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Ben Johnston

Perhaps the most significant living composer writing in the just intonation system, Ben Johnston is best known for extending Harry Partch's experiments in just tuning to traditional instruments.

Johnston, b. 1926 in Macon, Georgia, has taught composition and theory at the University of Illinois since 1951. Johnston began as a traditional composer of art music under the influence of his teacher Darius Milhaud. After apprenticing himself to Harry Partch, Johnston began formulating a system of microtonal composition based on the rational intervals of just intonation. Johnston also studied with John Cage, who encouraged him to pursue the composition of just-tuned music for traditional instruments.

Johnston's early efforts in just composition drew heavily on the accomplishments of post-Webern serialism. His String Quartet No. 4 "Amazing Grace", however, ushered in a change of style in which tonality[?] plays a central role. Johnston has come to advocate a tonal system of 25 notes to the octave, with emphasis on the crucial interval of the syntonic comma. The String Quatet No. 4 was recorded by the Kronos Quartet[?] and is Johnston's best-known composition.

Other works of note include Ci-Git Satie (commisioned by the Swingle Singers[?]), the opera Carmilla, the Sonata for Microtonal Piano and the Suite for Microtonal Piano. Johnston has completed ten (10) string quartets to date. The Kronos Quartet[?], lead by David Harrington[?] has a standing offer to record all ten quartets, but their label, Nonesuch[?], has thus far refused the offer.

Johnston's mature style features a direct tonal warmth supplemented by the rich sonorities of just-tuned intervals. Johnston often adopts the 7-limit and sometimes 11-limit or beyond in his compositions, introducing players and audiences to sonorities that are tonal but nonetheless rare in conventional tonal music.

Following on the ideas of Theodor Adorno, Johnston believes that music has the power to influence and even control social trends. Johnston believes that an equal tempered tuning system based on irrational intervals contributes to the hectic hyper-activity of modern life. The wildly beating[?] sonorities of equal temperament are thought to resemble (and perhaps foment) the fast-paced, unmeditative current of present-day Western existence. Many just intervals lack the sharp vibrancy of irrational intervals (and higher-order rational intervals) and thus are sometimes felt to convey an affect of stasis and meditative calm. Indeed, cultures whose tuning systems draw heavily on purely tuned intervals (e.g., North Indian classical music[?]) tend to value meditative social attitudes more greatly than in the West.

Johnston has received many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship[?] in 1959, a grant from the National Council on the Arts and the Humanities[?] in 1966 and two commissions from the Smithsonian Institute.



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