’s music is harmonically based on the triad, the old friend common to the tonal system. Most harmonic micro -moments in his pieces are triad-based (sometimes with familiar jazz accretions). The sonic world of his pieces, though the sounds link up in a new way, is moment-to-moment hauntingly beautiful.

Playing these quartets has been very challenging. With the release of the complete set by the Kepler Quartet on New World Records just a few years ago, we listeners are among the first to hear them as a group. The performance on the CD of No. 7, perhaps the most extraordinary of all the quartets, is the first iteration on record, and was assembled gradually as the players learned the new physical and aural skills needed to play it.

The world of music owes so much to pioneering players like the well named Kepler Quartet, because their daring allows us to experience radical artistic moves as natural and self-evident.

Unlike many recent string quartets, Johnston’s pieces are not slash-and-burn efforts to sound like a small orchestra. They are much more the refined and mellifluous discourse of the early classical composers, offering many passages of clarity and composure. Understanding the discourse is aided by the clarity of texture, the use of canon, imitation, clear variation—many venerable guiding elements.

Above all Ben Johnston’s quartets are experimental music in which the experiments have taken place on the drawing board: the pieces are artistic deeds.

Microtonal music is the Hot Area of exploration for many of the newest generation of composers. A delightful instance in the pop music world is the wonderful arrangement by the stunning British jazz musician Jacob Collier of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” a carol remembered from his youth. Find it on the web, then try a Ben Johnston quartet and briefly leave our musical solar system.

Not having known Ben Johnston personally is a loss, especially after living in Wisconsin not far from his last place of residence. But having known and admired his music for decades, I feel the kind of sympathy of attitude—and gratitude—for the concentration of purpose that kept him on his path.

We at the Academy are fortunate to have had him as one of our number for the last of his ninety-four years. 

—John Harbison Feb 6, 2021

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