Ben Johnston (1926-2019)

Ben Johnston, the American composer known for employing just intonation (even spacing of 12 notes within an octave) and producing works with numerous microtones (the near-infinity of tones spaced between the notes of the even-tempered scale), has died at 93.

Johnston was once described by The New York Times critic John Rockwell as “one of the best non-famous composers this country has to offer.”

Johnston, born in Macon, GA, grew up in Richmond (his father was my father’s boss at the Richmond Times-Dispatch), and earned degrees from the College of William and Mary and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He also studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College and with American avant-gardists Harry Partch and John Cage.

Johnston taught composition, music theory and acoustics at the University of Illinois at Urbanna-Champaign for 35 years. After his retirement from the university in 1986, he continued teaching composition privately.

His most important works are 10 string quartets, in styles ranging from serial to microtonal to minimalist; the best-known of them is the Quartet No. 4, which features variations on the old hymn tune “Amazing Grace.” Among his other compositions are “Quintet for Groups,” for which he was awarded the Orchesterpreis der Donaueschingen Musiktage in Germany in 2008; “Sonnets of Desolation,” commissioned by the Swingle Singers; incidental music for Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” as staged by the LaMaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York; and a sonata and suite for microtonal piano.

Johnston won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959 and an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his book “Maximum Clarity” in 2007.

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