Posts Tagged: Ben Johnston

Sep 16

Disparate styles?

The program for our upcoming performance at Gettysburg College has been chosen with the aim of illustrating a broad range of styles, and combinations of the four voices we’ll be bringing (Charlotte Mundy, soprano; Elisa Sutherland, mezzo; Tomás Cruz, tenor; and me, baritone). While a potpourri of differences can be refreshing, I always find the commonalities lurking behind seemingly disparate elements to be more interesting.

I’d like to take as an example two of the quartets we’ll be featuring: Milton Babbitt’s Three Cultivated Choruses, and Ben Johnston’s Rose. At first glance, even the pairing of the composers seems as diametrically opposed as you could find. Johnston’s work has a regular rhythmic pulse, ringing consonant harmonies, scale-wise melodies, and traditional phrase shapes. Babbitt’s choruses, on the other hand, have complex aperiodic rhythms, rapidly changing harmonies, and fragmented melodic leaps.

Of course this is a terrible oversimplification and a simplistic view of both pieces.

Ben Johnston’s harmonic language results in clear, ringing chords, but it is built on a complex theoretical structure related to the composer’s formative work as assistant to the grandfather of American microtonality, Harry Partch. For a primer in Just Intonation, see our earlier post here. Johnston’s music is built on tuning relationships defined by the overtone series. To put it simply (or at least briefly), each prime number partial over a given fundamental gives us a new kind of interval. The 3rd partial supplies us with perfect fifths, the 5th partial with just major thirds, the 7th partial with the natural horn or barbershop seventh, and the 11th with a tritone a quarter step low. Johnston’s octet Sonnets of Desolation uses all eight voices singing in huge stacked chords using all of these overtones together, to create a rich and impressive sound. His earlier work Rose is in its own way a more radical theoretical exercise in tuning, despite sounding a bit like a folky Renaissance piece. It is entirely based around the 3rd and 7th partial, totally omitting the 5th, and thereby omitting any just minor or major thirds (6:5 and 5:4). In my correspondence with the composer he explained to me that the lack of 5th partial relationships in the piece was actually conceived as a kind of aesthetic rejoinder to fellow composer La Monte Young, who habitually employs far higher partial relationships than Johnston, but always skips the 5th. I find it funny that what was originally planned as a proof for the inviability of a certain harmonic approach actually shows it off quite beautifully.

Milton Babbitt’s Three Cultivated Choruses is an entirely different beast. While the harmonies fly by and are constantly changing, they are built from remarkably simple and repetitive structures in each voice. The very first thing we hear in the piece is the soprano singing an ascending Ab minor triad, and sure enough, both the soprano and mezzo sing nothing but arpeggiated triads throughout the rest of the movement. The first bass entrance is D3, E3, A2, echoing a traditional root position IV V I progression. The tenor and bass sing only this chord and its inversions throughout the first movement. Despite the extraordinarily traditional building blocks, Babbitt combines the lines to form a rich variety of harmonies, ranging from root position triads to astringent dissonances.

I think Babbitt and Johnston are in a way both ‘maximalist’ composers, when it comes to harmony. Johnston uses Just Intonation to seek out both perfect consonances and more intense dissonances, and Babbitt’s rigorous combinatorial approach leads to an incredible variety of harmonic possibilities. They are both musical explorers, seeking out new modes of expression, and working tirelessly on lifelong personal projects.

Sep 16

Ekmeles at Gettysburg College

3 Angels

Ekmeles travels to Gettysburg College for a residency, culminating in a concert performance featuring contemporary favorites for one to four voices.

  • John Cage – Four Solos for Voice (1988)
  • Kaija Saariaho – From the Grammar of Dreams (1988)
  • Milton Babbitt – Three Cultivated Choruses (1987)
  • Giacinto Scelsi – Le Grand Sanctuaire (1970)
  • Ben Johnston – Rose (1971)
  • Liza Lim – 3 Angels (2011)
  • James Tenney – Hey When I Sing These 4 Songs Hey Look What Happens (1971)
  • Vykintas Baltakas – Instruktionen zur Durchführung… (2007) U.S. Premiere

Ekmeles personnel for concert

Dec 14

American Composers

Ekmeles performs works by U.S. and Canadian composers for four to eight singers

  • Ben Johnston – Sonnets of Desolation (1981)
  • John Cage – Five (1988)
  • Evan Johnson – vo mesurando (2012) U.S. Premiere
  • James Tenney – A Rose is a Rose is a Round (1970)
  • James Tenney – Hey When I Sing These 4 Songs Hey Look What Happens (1971)
  • Matthew Ricketts – Women Well Met (2013)
  • Andrew Waggoner – … that human dream (2014) World Premiere
  • Aaron Cassidy – A Painter of Figures in Rooms (2011-2012)

Ekmeles’s season is supported by New Music USA’s Cary Fund For New Music Performance Fund, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, and the Amphion Foundation.

Personnel for concert

Jan 13

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.

Oct 12


Ekmeles performs works by living American composers at Roulette as part of the 24th season of the Interpretations series. Preceding the performance will be a 7:30PM talk with Bryan Jacobs, Evan Johnson, Louis Karchin, and Ken Ueno. Following the Ekmeles set at 8PM will be a performance by the Pheeroan akLaff Ensemble.

  • Louis Karchin – To the Sun
  • Louis Karchin – To the Stars (Premiere of new arrangement for Ekmeles)
  • Aaron Cassidy – I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips
  • Ben Johnston – I’m goin’ away
  • Ben Johnston – Rose
  • Ken Ueno – Shiroi Ishi
  • Evan Johnson – Three in, ad abundantiam (US Premiere)
  • Bryan Jacobs – Do You Need, Do To Me, 18 Me, 18 Mean

Personnel for concert

This concert supported by a grant from the The Aaron Copland Fund for Music.

Apr 11

Just Intonation

Just Intonation is the tuning of pitches related by whole number ratios. The following will serve as a brief overview and introduction to the system’s theory and practice. The harmonic series is a good place to start when discussing Just Intonation (henceforth JI).

A harmonic series on low C

Partial numbers inside the staff, frequencies below

From a fundamental frequency (here the low C at ~65.4 Hz), the harmonic series ascends in multiples. If we refer to the partials of the tone, rather than the overtones, we can more easily see the math behind the present frequencies. Numbering the fundamental frequency as the 1st partial, the 2nd multiplies the frequency by 2, the 3rd partial by 3, ad infinitum. What does all this have to do with JI? JI deals in tuning intervals by simple whole number frequency ratios, and since we have demonstrated that the number of a partial is a multiplier of the fundamental frequency, we can use the harmonic series to find the intervals of these ratios. 2/1 is an octave, 3/2 the perfect fifth, 4/3 the perfect 4th, 5/4 the major third, 6/5 the minor third. What is significant about these intervals is that they deviate from the tempered intervals one finds on the modern piano. The simpler ratios sound beatless, and ‘pure’. If you are a choral singer or brass player, you probably are already used to finding this beatless sound by tuning wider fifths and lower thirds and sevenths in chords.

JI systems are sometimes referred to as “x-limit” systems, where x is some prime number. For example, a 5-limit system includes no prime numbers higher than 5 in any ratios, allowing for pure major thirds, but not true septimal or 7-limit consonances. 3-limit tuning is often referred to as Pythagorean tuning, and is composed entirely of just fifths. 5-limit tuning can approximate the major-minor system of Western music very well.

A few notable composers using JI

Americans: Ben Johnston, Harry Partch, LaMonte Young, James Tenney. Europeans: Gérard Grisey, Georg Friedrich Haas, György Ligeti. This is of course, no exhaustive list of composers, but a guide for the novice to what might be more familiar music, and an easier entry into the system. For a further discussion of the motivation to use JI, see Colin Holter’s fantastic paper “The Spiritual Construction of Tuning in American Experimental Music” at the Search Journal.

Notation of JI

The notation of JI varies depending on the composer and the circumstances. Ligeti often notated JI intervals simply by the fundamental on which the horn was to play (as in his last work, Hamburg Concerto). James Tenney sometimes notated JI intervals by writing cents deviation from ET. Perhaps the most exhaustive and most widely embraced system yet devised is Ben Johnston’s. Beginning from the assumption that the C Major scale is to be built from interlocking C F and G major triads, all tuned 6:5:4, Johnson introduces novel accidentals to shift these notes to different relationships. For example, in his C major scale, the supertonic D is ~4 cents higher than ET, while the A is ~16 cents low. If we are to use a properly tuned triad based on D, this requires an accidental to raise the A approximately 21 cents, Johnston’s +. Alternately, the D could be lowered, using -. The interval expressed by + or – is called the syntonic comma (81:80), and is the difference between a Pythagorean (or 3-limit) major third (81:64) and a 5:4 (5-limit) major third. Johnston’s system of accidentals continues similarly, with each successive accidental expressing a kind of fundamental shift related to a higher prime ratio.

Learning JI

Just Intonation tunings appear in traditional drone-based musics, like North-Indian Classical music, and can be easily practiced over a drone. If you play any string instrument, you can accompany yourself with a drone for practice, use a recording of a tambura, or even an electronic tone (preferably one rich in harmonics). Singing a just interval correctly feels ‘anchored’ in the fundamental tone and its harmonic spectrum. Aside from going by feel, if you are a string player of any kind you can also use the open harmonics of a string to learn simple just intervals. Being a computer enthusiast, I prefer to practice my microtones with the aid of software. Rote learning is the basis of the oral traditions that function within a JI framework, and is an indispensable tool. I use a program called Scordatura for the playback of JI microtones, and it is extremely flexible. Using CSE, a companion program to Scordatura, I can designate tunings wholly via ratio from any given fundamental at any tuning. It has made the task as simple as entering ratios in scalar order, and assigning them to keys on my midi keyboard. From this point on, I work by transcribing the pitch notation of the score to the re-mapped microtones of the midi keyboard (one octave of pitch extended over more than 4 octaves of keyboard (!) in my most recent JI undertaking, Johnston’s arrangement of Partch’s Barstow). I have a similar setup prepared for learning the tuning of Randy Gibson‘s upcoming work for ekmeles.

Of course, this is but a simplified overview – there are manifold internet resources for learning more about JI theory and practice. I’m happy to address questions or requests for elaboration on any of these points (and to accept corrections from those more deeply involved in JI than I). But if you’re interested, I would recommend as a first step getting your hands on a CD – or better yet, attending a concert – featuring JI music and hearing the difference a few cents here or there can make! Ben Johnston’s fourth String Quartet is a melodic and beautifully lucid introduction to JI.