Recently elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters at the age of 92, Ben Johnston is taking some time to reflect on his life’s work. As a composer who radically pushed the expressive possibilities of non-tempered harmony for over six decades, Johnston holds an important position in 20th-century American music, bridging the gap between Harry Partch’s explorations and centuries-old Western instrumental forms. Johnston spoke to me, with family at his side, from his home in Madison, Wisconsin, where he is battling the late-stage effects of Parkinson’s disease.

Ben Johnston • Photo © Jon Roy
Ben Johnston • Photo © Jon Roy

VAN: What has it meant to you personally to be elected as a new member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters at this late stage in your life?

Ben Johnston: Well, I never expected it. I care about the things that are valued by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but I have always been in the background for those kinds of organizations. But they are definitely a part of my valuation of the role of contemporary music in American 20th century history. So from that angle it’s like a realization, not so much of a dream, but of a thought. That is to say, I care about the issues that they support, even though I didn’t always agree with what was being done.

Have you ever felt overlooked in the American contemporary music scene?

No. I always felt like a person who was on half-time pay because I was sort of half in this thing to begin with. When I first got a job [at the University of Illinois], I was in the dance department accompanying recitals on the piano. I went to all the dance classes because it was the only way I could get any exercise [laughs]! The classes really were quite physically demanding because it was the days of modern dance and it was a great deal more aggressive. I was hired partly because I did a lot of accompanying of dance and they wanted somebody who had that experience. So I started as a piano teacher who accompanied dance classes. The other half of my job description was that I was a teacher of ear-training.

Looking back all those years, what gave you the drive as a young man to seek out alternative, non-equal-tempered pitch systems?

I can’t remember all the events that went into it, because it was a major transition in my musical life. But I remember asking myself, “What ever happened to harmony?” Harmony was valued very highly in my thinking and it was a tangible loss to feel when it was under-emphasized. Working with harmony for me at that time was like opening a door in a building where most of the doors were shut.

Did you see yourself as being rebellious at the time?

I liked the attitude of people who thought Claude Debussy was a rascal in the area of harmony—that his use of harmony was his most important contribution. I don’t know whether they’re right about it from a musicological standpoint, but for me they were right about it from the composer’s standpoint. It was the harmony that drew me to Debussy’s music. I mean there was an attitude of the time, when I was young, and I don’t necessarily remember clearly, but I know that seeking out these new harmonic possibilities was not just me being a student and stamping my foot at what I considered a wrong opinion.

Did you know back then that what you were doing with pitch and harmony was so radical?

I didn’t know at that time, but I suppose it certainly was. And it had to do with the whole question of consonance and dissonance: how and why? I was openly asking, “If you want a dissonant effect, why?” If you wanted to answer that, you had to enter into controversy because it had become an emotional issue for a lot of people of the time.

I’m curious what you thought when you first encountered the music of Giacinto Scelsi—a composer who seems to share your harmonic sensibilities but from a very different angle.

I got a lot out of just listening to what was available on tape. I listened to everything I could get my hands on and I was influenced by what I heard. But I don’t think it was a conscious influence. I was like an athlete of one sport admiring a different sport.

When people talk about your music, they often focus on your ten monumental string quartets. I’d be interested to hear about your less often discussed, but no less monumental “Quintet for Groups” for large orchestra—one of your few orchestral works—and a piece that won the Orchesterpreis at the Donaueschingen Musiktage only 10 years ago.

It was commissioned by Eleazar de Carvalho and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra back in the mid-1960s. I was very much interested at that time in writing music that used many layers of material for different groups, including multiple simultaneous tempi. And in the piece, I was actually being quite critical—I was saying to Stockhausen about his work “Gruppen,” “Shut up and do something!” He was late in writing “Gruppen”…

Ben Johnston, “Quintet for Groups”; Sylvain Cambreling (Conductor), SWR Sinfonieorchester

What do you mean?

He was talking about his ideas on a work for divided orchestra in Die Reihe but was slow to actually do it in his music.

So I take it you weren’t a big fan of Stockhausen and his writings?

No, he was too political.

Had you written other pieces that had played with multiple simultaneous tempi?

The first example of it in a large piece was “Quintet for Groups,” but there are also some smaller pieces—that I have since forgotten—where there were aspects of this.

Aside from the writings of Stockhausen were you in dialogue with other people’s ideas while composing “Quintet for Groups?”

The person whom I was constantly in touch with over it was Milton Babbitt. And that was remarkable. It was his Koussevitzky assignment—the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra would look to him for its new repertoire. I certainly wasn’t trying to change that. I didn’t even know that when I was first approached by Eleazar de Carvalho about writing a piece for them!

So you and Milton Babbitt were friends? What an unlikely pairing…

Milton was a rival, a friend, and a critic. But I returned it to some extent. In other words, I wasn’t passive about his critiques. We had, I would say, a very fruitful relationship. We would talk on the telephone. You know, working for a university on a level that both of us were, you can do that—you can make a call and get things done. But I think Milton was one of the strongest influences on my way of doing things. I didn’t always adopt his way of doing it. It’s just that he was a person who I found it most awakening to talk with about what technical things were interesting to me at the time, or what was interesting him.

Do you still listen to music?

Yes, now more than ever!

What are you listening to?

Right now I’m listening to a lot of new popular music by Black artists. I have some people who I know who are involved in that and I find that it’s a serious involvement. And it’s really different from other music I’ve heard. I mean it has its own characteristics, and other groups within its community doing similar things.

Do you know the names of the artists you’ve been listening to?

Regretfully no. I just know that I heard music that I like, that had a new set of characteristics.

And where are you encountering this music?

I belong to [The Colonial Club] where we look at each other’s music. It’s a senior center here in Madison, but there’s a lot of interest in new art. That’s how I got involved.

What do you think when you look back on your musical life, the legacy you’ll leave behind for future generations?

I have two types of reaction. One is: “I did that?” and the other is “I did that.”

When you say “I did that?” as a question, are you saying that you’re pleasantly surprised by your early works?

It’s not so much surprise or astonishment, but more of an implied self-criticism—it’s more of, “How could I ever forget it?” ¶