Ben Johnston


Interview with Derek Bermel, 1995

Ben Johnston was born in Macon, Georgia in 1926, and holds degrees from William and Mary College, the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and Mills College. He joined the faculty of the University of Illinois in 1951, and served as professor of composition and theory until his retirement in 1983. In May of 1988, the Kronos Quartet presented a program of his string quartets at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The Kronos' Nonesuch recording of his Amazing Grace (String Quartet Number Four) has been outstandingly successful, resulting in performances around the world. This interview was completed in 1995 and is from the PNMR archives.

Not many composers can claim to have had both Harry Partch and John Cage as teachers.

I guess not! Although Harry insisted that he was not a teacher; he considered me an apprentice. I went out to his ranch in Gualala, California, a little lumbering town up the North Coast. He had put all his instruments into a smithy which had been converted into a studio. Partch was a master carpenter and something of a sculptor. I helped him to work on the instruments, but I was strictly relegated to the "gopher" role. I didn't do anything at all in the nature of building, because he didn't trust me. He had this regimen he went through every day, when he would care for the instruments. My job was tuning the instruments; it was also his way of training my ear.

So he was trying to train you.

Well, yes, he had that in mind, but the string instruments did have to be tuned every day. I used his organ, the chromelodeon, as the pitch reference. Soon afterwards, we started to record his recent pieces, and I was involved in that...

This would have been when?

In 1950. We were doing a group of pieces called the Eleven Intrusions.

So this was way before he had even thought of operatic works like Delusion of the Fury...

Right. Those large works began later with OEdipus, which he did it at Mills the year after I left California. The Eleven Intrusions were little ensemble pieces. The largest one, I think, had four players. Up until then, Partch had written solo works, featuring himself primarily.

Which of his instruments did you find particularly attractive?

I thought they were all great, but I enjoyed working on the marimbas more than anything else. I was not a percussionist, so it was a problem for me to learn mallet technique, but not impossible. I mean, when it came to rolls I was pretty sloppy, but Harry didn't call for much of that. In fact, a conventional marimbist wouldn't have had a much easier time than I did, because the design of the instruments was completely different.

I know that, in order to play the marimba eroica, you have to stand on a platform ...

Well, Partch hadn't built that yet, he had only just begun to build the bigger instruments. A lot of the instruments were still in the planning stage.

And the guitars?...

He had three, but one of them he wasn't using. One was elaborately harmonic, the other was primarily a melodic instrument.

So how did Partch feel about your music?

He listened to some of it, then he said, "I think there's a lot there; you've got to develop it yourself, and I won't presume to even comment. But in trying to develop it, be your own man." Harry just disapproved of the idea of trying to influence other people. He didn't take kindly to academic circumstances at all.

But he did use universities for financial support...

True, but not at that time. Madison supported him; they were the first, and that started a long series of involvement with universities. In fact, I'm the one who was primarily responsible for getting him to Illinois.

Was Illinois your first job?

Yes, and that's where I met John Cage. John was one of the speakers at their contemporary arts festival. He did his lecture on composing with the I-Ching. It was a sensation. I mean people were so angry, so upset! They walked out, they did everything they could do to destroy that lecture, but he just went placidly on. And at the end of the lecture, the head of the festival, my wife and I were the only people who went back to speak to him. Of course, at this time, my own music was totally unformed. I was primarily under Milhaud's influence because I had just worked with him.

At Mills College?

Yeah. Milhaud, by the way, was a wonderful teacher, very intuitive. His whole role was that of critic. He would say, "This works...this doesn't work...I wish you would do more of this...well, haven't we had enough of that?" And Cage was like Milhaud, a very penetrating and perceptive critic. I didn't work with Cage, though, until 1959. Up until then, I had been working in the dance department at Illinois Ð producing their concerts, conducting for them, and playing for them Ð and I was getting pretty tired of that. It was terrific for making me compose, but I was too busy. And I thought if I was really going to apply what I learned from Partch, I had better get to it.

I knew I didn't want to build instruments, because I could see that I didn't have any talent at it, so I decided on electronics instead. I went to Columbia-Princeton a year before they opened, but the state-of-the-art just couldn't cope. The instruments were inaccurate, undependable; they were just too primitive. So John offered to give me a lesson every month instead. He knew that I had found my direction, just not my medium, and he pushed me ahead, saying, "okay, you can't do it electronically; you'll have to find another way." My decision was to use traditional instruments because it was the only thing left. I mean, what else could I do? This was a period when I had started to work with serial methods, which Cage understood; after all, he had worked with Schoenberg.

You weren't serializing your dynamics then...

Oh no, I was only dealing with pitch, at that point.

But now...

Well, I never have been terribly interested in serializing other elements, but I have organized the other elements in various ways. I prefer to think of it as related to the proportionalism of my pitch approach. Just intonation is a matter of reducing pitch relations to simple ratios. When I did the same with rhythms, I got Knocking Piece. That piece has nothing to do with serialization; it just so happens that the pitch sequences that I used as the model for Knocking Piece came from a serial piece. But the rhythmic organization is proportional, very much so. I mean, it's sort of the ultimate exercise in Elliott Carter's technique, since there's a metrical modulation in every bar.

In fact, here's a quote from the score, "If the rationally controlled shifting of tempi are not observed, the realization will deteriorate into feigned vandalism."

Which has often been the case.

In other words, it just becomes...

...people banging on an instrument.

But it won't be that way in the performance tonight.

No, definitely not. Michael Udow really made a study of the timbre. You see, the aspect that I left to the performer was the exploration of timbre. Michael took that mission very seriously. His version of the piece is excellent.

Since we're on the subject of ratios, here's another quote, this one dealing with pitch ratios, from the score of your seventh string quartet: "The aim of all this is to provide a harmonic logic to the ear which is even more compelling than the traditional tonal logic." Can you speak a bit about your use of just intonation?

I'll use an analogy. When Einstein devised his theory of relativity, he did not throw out Newton's physics; he generalized it. In other words, he worked out a basis for the laws of dynamics and thermodynamics which was more fundamental, and less exceptional, than Newton's had been. Nowadays, if you want to understand all possible cases, you go to Einstein, because Newton's physics won't cover certain things, whereas Einstein's will. Still, within its own area of expertise, Newtonian physics remains perfectly adequate, even after Einstein. Einstein discovered a logic that was superior only in the sense that it was more generalized, more basic, more perfectly abstract. The same thing is true of extended just intonation as compared with ordinary tonality. Extended just intonation is like a super-generalization of the concept of tonality. I'm not trying to compare it to Einstein's physics, but I see it as an analogous effort to build a more fundamental structure. So it should be even more compelling than ordinary tonal logic, because ordinary tonal logic is not applicable to higher overtones, for example.

You use charts and tables in your scores to demonstrate the ratios...

That one you're pointing to is an attempt to represent a multi-dimensional continuum in two dimensions, and that's a losing game. You see, the basic idea behind those lattices is the Cartesian graph: x, y, and z, axes. But this is a graph which deals with more than three dimensions. The procedure is to compare every prime number with all other prime numbers Ð each prime number, that is, above two, since two is involved always Ð two is the cycling number, the octave. There's a three axis, a five axis, a seven axis, and so forth, and each axis adds a dimension.

Did these structures affect the way you think about time? Time moves very differently in the seventh string quartet, as compared with the sixth...

In fact, soon after Stockhausen wrote How Time Passes, I read it and was struck by the similarity to the way that I think about time. In music, we deal with different time levels: countable time, which is what we mean by "rhythm," but also durations that can't be felt as tempi Ð because they're too slow Ð but which can be perceived as proportional relations. For example, the second section of a piece may be heard as being half as long, or double, the first section. The Fibonacci series is based on a proportion. That's why, in Bartok's music, for instance, time passes according to the Fibonacci series.

Have you read Lendvai's book on Bartok's music?

Yes, and it's fascinating, and it's true, by God, if you analyze those pieces, it's there! It's there! It is a form of proportional organization. Fibonacci is not the only series, of course, but it's a particularly nice one.

Bartok certainly felt that the human ear was especially sympathetic to the Fibonacci series.

Well yes, you have the great tradition of the golden mean, the aspect of Ancient Greek art. But this procedure of organizing material with lattices and matrices I got from studying Adriaan Fokker's writings. Fokker was the Dutch theorist behind the 31-tone-per octave tuning used by several composers in the Netherlands, among them Henk Badings. Thirty-one notes gives a better approximation of certain just intervals. The major third, for example, is well approximated by this temperament. So is the seventh partial. The eleventh, however, is not well approximated at all.

Do these terms get in your way, major third, perfect fifth...

Not really. You just have to realize that all terminology is a means to an end. And if you lose sight of the end, the terminology's not going to save you! At the same time, if you don't have terminology, you can get totally bollixed up. I don't want to throw out all the terminology, the way Partch did, because then my players have to learn a whole new set of terminology, which is equally unfamiliar for them. So I use, as often as I can, modified conventional notation and modified traditional terminology.
There are many other Western composers who have dealt with the notes between our twelve tones. The Czech composer Alois Haba used quarter-tones, sixth-tones, and eighth-tones to approximate music from the Balkan folk tradition. Haba began by using tempered microtones, because his mind worked best dealing with a tempered system. He felt that it was adequate to approximate these things. Gyorgy Ligeti said that when he uses quarter-tone indications, he simply means that there's a note in-between, and the player must find something that works. Same thing with Ezra Sims.

Did you ever try, say, a big staff, with smaller lines in-between?

It's interesting that you suggest that, because Partch did try it. I actually didn't. From the very beginning, my whole aim was to keep my notation as close to ordinary usage as I could; in fact, for a long time I was only dealing with extended triadic usage, that is, no prime overtones higher than five. The only extra symbols needed are the plus and minus, which indicate the syntonic comma.
The syntonic comma is the difference between the whole step in-between DO and RE and the whole step in-between RE and MI. The first is a Pythagorean second, a 9:8 relation. The other is a 10:9 relation, which is the gap between a just major third and the Pythagorean whole-step; the difference is 81:80. That difference must be indicated, because the lack of care about it is what makes playing in just intonation so difficult. Hindemith talks about this problem in The Craft of Musical Composition, but as a violist, not as a composer. He speaks about the necessity to conceal the comma in playing. String players will naturally try to play Mozart, or any other triadic music, with just triads. But in doing so, they run into the problem of the comma. Now, they won't make the mistake of playing LA-flat rather than SOL-sharp; that's an egregious mistake; it's 40 cents off, nobody would do that. But twenty cents off, maybe. The comma is only about 22 cents. Indeed, if they were to play the progression I-VI-II-V-I over and over again, they would move by common tone, dropping a comma every time. After five repetitions, they would be a half-tone flat!
So the pluses and minuses are necessary; I just added those to the ordinary notation. Then when I wanted to go an extra step, I asked myself Ð what interval is the seventh partial closest to? It's closest to a minor seventh, lowered by 49 cents. I altered this seventh, in other words, so that it became an overtone seventh. In my system of notation, every partial is treated that way. Compare the eleventh partial to the perfect fourth, it's 53 cents too big. The seventh and eleventh partials, therefore, approximate quarter-tone differences. So I write a 53 cent chroma, that is, accidental. The gap between a "blue" third and an ordinary tempered third is not as much as a quarter-tone, but the difference between a blue third and a just minor third is fully a quarter tone.
You know, every tradition in the world is based, in one way of another, on some variety of just intonation, unless they have gotten "sophisticated" and added temperament. The only places that I know about where temperament, of any kind, has become a staple of the musical diet are Europe, Thailand, and Indonesia. In every other case, some form of proportional relationship exists. It's because the mind works that way; it's that simple.

Obviously you've found string instruments ideal for your purposes. I know your Sonata for Microtonal Piano, but that solution seems less satisfying.

Right, and for several reasons. It's a tremendous amount of trouble to reach into the piano every time you change pieces. It's not harmful to the instrument in any way, but... can't get the kind of flexibility that you've just been discussing.

Absolutely not. I can only get a selection of twelve notes. I mean, they might not be the usual twelve, but there won't be any more than twelve, because that's the way the keyboard's designed. So that's not very interesting. And woodwind players have to use special fingerings which can't be generalized, because players have their own particular habits and instruments have their own particular quirks.

Why go for special fingerings? Why not just ask for the actual overtones from brass and woodwind instruments?

Well, of course, that's the only way to do it. I decide what I want, then I find out whether it can be done by checking with a good player. Then when I know that it works, I simply say to the player, "find this." Although I started working with winds early on, I didn't solve the problems for myself until the 70s. In the first pieces I did with winds, in the early 60s, I had players write out the fingerings which worked for them. But then by God, with other players, they didn't work!

What about instruments with pitch flexibility built in, like the trombone?

Sure, a natural. Since I played the trombone, it was obvious to me that there were good possibilities there. And I knew perfectly well that you can lip brass instruments all over the place. Actually, you can lip most woodwind instruments too; oboe is the big problem with the winds. But by the 70s, I knew players who were into this kind of experimentation Ð flutists like Tom Howell, clarinetists like Charles Yassky and Phil Reyfeldt, oboists like Wilma Zonn Ð players who care enough about learning all these extra fingerings on their instruments to explore these areas.

And Reyfeldt has a book of fingerings...

That's right. But in the end, string instruments are the easiest, the most directly approachable.

So suppose a string quartet wants to do your ninth quartet and you only have one session to coach with them. How can you even begin to explain your ideas to them? Do you show them how to divide the string equally?

No, never. This is why the notation is as close to ordinary notation as possible; I would tell them, "Your triads ought to be as free of beats as you can make it. That's all, just aim for the same goals as when you're playing Mozart or Haydn. If you have a natural seventh, it's about a quarter-tone lower than a just minor seventh, not than temperament." But, come on, these string players don't have temperament in their minds anyway! It's actually much harder to play in equal temperament than it is to play in just intonation. As you know, it takes a professional to tune a tempered keyboard instrument. You can't do that as an amateur. You have to count beats, and use all sorts of devices; it's too difficult.

Stanford has just recorded your ninth quartet. Any other recordings coming up?

Well, I talked to David Harrington recently, and Kronos seem to be quite serious about recording all my quartets. I would love it if they did, but that would take quite a lot of time, and quite a lot of money. Kronos already knows the second and eighth quartet, and they've recorded the fourth quartet. So, that's quite a leg on getting them all done. As far as I know, Nonesuch hasn't jumped on that bandwagon, but Kronos and I are always in touch about it.

Have you written any large ensemble pieces?

Yes, I have four orchestra pieces.

Do any of them use alternate tunings?

Three of them. The Quintet for Groups dates from the mid-60's. It uses very complicated tuning, involving as many as 83 different pitches. The orchestration includes two retuned pianos, two retuned harps, a huge percussion section, and a modest-sized orchestra. I also did a piece for the Springfield Symphony, with chorus and contralto soloist, about seven years ago, called Journeys. It's based on a folk song, from a collection by Carl Sandburg.

How did you adapt your tonal system to a group that large?

Well, I only use seven-limit tuning in the first movement, which means that I'm only asking for one unfamiliar problem; it's just-tuned triads plus the seventh partial. The folk song that I chose uses the seventh partial prominently; you can tell, it's a real blues sound. In the second movement, I used overtones of C, then overtones of E, then back to C, up through the sixteenth partial. I used a lot of harmonics, and so forth, to introduce them to the sound. And it worked; the orchestra learned it quite well! The chorus did an especially accurate job.

Speaking of chorus, I particularly enjoyed the Swingle Singers' album featuring your music. I guess voices work well for the same reason that string instruments do -- easy access to non-tempered intervals.

Yes, what a marvelous group they are, incredible talent. I also wrote a piece recently for Toby Twining's vocal group. That piece uses a few extended techniques, but mostly deals with the overtones controlled by vowels.

What are you working on now?

I'm halfway through my tenth quartet, which was not commissioned by anybody; I'm just writing it because I want to. I also did a set of arrangements for the Kronos Quartet. They want to do Partch's Barstow, which I'll be narrating with them on several occasions. And they're doing the "Two Greek Studies" from the Intrusions. So I had to stop work on the quartet to do this rush job for them. And it wasn't easy; I had to re-notate the Partch first, to make sure I understood exactly what he had done. Then I had to decide how much of it could be transferred to string quartet. I tell you, though, if I had a wish, I would like to do more orchestra work, not because I think the orchestra is terribly well suited to all this Ð it isn't especially Ð but I think I would make more of a contribution that way. My whole aim has been to reestablish just intonation as a viable part of our musical tradition. But I'm not somebody that orchestra leaders think of, at all.

Are there younger composers following in your footsteps?

Yes. Larry Polanski, although Larry's probably more influenced by James Tenney than by me. And of course, many younger composers have been influenced by LaMonte Young. Several of my students have also taken an interest: Michael Pisaro, a guy who is presently teaching at Northwestern, has started to write in extended just intonation. So has Mannfred Stahnke, from Hamburg.

And your new piece is for gamelan?

Ron George commissioned the piece. He's built what he calls the "American Gamelan." It's influenced very much by Lou Harrison. Ron was interested in what I would do with a gamelan, so he commissioned me and said he would build the instrument. It's constructed of pipes, gongs, metal blocks, and metal squares, all tuned very carefully. He chose all the timbres and I designated all the rhythms and pitches. So it's been a real collaboration.

Almost like working with Partch, a builder.

Yes, pretty similar to that. Ron will be touring it on the West Coast, then he'll record it. In April, he'll bring the group to Iowa for the SCI national meeting. And on the West Coast tour it will serve as a prologue to a real Indonesian shadowplay!

Javanese Puppets and everything?

Puppets and everything.