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Johnston began as a traditional composer of art music before working with Harry Partch. He helped the senior musician to build instruments and use them in the performance and recording of new compositions. Partch then arranged for Johnston to study with Darius Milhaud at Mills College. In 1952, Johnston met Cage, who invited him to come to New York to study with him in the summer. Though Johnston decided he did not have sufficient time to prepare for such studies, he did go to New York for several weeks and assisted, along with Earle Brown, in the production of Cage's eight-track tape composition, Williams Mix.
Later, in 1957 and 1959, he studied with Cage, who encouraged him to follow his desires and use traditional instruments rather than electronics or newly built instruments. Unskilled in carpentry and finding electronics unreliable, Johnston struggled with how to integrate microtonality and conventional instruments for ten years. He also struggled with how to integrate microtones into his compositional language through a slow process of many stages. However, since 1960 Johnston had almost exclusively used a system of microtonal notation based on the rational intervals of just intonation, what Gann describes as a "lifelong allegiance" to "microtonality". Johnston also studied with Burrill Phillips and Robert Palmer.
Tempered tuning is not the acoustically simplest kind. In just tuning, any interval is tuned so as to eliminate 'beating' (the result of vibrations interfering with each other). Just intonation is the easiest to achieve by ear. In this kind of tuning, all intervals have vibration rates related by small whole-number ratios. The larger the integers of the ratio, the greater the dissonance.
He 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. He uses serial processes, folk song idioms (string quartets 4, 5, and 10), repetitive processes, traditional forms like fugue and variations, and intuitive processes. His main goal "has been to reestablish just intonation as a viable part of our musical tradition". According to Mark Swed, "ultimately, what Johnston has done, more than any other composer with roots in the great American musical experiments of the '50s and '60s, is to translate those radical approaches to the nature of music into a music that is immediately apprehensible".
Most of Johnston's later works use a large number of pitches, generated through just-intonation procedures. In these works, he 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. He 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-Webernserialism. His 7-limit String Quartet No. 4 "Amazing Grace", was commissioned by the Fine Arts Music Foundation of Chicago, and was first recorded by the Fine Arts Quartet on Nonesuch Records in 1980 (then reissued on Gasparo as GS205). His String Quartet No. 4, perhaps Johnston's best-known composition, has also been recorded by the Kronos Quartet. The Kepler Quartet (Sharan Leventhal, Eric Segnitz, Brek Renzelman, and Karl Lavine) also recorded the piece for New World Records, as part of a complete 10-quartet series documenting Johnston's entire cycle of string quartets. The Third Quartet was premiered as part of this series by the Concord String Quartet at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, on March 15, 1976, the composer's fiftieth birthday.
Just perfect fifth on D. The perfect fifth above D (A+, 27/16) is a syntonic comma (81/80 or 21.5 cents) higher than the just major sixth above C (A♮, 5/3), 27/16 ÷ 9/8 = 3/2.
Beginning in the 1960s, Johnston had proposed an approach to notating music in just intonation, redefining the understanding of conventional symbols (the seven "white" notes, the sharps and flats) and adding further accidentals, each designed to extend the notation into higher prime limits. Johnston's method is based on a diatonic C major scale tuned in JI, in which the interval between D (9/8 above C) and A (5/3 above C) is one Syntonic comma less than a Pythagorean perfect fifth 3:2. To write a perfect fifth, Johnston introduces a pair of symbols representing this comma, + and -. Thus, a series of perfect fifths beginning with F would proceed C G D A+ E+ B+. The three conventional white notes A E B are tuned as Ptolemaic major thirds (5:4, Ptolemy's intense diatonic scale) above F C G respectively. Johnston introduces new symbols for the septimal ( & ), undecimal (? & ?), tridecimal ( & ), and further prime extensions to create an accidental-based exact JI notation for what he has named "extended just intonation".
Though "this notation is not tied to any particular diapason" and "what remains constant are the ratio relations between pitches", "most of his works utilize A = 440 as the tuning note", making C 264 Hertz. Thus, a string quartet is tuned C-, G-, D-, A, E.
2016: Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 7, 8 & 6, Quietness - Kepler Quartet (New World Records CD-80730)
String Quartet No. 7
String Quartet No. 8
String Quartet No. 6
"Quietness" (string quartet and voice)
2014: Ben Johnston: Ruminations - Eclipse String Quartet, John Schneider (voice, microtonal guitar), Karen Clark (voice), Jim Sullivan (clarinet), Sarah Thornblade (violin) (MicroFest Records CD-5)
2011: Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 & 10 - Kepler Quartet (New World Records CD-80693)
String Quartet No. 5
String Quartet No. 10
String Quartet No. 1, "Nine Variations"
2008: On Track: Commissions Vol. 2. - New Century Saxophone Quartet (Alanna Records ACD-6006, Pittsburgh)
Includes Johnston's "O Waly Waly Variations"
2006: Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 4 & 9 - Kepler Quartet (New World Records CD-80637)
^Duckworth, William. 1995. Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers. New York: Schirmer Books; London: Prentice-Hall International. ISBN0-02-870823-7 p. 122. Reprinted 1999, New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN0-306-80893-5.
Bush, Phillip. 1997. Liner notes (unpaginated) to Microtonal Piano by Ben Johnston. Phillip Bush, piano. Koch International Classics 3-7369-2. Port Washington, NY: Koch International. [Quotes The New Grove Dictionary of American Music and critic Mark Swed.]