Ben Johnston (composer)
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Benjamin Burwell Johnston, Jr. (born March 15, 1926 in Macon, Georgia) is a composer of contemporary music in just intonation: "one of the foremost composers of microtonal music" . He was called, "one of the best non-famous composers this country has to offer," in 1990 by American critic John Rockwell .
Ben Johnston is best known for extending Harry Partch's experiments in just intonation tuning to traditional instruments through his system of notation. Johnston's compositional style is eclectic, employing serial processes, folksong idioms (String Quartets 4, 5 and 10), repetitive processes, traditional forms like fugue and variations, and intuitive processes . However, his main goal, "has been to reestablish just intonation as a viable part of our musical tradition" and "ultimately, what Johnston has done, more than any other composer with roots in the great American musical experiments of the '50's and '60's , is to translate those radical approaches to the nature of music into a music that is immediately apprehensible" (, quoted in ).
Most of his later works use an extremely large number of pitches, generated through just intonation procedures. In them, Johnston forms melodies based on an "otonal" eight-note just-intonation scale made from the 8th through 15th partials of the harmonic series) or its "utonal" inversion. He then gains new pitches by using common-tone transpositions or inversions. Many of his works also feature an expansive use of just intonation, using high prime limits. His String Quartet No. 9 uses intervals of the harmonic series as high as the 31st partial. Thus Johnston uses, "potentially hundreds of pitches per octave," in way that is, "radical without being avant-garde," and not for the creation of, "as-yet-unheard dissonances," but in order to, "return...to a kind of musical beauty," he perceives as diminished in Western music since the adoption of equal-temperament . "By the beginning of the 1980s he could say of his elaborately microtonal ''String Quartet no.5''..., "I have no idea as to how many different pitches it used per octave" .
Johnston's early efforts in just composition drew heavily on the accomplishments of post-Webern serialism. His 7-limit String Quartet No. 4 "Amazing Grace", however, ushered in a change of style in which tonality plays a central role. It was commissioned by the Fine Arts Music Foundation of Chicago, and was first recorded by The Fine Arts String Quartet on Nonesuch in 1980 (and reissued on Gasparo as GS205). The String Quartet No. 4, perhaps Johnston's best-known composition has also been recorded by the Kronos Quartet, and the Kepler Quartet recorded it on a CD for the New World Records label, the first of a proposed series to document Johnston's entire cycle of string quartets. It is on this CD that String Quartet No. 3 was recorded (for the first time) to create a pairing, with String Quartet No. 4, called ''Crossings''. The Third Quartet was premièred this way by the Concord String Quartet at New York's Alice Tully Hall, on March 15, 1976 (the composer's fiftieth birthday) .
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