Ben Johnston

This Thursday, we’ll be singing a program of music by living American composers at Roulette. I’m especially excited to be presenting a few short pieces by Ben Johnston, a composer whose music fits our mission of performing music that would otherwise go unperformed. Despite being earlier works in Ben Johnston’s exploration of just intonation, both his I’m goin’ away and Rose present special difficulties to the performer. In rejecting the equal tempered tuning of the piano as an acoustical falsehood, Johnston expands both the consonances and dissonances available. The 3-limit consonances of 3:2 perfect fifths, and 5-limit consonances of 5:4 major and 6:5 minor thirds are familiar to the ear of a seasoned choral performer, but Johnston’s systematic exploration of pitch space requires a specificity and fidelity to exact intonation that eclipses most music. To complicate matters, both of the works we will be performing include 7-limit intervals, including the 7:4 or ‘natural’ minor seventh, and the septimal 7:6 third. Whereas tuning compromises are made quickly and in passing in most music—especially unaccompanied vocal music—Johnston has accounted for every pitch relationship and every adjustment to be made. It’s a dramatic raising of the stakes, requiring a new kind of precision from performers who need to sing or play not just an F, but the F. In this way, Ben Johnston is a most uncompromising composer, a composer of absolutes. You can hear a sample of his vocal writing below in his Sonnets of Desolation, sung by the Swingle Singers.

Tags: , , ,

Leave a comment