A Conversation with Ben Johnston

A Conversation with Ben Johnston

Ben Johnston, near his home in North Carolina

  • READ an excerpt from “Maximum Clarity” and Other Writings on Music by Ben Johnston.


    FRANK J. OTERI: Maximum Clarity contains an extremely wide range of materials spanning the last half century: in-depth theoretical exegeses, program notes, plus critical essays about other composers and the music scene overall. Many of these seem extremely prophetic. The book covers so much ground, but it still left me wondering if there was anything you have written that did not get in to the book and what the criteria were for what was ultimately included in it.

    BEN JOHNSTON: There are a few but nothing that has that much interest I think. Bob Gilmore and I were at considerable pains to eliminate everything that would be in any way pure repetition or simply conventional stuff that people in universities all write at one time or another. Both things are in the extra writings, but I don’t think there’s a whole lot there that would be interesting. However, if anybody is curious, it is probably in the Northwestern Library. There’s a collection there of my stuff.

    FJO: I was thrilled to see that the book even included a letter to the editor that you wrote to Perspectives in New Music in response to a negative article they had published about the music of John Cage.

    BJ: I was kind of angry about that. I didn’t like what they were saying.

    FJO: The most revolutionary writings in the book are your explications of extended just intonation which you have explored more than most composers thus far. I was particularly struck by your postulating possible meanings for various types of intervals: the 3rd overtone ratios of perfect fifths and fourths representing stability and strength; the 5th overtone radios of major and minor thirds representing emotions; 7ths representing sexuality; 11ths ambiguity; and 13ths death.

    BJ: Those are subjective, of course. They have to be. But one aspect of Indian music that I have always admired is the fact that they do have some concept of the meaning of each raga that they use in both traditional North Indian and South Indian music. It is entirely different in Western music, but I was trying to see if I could figure out in what way we could make use of that aspect of Indian music which I greatly admired when I discovered it.

    FJO: Well, your comments about 7ths was particularly provocative. Pure 7ths were the intervals that were kept out of Renaissance polyphony and it’s an interval that never made it into Western music until the blues came along. Do you think the sexual innuendo you suggest for these intervals might be what kept these intervals banished from music for so long?

    BJ: That’s a possibility. But much more likely is difference you get when you introduce it between the two 7ths that we do have in Western music, the 9/5 or the 16/9—those are both common in Western music. (16/9 is the product of two fourths piled on top of each other and the other one is the one that you get by tuning thirds.) If you compare either of those to the natural 7th, you get a very tiny interval and I think that that very tiny interval bothered people the same way the comma of Didymus bothered them.

    FJO: That said, the natural 7th is everywhere. You hear it in when horn players accidently lip it in symphony orchestras all the time. It’s almost unavoidable.

    BJ: Exactly. It’s naturally there; you have to get rid of it. Not only that aspect of it, but the other aspect is in jazz, it’s being used constantly as an expressive device. And I think that’s where I got the idea that it’s sexual, because they certainly do use it that way. It’s a blues interval.

    FJO: When I read that, a thousand years of musical history suddenly made sense to me.

    BJ: I had to make them make sense to me; that’s why I turned out that way. I felt it was very important to be in context, and the context ought to be larger than fads. Neoclassicism or serial music, and all that sort of thing, those are fads. As little as we want to compare them to fads in popular music, there’s a certain thing in common there. It’s a trait of audiences more than anybody else, but even critics.

    FJO: We’ve talked about Indian music and Western classical music as well as jazz here, and what you’re claiming about these intervals almost implies that there’s a universal way that they could be perceived. Is that a fair claim?

    BJ: I think in a way that it is. But not if you go on to the higher intervals like the 11th and even the 13th, and smaller ones like that, unless you go as far as the 17th. And the reason I say that is because the 17th very closely resembles the tempered half-step and so you could say there’s an equivalent that we’re using for that one. But just back down a little way to the 13th and we have no equivalent whatsoever. So we have no basis of what the interval either means or how to use it, and no music in which it was being used. I think that’s why Harry Partch didn’t add it in; I’m not sure because he never actually said that to me. But my inference was that he avoided it because it didn’t have any meaning for him and the other ones did. That’s where I got the idea that they ought to have meaning, directly from Harry Partch. It’s not that I hadn’t encountered that idea before; I encountered it, as I said, in Indian music. I didn’t know a great deal about Indian music, but enough to whet my appetite.

    FJO: Another idea that you tossed off in just one sentence in one of the essays in the book, which also seemed to clarify all of music history, is describing vibrato as a masker for bad intonation.

    BJ: Well, I got that from an article written by Claudio Monteverdi.

    FJO: Ironically, some people today continue to sing Monteverdi’s music with vibrato.

    BJ: He was very clear about that: you don’t use it unless you want to use it as an expressive device. Fine, but it is that and you should use it with that it mind.

    FJO: The whole issue of masking bad intonation gets us into the question of what’s feasible on the part of performers and what is perceivable by the audiences who are hearing that performance. I’m reminded of James Tenney’s notion of interval tolerance: an interval within a certain range is going to be perceived by most people as a certain interval whether it’s precisely that interval or not. Is there a threshold beyond which any distinctions are incomprehensible and is that threshold a wall beyond which composers should not pass?

    BJ: Probably so. The reason I put it in terms of probability is I don’t want to be dogmatic about it. I could be wrong, and La Monte Young thinks I am. He wants to open the entire range, as high as you could possibly go, and I don’t think there’s much point in doing that because we don’t have a clear sense of what the emotional meaning of those intervals is. So why use them? His point is that it needs time. You need to have very slow development. Therefore he has these pieces that last more than 24 hours. You can sit through them or not, as you wish, but to fall back on John Cage: John said that he found that to be an arrogant way to make music, and I think it is. You say in effect that here it is and if you aren’t there, you’re going to miss it. That’s the very extreme opposite of Cage who says it ought to be that anything, absolutely anything, perceived is music. I can certainly see Cage’s point of view there but I can’t go that far. I decided that I wanted to preserve a lot of the things in traditional European music that Cage didn’t care about and would just as soon get rid of.

    FJO: But some of your work in extended just intonation includes intervals that most people have never encountered before, and they’re going by very quickly. So what do you think the threshold is for most listeners hearing your music?

    BJ: I don’t know and that has worried me. As a self-criticism, I’ve been wondering if what I’m doing is a sensible thing to be doing. And I can’t answer that; I guess time will tell whether it works for an audience bigger than the specialists. I just plain don’t know.

    FJO: In one of your essays written more than 30 years ago, you seem to be advocating for standard repertoire to be retuned into extended just intonation.

    BJ: Bob Gilmore frankly called that revisionism, not meaning it as a criticism, either. The whole point I was making, he said, is that Western music had taken a wrong turn or two, and if we correct those wrong turns, what might history have been instead? That is a provocative way of describing what I was into. I didn’t think of it as revisionism. I didn’t have any ism in mind. I was just doing what seemed to me lacking in Western music. If I could fix it so that it wasn’t lacking any longer, that was how I looked at it.

    FJO: Have you tried experiments retuning Debussy or Schubert’s piano music?

    BJ: Yes I have. But I must say now that it shouldn’t be done. That wasn’t what Debussy had in mind, and if you try to treat Debussy that way, it won’t work. On the other hand, I think this kind of thinking does cast a light on what it was that fascinated Debussy about these chords. However, if you try to change those chords and make them into just intonation chords, as if that was Debussy’s real intention, and if you tune it, it ought to work. No, it won’t work.

    FJO: Of course, we do the opposite every time we retune Handel, Telemann, and hosts of other composers, every time we play their music in equal temperament; that’s not how they conceived their music.

    BJ: Well, that’s quite true. But that’s a distortion we’ve placed on that. What it would be in the other case is a distortion placed on top of what is already distorted. One distortion doesn’t correct another, except by accident.

    FJO: In another one of these essays you talked about how audiences understand the standard repertoire even less than the new music they claim not to like. They think they’re appreciating Beethoven, but they’re actually not.

    BJ: Well, I think that is true. Beethoven’s music meant something very startling for the time. Beethoven was a democrat, so to speak. When he wrote the Eroica Symphony, he was praising Napoleon, because Beethoven felt that Napoleon was a spreader of democracy, which he wanted in place of the aristocracy he didn’t like. But Napoleon turned out to be just another person who was trying to enlarge his scope of influence and in the process had become an evil influence. So then Beethoven no longer wanted any part of it and expunged the dedication. But people don’t look at Beethoven that way; Beethoven just makes them comfortable. Well, that’s not what he was up to, not at all. So it’s certainly wrong the way audiences perceive it. But what could we do to change that?

    I’m not saying to tune it in just would do that, but in the case of some of the late Beethoven works that are so hard to understand, it might help to clarify them, to understand that at least, in the same way that Debussy was, he was thinking toward that kind of organization. But he didn’t reach it, because in order to reach it, you have to be quite thorough. Which is what I’m trying to be. But Beethoven wasn’t trying to do that. Had he decided that he did want to do that, it probably would have been in those later works. What he was trying was as radical as possible, but what was possible at that time, given the way things were going, was not at all what is now or what it was during the 20th century.

    FJO: In a way, Beethoven was as radical in his time as John Cage was.

    BJ: Absolutely. Maybe even more so because the society was so closed, closed in the sense of stratified. There were the people who hired these creative musicians, those musicians, and then the rest of the musicians that they were using. So there’d come to be things like the difference between Mozart and Salieri which was been made so much of. Why was Mozart a better composer than Salieri? That’s a very interesting question and not at all easy to answer. And the movie doesn’t do it, but at least they raise the question.

    FJO: This reminds me of your comments about the relationship of art to entertainment and your suspicion of entertainment as a means of creating art. At one point, you spoke of art as a means to explicate complexity.

    BJ: Now that I’m older and have not been composing for a while, I’ve begun to change my mind about that. I’m not so highfalutin, to use a common term. I feel now that popular music has as much to offer people, but it also has its limitations. You have to be very careful about what they are. If you look at rock musicians, let’s say, there’s a lot of difference between the average rock musician and someone like Sting. I just picked that because I think a lot of his musical content. I think he has really got something to say, and he says it well given the way that he’s doing it. He’s not the only one; he’s just one that I got interested in largely because of his texts as much as anything else. But then again, what is he trying to say with those words and how does the music relate to that? I would say very successfully. Now, if you look at the average rock band, that’s not true. And it’s not true because they’re not trying to make that much of it.

    FJO: But the same is probably also true of many composers of chamber and orchestral music throughout history.

    BJ: That’s right. I think what it comes down to is really good people who are very talented and working with other people who are talented, as you had in the case of the Beatles. It’s not so much the Beatles themselves as individual performers but them along with the technicians who put their stuff together.

    FJO: I was struck by your writing that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band was more meaningful to most people than a fugue could ever be.

    BJ: Absolutely so, because they’re speaking a language that can be understood contemporarily. Now whether a fugue could ever be understood to that degree, certainly it could be far better at a time when counterpoint was everybody’s focus.

    FJO: Certainly Sgt. Pepper’s contains a lot of complex techniques: there’s backward sound and all kinds of things we typically associate with more “sophisticated” music.

    BJ: A lot of that is the engineer, and you have to allow that one of the real creative people in such a group is the engineer because that’s where it all gets put together. And it’s either put together in an extremely clever and meaningful way, or it’s just routine.

    FJO: There are two things in your writings from nearly 40 years ago that strike me as prophecies. The first is the idea that the mainstream is eroding in your essay, “On Context” from 1968. In an age of 500-channel cable TV, internet surfing, and niche marketing which all target very small, unrelated areas of interest, we really seem to have lost a mainstream.

    BJ: It’s like having too much to eat. No wonder obesity is a problem. You’ve got the equivalent everywhere because there is simply too much of everything. I don’t say we get rid of it; you can’t do it that way. But we have to learn how to live with it in such a way that we use it and are not used by it. Right now most people are used by it, and that is what obesity amounts to. Or any of the other diseases—partly psychological—that people get: bulimia, for example.

    FJO: It’s not even so much about too many choices anymore. People are so focused on the choice that they made that they don’t explore choices beyond them.

    BJ: The other thing is the business of synthetic this and synthetic that. I think that’s a little like what the Germans did to music when they were the big supporters of various kinds of temperament. I say the Germans, because German music was so very good during the period of the classical composers so that’s where the focus was more than in Italy or any other place.

    FJO: In the ’60s, you talked about a generation that did not want to be part of the establishment and you wondered if they would create their own establishment. Clearly now nearly 40 years later, a lot of time has gone by, people who were young then are much older. So has there been a fundamental change in the musical establishment?

    BJ: Oh yeah. No question about it. There’s a whole book of writings by Kyle Gann that deals with that. If you just look at New York City as an emblem of what’s going on—it’s not by any means to say that nothing happens except in New York City—he’s not saying that and I’m not either, but he’s using it as a paradigm. You can use it as a measurement almost for what’s going on everywhere. And what do we have there. We have Uptown, which is like Columbia and the other universities, that whole academic attitude of scholarship. Then you have Midtown, which is typified by Juilliard and its influence. (I’m talking about educational institutions because that’s where I come from, so to speak.) Then you have Downtown. You don’t have any school there unless you take the New School, possibly, as a school. But Downtown isn’t focused around a school. What you’ve got there was started by Yoko Ono before she met John Lennon. And it’s pretty fascinating to see what you’ve got there. You’ve got a whole bunch of musics that are totally and deliberately undisciplined.

    FJO: But you’re talking about something that was the case 40 years ago.

    BJ: Yes, that’s right.

    FJO: And the young people who were resisting the establishment…

    BJ: …are no longer young.

    FJO: And a lot of them are probably members of the establishment.

    BJ: Well, some of them, as you tend to do when you get older, have tended to take what they were doing and turn that into kind of a new establishment. I think that’s more typical. You have to recognize when that happens. It’s like a novelist whose early works are fascinating, and then you get to the later ones and wonder, “Is this the same person?” Because some kind of a change has occurred.

    FJO: As far as that Uptown/Downtown divide goes, I was struck when I read about your plan to come to the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center to explore just intonation through electronic means under the auspices of Milton Babbitt, but that never happened.

    BJ: Well, I did get there and I was working in the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio. The only way it could be tried was on a huge synthesizer, and there was this huge synthesizer, but Milton Babbitt had exclusive use of it and he wasn’t about to let anyone else do it. That was the practical aspect of it.

    FJO: So it wasn’t that he was directly opposed to your work, in particular.

    BJ: I don’t think so. In fact, later, he was influential in getting one of my works played at Columbia under very good circumstances. He was in his own way, very helpful. It’s just that his own aims are so absolutely fixed and clear cut to him, and he didn’t want to be bothered by somebody who had equally fixed ideas but in a different direction. At least that’s the way I read it.

    FJO: In some of the essays you allude to a composer caring if you listen, and those allusions struck me as a direct jab at Babbitt.

    BJ: Yes it was; that was conscious. He’s got his own way of being pedantic. And I don’t like that. Then, at the opposite extreme, he knows every musical number from every Broadway play of any significance going back generations. That’s a hobby for him. All right, if he just put those two things together, it would be fascinating. But except for the time when he was interested in the sort of new music jazz that Gunther Schuller introduced him to, he never had anything to do with that kind of thing, almost nothing. So I always felt that that was a blind spot on his part.

    FJO: But there is a relationship between your work and Babbitt’s, especially from that time when you were attempting to reconcile extended just intonation with serialism.

    BJ: I’d spent the first decade of my academic career doing music from a more ordinary standpoint, that is to say not retuned, because I felt that if I was going to do anything I would have to establish myself as a composer. And that turned out to be true. I would never have gotten the Guggenheim if I had not established myself as a composer at the very least. So I had only that year begun to compose in that way. I had thought about it a lot, and I certainly had gone and worked with Harry Partch. I was trying to make a compromise with what was the right way to do things among academics, which was 12-tone music at that point and was very much dominated by Princeton, even more than the other Ivy Leagues. But I did it in such a way that what I was really doing, as Milton pointed out, was subverting. He looked at what I was doing as subversive. And he said, “You know, nobody can hear those intervals.” And I said, “I can, Milton. Can’t you?”

    FJO: How did he respond to that?

    BJ: He brushed it aside because I was at Princeton at the time. So that was one of those not so friendly moments. There was a mixed relationship there always. But he really respected what I was trying to do, in a certain sense, because he kept asking for my writings for Perspectives. He wouldn’t have done that. He did it through other people sometimes, but it’s clear that it was Milton that was doing it.

    FJO: After your project that never quite happened at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, you never worked again with electronic music and have remained a steadfast advocate of composition for live musicians on standard instruments. Of course, nowadays, everything is electronics, and microtonal intervals seem to be much easier to compose with through the use of electronics, as well as easier to teach to other people that way.

    BJ: I purely didn’t do it for the same reason that if somebody heard you sing, and said you need months of work to get your voice in shape, and you didn’t want to spend the months of work, you don’t sing. It was one of those things I found I had a non-talent for. I mentioned this problem to John Cage when he suggested I work with him. I got to New York and I could see this situation at Columbia-Princeton wasn’t going to work. I could see further, even, that the technology of it was not good enough to do what I needed to be done; it wasn’t precise enough, and it wasn’t going to be any time soon, as I got from talking with Luening and Ussachevsky. I presented this problem to John Cage when he asked how things were going and he said, “Well, I could have told you ahead of time, if you had asked me.”

    He immediately said, “You’re not going to get what you want at Columbia. Whether you could get it at the New School, I don’t know. But it’s too late now. You’re established at Columbia; you have to stay there. You can learn something if you just go into the studio and learn the techniques. Meanwhile, I will offer you free composition lessons once a month where I’m living.” So I used to go up and work with him and I said, “What do you want me to do? I’m not sure I understand how to work in your area.” And he said, “I don’t think you ought to work in my area; I think you’ve found your sense of direction.” And I even asked him, “What in the world made you ever interested in me at all?” And he said, “Well, it was the fact that you went to work with Harry Partch.” And I knew perfectly well that he didn’t even like Harry Partch’s music at all. But he said that it was a nervy kind of thing to do, and he respected it fundamentally. He thought I was finding my sense of direction and did not want to interfere with that, so he said, “Let me help you with the work you are doing.” Which he did very much. He was not teaching me as he taught most of his other students; he was letting me do my own thing, or start to do my own thing and then he was pointing out, “You’re not really doing your own thing yet, are you?” And I had to admit I wasn’t. And said, “Why aren’t you?”

    FJO: You mentioned that you have now stopped composing. Do you feel that you’ve said all that you need to say as a composer?

    BJ: No. I just haven’t had the emotional calm to be able to compose. I’m going through so much—I am in the role of caregiver [for my wife] and I’m trying to be a creative and useful part of this environment. But in doing that, it uses up all my emotional energy, and I just have none left. On the other hand, what I can do, and have been doing, is working directly with the Kepler Quartet on the precise way to deal with realizing all of the string quartets.

    FJO: I imagine the first quartet was originally conceived in equal temperament; is that how they’re going to perform it?

    BJ: That’s right, and they’re going to perform it that way. I thought about it and I even talked about it with John Cage in 1959 when I was working with him and he said, “Of course not. Leave it alone. It is what it is. The only thing you need to do is make sure it is what it is as perfectly as you can make it.” So he criticized it and said that the middle movement doesn’t work; it doesn’t fit with the other movements. “What were you trying to do?” And I told him and he said I had to make that more consistent with the rest of it. He suggested a rewrite. He said it was far too long so the only solution was to make it even longer.

    FJO: That’s so John Cage. I’m so thrilled that the Kepler Quartet and New World Records have taken on this project but I’m still amazed that no one’s ever attempted this before now. Your fourth quartet, which uses the melody of “Amazing Grace,” has been recorded by several groups and has had quite a bit of circulation, but the others are not really well-known. One of them has never even been performed. I think one of the hindrances with these works has been that no one has been able to hear them from just looking at the score. Hopefully having these recordings out will change that.

    BJ: Yeah, I know, I’ve had that a lot. They’ll say, “Oh, this is impossible.” There was one where they said, “He can’t mean this really.” And they just played it however they wanted to. I wasn’t terribly pleased. And when I went to Europe, that’s exactly what I got. They played it their way, and that was that. It was also the case with some quartets that were seriously quite capable of doing this and they didn’t want to bother. And I was, in the beginning, trying to write so that it would be easy. Until Salvatore Martirano stepped in and said, “Look, the reason you’re getting this reaction is that what you’re writing is easy and they say, ‘Oh, that shouldn’t take much rehearsal, so we’ll just sight read it.'” If they had really worked on it, it would not have been easy at all; it would have been quite hard. It’s just that nothing was hard except the intonation. They just left that out.

    FJO: This reminds me of your description in the book about working with the St. Louis Symphony in what turned out to be the last piece of orchestral music you’d ever written.

    BJ: The conductor got a rebellion from the orchestra. They said they weren’t going to play it; the second harpist refused to retune his harp, etc. But then, what [the conductor, Eleazar] De Carvalho did was to invite me up on the stage, and started [rehearsing] the last part. That was a good idea, because out of all this chaos came a kind of order. In the piece I was really trying to portray chaos, the interaction of chaos with order, and finally order winning out. So they realized that at the end you get what really sounded like music to them, so they began to take it seriously.

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