Death of America’s ‘least famous’ best composer

The influential experimentalist Ben Johnston – described by our friend John Rockwell as ‘one of the best non-famous composers this country has to offer’ – is being mourned by the new-music community. Word of his death has been posted by the composers Neely Bruce and Christopher Rouse.

A Georgian by birth, Johnston taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign from 1951 to 1986. A pupil of John Cage, he worked with the experimentalist Harry Partch on building instruments from scrap and tuning them to his own requirements, though using to A=440 as his compass.

His 10 string quartets have all been recorded, along with a small body of orchestral works.

He was an Americal original.

He became a Roman Catholic in 1970 and wrote devotional songs for the Swingle Singers (or so I noted in my Companion to 20th Century Music). He was also prone to borrow, and bend, bedrick American folklore.

Ben Johnston lived 93 years, and then some.

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  • Studied Analysis of Form with him at University of Illinois in 1972. He was a fine teacher and really knew his craft. Very knowledgeable in all periods of music history while composing in micro-tonality.

  • Very sad to hear. He was a much underrated composer. His works should be better known. His string quartets are the most compelling in the genre since Bartok.

      • BENJAMIN B. JOHNSTON-A Celebration of Life
        It is with deeply mixed feelings that the family of Ben Johnston wishes to announce a Celebration of Life in loving memory of this composer, teacher, mentor, Navy veteran, father and grandfather:
        Sunday, September 8, 2-4 p.m.
        Olbrich Botanical Gardens
        http://www.olbrich.org/
        3330 Atwood Ave.
        Madison, Wisconsin

        Light refreshments will be served. Please RSVP by Sunday, September 1 to Michael Mitchell at (608) 846-2860 or propman46@gmail.com; or Ross Johnston on Facebook. In lieu of flowers, the family request that any memorials or tributes be made to the Ben Johnston Microtonal Scholarship at the Boston Conservatory of Music at Berklee, emeny@bostonconservatory.edu . ◊

    • BENJAMIN B. JOHNSTON-A Celebration of Life
      It is with deeply mixed feelings that the family of Ben Johnston wishes to announce a Celebration of Life in loving memory of this composer, teacher, mentor, Navy veteran, father and grandfather:
      Sunday, September 8, 2-4 p.m.
      Olbrich Botanical Gardens
      http://www.olbrich.org/
      3330 Atwood Ave.
      Madison, Wisconsin

      Light refreshments will be served. Please RSVP by Sunday, September 1 to Michael Mitchell at (608) 846-2860 or propman46@gmail.com; or Ross Johnston on Facebook. In lieu of flowers, the family request that any memorials or tributes be made to the Ben Johnston Microtonal Scholarship at the Boston Conservatory of Music at Berklee, emeny@bostonconservatory.edu . ◊

  • The Kepler Quartet which recorded all 10 of Johnston’s quartets is essentially of Milwaukee origin as the players are or were affiliated with Present Music, a Milwaukee new-music ensemble which tackles and often commissions some difficult stuff. If there is a Johnston quartet which is “popular” I’d say it is #4 which leans on the famous hymn Amazing Grace, but decidedly NOT in a “Virgil Thomson” way, as you’ll hear. I’d start there if you want to get to know this music. Just don’t assume the other 9 are more of the same …

    • Thanks for the recommendation: I’m listening to No. 4 right now. The variations are thrilling and deeply moving.

  • Oh, lord, not again. Music writers who are not musicians vaunting the least of musicians as if they are special. Give us a break. John Cage was the opposite of a composer once he adopted chance. Just a gimmick seeker. Sad. Meanwhile, the real composers go neglected and forgotten.

      • BENJAMIN B. JOHNSTON-A Celebration of Life
        It is with deeply mixed feelings that the family of Ben Johnston wishes to announce a Celebration of Life in loving memory of this composer, teacher, mentor, Navy veteran, father and grandfather:
        Sunday, September 8, 2-4 p.m.
        Olbrich Botanical Gardens
        http://www.olbrich.org/
        3330 Atwood Ave.
        Madison, Wisconsin

        Light refreshments will be served. Please RSVP by Sunday, September 1 to Michael Mitchell at (608) 846-2860 or propman46@gmail.com; or Ross Johnston on Facebook. In lieu of flowers, the family request that any memorials or tributes be made to the Ben Johnston Microtonal Scholarship at the Boston Conservatory of Music at Berklee, emeny@bostonconservatory.edu . ◊

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