Microtonal  Composer  Ben  Johnston
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Ben Johnston was born in 1926 in Macon, Georgia. He attended the College of William and Mary and Cincinnati Conservatory, later studying with Harry Partch, Darius Milhaud, and John Cage. Johnston taught composition and theory at the University of Illinois from 1951 to 1983. Works include Quintet for Groups, Sonnets of Desolation, Carmilla, Sonata for Microtonal Piano, and Suite for Microtonal Piano, and ten string quartets to date. All ten quartets will soon be released in a series of three recordings by the Kepler Quartet (New World Recordings). Awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a grant from the National Council on the Arts and the Humanities, and two commissions from the Smithsonian Institute. In 2006, Johnston moved to Wisconsin in order to better care for his wife, Betty Hall Johnston, who was seriously ill. Since her death in 2007, he has continued to rehearse intensively with the Kepler Quartet. He is a member of ASCAP and received the Deems Taylor Award in 2007. His Quintet for Groups was awarded the SWR Orchestra prize at the 2008 Donaueschinger Musiktage.

Much contemporary music is difficult for many listeners to get into, and in the Classical Music field, this problem is accentuated multi-fold.  Being on the cutting edge or just making explorations will leave most of the public out in the cold, at least until the new ideas have been demonstrated and digested.  Doing this in the brief space of a single concert
or even a series of concerts — cannot begin to illuminate the wonders and glories of new ideas, if indeed there are any to be found!

Add to all of this the wrenching change in musical language that comes with microtones, and you have got perhaps the thorniest and most difficult arena into which one can venture.  My guest, Ben Johnston, has done just that, so if he is not as well-known as others, he is certainly an outstanding proponent of his discoveries and creations.

His catalogue includes string quartets and other chamber pieces, as well as larger works and items for re-tuned piano.

We had spoken a few times on the telephone, and finally found a convenient time and place to get together for an interview.  He was in Chicago to give the keynote address at a symposium, so we took the opportunity to meet before everything got going.

Bruce Duffie:    Tell me about writing microtonal music.  Why aren’t you satisfied with twelve tones?

partchBen Johnston:    [Laughs]  Actually, that wasn’t why I started doing it.  When I first started composing, I spent about ten years not doing that.  I was writing music as everybody else writes it, more or less.  That was in the fifties.  In 1949 and ‘50 I went out to California and worked for six months with Harry Partch [photo at right].  It was going to be a whole year, but he got ill and closed up his studio.  So I went to Mills and studied with Milhaud for the balance of the year.  Then I got a job at the University of Illinois, and within a few years we brought Partch there and did some of his large works.  I was involved very heavily in the business end of the production of The Bewitched, but not in subsequent productions.  That was atypical of me, and they were sponsored not by music but by theater, and later by the student groups.  He was around in this area, including Chicago.  He was living in Evanston for a while and did a film with Madeline Tourtelot during the late fifties or early sixties, but he went back to California where he stayed the rest of his life.  This was a fruitful period for him, being in this part of the country.  I don’t think he liked it terribly well; he likes the west, but it was fascinating to have him around.  So all during that period I was exposed to something.  The reason I went to study with him was because a musicologist told me
after we had a discussion about how music theory wasn’t based on acoustics, and I was objecting that it ought to be and that it wasn’the said, “I have a book you should read,” and gave me Genesis of a Music.  So I read it, and then I wrote to the publisher and they forwarded the letterwhich they won’t always do, but it was a friend of his.  So she forwarded the letter to him and we corresponded for a while.  I realized rather quickly that I couldn’t get very far without really being there and hearing what was going on; that if I tried to do it myself, I would probably come to grief, and I think I would have.  It’s just too difficult and too expensive, and too a lot of things.  So I went out there, and that was the beginning of my active interest in that kind of thing.  But as I suggested, I had become fascinated by the fact that music wasn’t in tune.  I got that first by just hearing that it wasn’t on the piano.

BD:    At that point, were they were attempting to be in tune?

BJ:    Well, not really.  Temperament is what it is; it’s a compromise.  It’s a rather good compromise, but still, if you listen closely, it’s just not.  It lacks something.  I had heard choral singing
especially madrigal-type choral singing and very good string quartet playingwhich is in tune, where people do take the trouble, and I wanted to know what the difference was.  So I read up on it and I began to be very dissatisfied with the way people were making music.  It was this question of being properly in tune that got me into it, not the idea of a lot of notes, and certainly not the idea of small intervals.  When I began to deal with Partch, he was using small intervals to represent the inflections of speaking voice, the melodies of a spoken line.

BD:    With the rise and fall and everything?

BJ:    Everything was without any exaggeration, as it is when you set it to recitative, or even to any kind of traditional vocal setting.  This naturalism interested me quite a lot, not so much because it was naturalistic, but because it was so precise.  And it did, indeed, sound the way he sounded when he spoke. He had put his own vocal inflections into those melodies, and there they were notated.  This interested me quite a lot.  I think that probably my first fascination with microtones came about through that particular application.  I was not as interested in the harmonies and the unusual scales that Partch was dealing with in a purely musical sense.  His approach to music was so alien to me!  I had a lot of respect for it, but it was really not something that I would ever do.

BD:    Did you follow a whole new system of notation, or did you use Partch’s notation?

BJ:    I didn’t use Partch’s notation because it is largely tablature.  He tells you what to do to the instrument, not what’s going to sound.  So if you don’t know the instrument
which is almost impossible since they’re privately made and owned, and there’s only one of eachthis is just hopelessly difficult to understand.  So I thought, No, that is not a solution.  I had to invent a notation, but I didn’t do that until well over ten years later.  I started doing it after I had established myself well enough that people would take me seriously as a composer.  At first it was locally, at the University of Illinois, where there were maybe three or four peopleJohn Garvey, who was at that time the violist of the Whirlwind Quartet and the Director of the Festival of Contemporary Arts; Claire Richards, who was a pianist; and George Hunter, who was the leader of the Collegium Musicum.  I was fascinated by what George was doing because he was so careful with the intonation.  I was aware that what was happening was exactly what I had been interested in, so there was sort of a distant connection there.  He was not at all interested in applications I talked about making.

BD:    Have you got absolute pitch?

BJ:    Yes, but this doesn’t help.  In fact, it hinders.  Absolute pitch is simply a very good tonal memory, and if you are synched into it too well, then you know where A is, and you’re impatient with any other A, which in most music really not the case because, as you know, A moves.

BD:    From orchestra to orchestra it’ll move.

BJ:    Oh yeah, and not only that, but within a piece.  So it’s just not feasible to do it that way.  I found that I had absolute pitch in Partch’s system by the time I was through working with him, so I could say, “That’s a 16/11 ratio.”  I knew that note, and what it did was to focus me on a very, very careful cultivation of relative pitch.  I worked very hard during all that time with that sort of thing.  Then when I got into writing, my first idea was that I’d do it all electronically, because Lejaren Hiller was just beginning to found the University of Illinois Electronic Music Studio.  There wasn’t one anywhere in the United States then, not even Columbia-Princeton.  He started it down there.  Columbia-Princeton got off to a much bigger start than Hiller did because they had a lot of grant money and he didn’t, but he actually did beat them to it.  So I thought that’s the way to do it.

johnstonBD:    With electronics, you had absolute control over everything?

BJ:    Yeah, and you don’t have to worry about training the players.  I went to Columbia-Princeton the year before they opened.  They let me do it because it was the only year I had free, and it was a sabbatical year.  I got a Guggenheim Fellowship, and I found out within a week that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, because the instruments simply weren’t subtle enough.

BD:    You were ahead of the technology then?

BJ:    Yeah.  You need digital technology.  I could do it beautifully now on a computer.

BD:    Would you go back to it now?

BJ:    Not really, because I got so fascinated when I was forced to do it.  There are three possibilities.  You either build a whole set of new instruments, the way Partch did, and go that route.  I knew what was involved in that and it terrified me.  I don’t have the right talents.  So then I thought about the electronic thing, and I discovered that technology wasn’t equal to the task.  The only thing left was to take ordinary musicians and persuade them to do this, and somehow enable them to do this.  So I went that route.  I got so fascinated in that problem that I never really wanted to go away from it.  The idea is finding people who understand what it is to play a Mozart quartet and have it really sound in tune, and then extend that.  Extrapolate that and ask, “What is it to play some much more complicated music really in tune?  Exactly what happens?  Down to fine points, what happens to the pitch?
   I began analyzing things with that in mind.  The first thing I did was to re-tune a piano.  I had an elaborately tuned piano with eighty-one different notes on it — eighty-one different pitch classes.  There were only seven notes that had any octave equivalent, and each of them had only one.  So it was really very hard to train my ear to that.

BD:    Did you ever invite someone to sit down at this instrument and play some Chopin?

BJ:    Oh, sure.  That was a bad joke from the beginning, but it was horrifying sounding to play anything on it except just exactly what it was designed for.  I wrote the Microtonal Piano Sonata for that during that early period, and I wrote the Second String Quartet.

BD:    Is it possible to play that microtonal sonata on any other instrument than that specific one?

BJ:    You can take any piano and re-tune it, but you can imagine how hard it is because you don’t have any octaves.  You’re tuning fifths and thirds.

BD:    You have to tune every string, then, to a strobe?

BJ:    That would be one way.  When the recording was done in New York, they took very great pains and the Scalatron people were involved.  They had their tuner there and they did it that way.  But that was later.  The piece was written for Claire Richards, who was my piano teacher.  She was quite interested in what I was doing, although she said she didn’t see why I did it.  The idea of writing a quartet came about because I had written the First String Quartet, which is a twelve-tone piece.  It was written for the Walden Quartet, Garvey being one of the players.  They played it in New York and the tape of it was heard by the LaSalle Quartet.  They liked it very much and said they wanted to play it.  I like their performance of it better than the Walden.  It was a very good performance and they said, “We want you to write us a piece.”  After three years, the sonata was too oppressive to me and I couldn’t get it done.  So I stopped and wrote the quartet in about a month.  That Second String Quartet was never played by them.  They didn’t like it.  They didn’t like what I was doing.  They didn’t want to try to do it.  They rejected the whole thing.  Through Salvatore Martirano, I was put in touch with the Composer’s Quartet who did want to play it, and ultimately they are the ones who recorded it.  But that’s how this all got started.

BD:    Are you still working with microtones?

BJ:    Yes.

BD:    Do you think it’s still the way to go?

BJ:    It’s the way I want to go.  I still think that music sounds better when it’s played in tune.

BD:    Your tuning or anyone else’s?

johnstonBJ:    I’m really not much interested for myself.  I would never do what Easley Blackwood has done.  [See my Interview with Easley Blackwood.]  What Easley does is to take all the different possibilities of temperament, any number of notes up to fifty or even beyond.  But he’s got some pieces that do explore the possibilities of all those different temperaments.  To me, they’re all out of tune.  I’m not particularly enamored of it, although I can enjoy out-of-tune music.  It’s like anything else, like listening to the prepared piano, which is not a normal piano.  It’s different every time you do it because every piano is different, and every screw is different, for heaven’s sakes!  Introducing indeterminacy like that doesn’t disturb me, but I’m not interested in it intellectually, and I do feel that it doesn’t have as much emotional power as really in-tune music, because that’s what happens.  When those vibrations are exactly synched, the expressive potential of whatever it is you’ve got in the music is heightened greatly, and that is very interesting to me.  I have gotten to where I count on that, and I don’t like the idea of writing other music.  I have done other things, such as when LaMaMa, E.T.C., the off-off Broadway Company
Ellen Stewart’s groupwanted a piece.  They commissioned me, and I knew there was no point in writing a micro-tonal or a re-tuned anything for them.

BD:    Just very conventional stuff?

BJ:    Yeah, I would have to.  So that was a very different thing, and I like the piece.  It turned out well.  It’s recorded, and it’s called Carmilla.

BD:    When you write some music, what do you expect of the audience that comes to hear either an old piece or a new piece?

BJ:    I don’t care whether they know that there’s anything funny about the tuning, and often they don’t.  Most people listening to String Quartet #4, which is the one the Kronos Quartet played here recently, don’t know that there’s anything odd about that piece.  You would have to look at the score to see, because it sounds in tune and that’s all there is to it.  There’s some blues inflections, and they’re not done by the seat of your pants, so to speak; they’re notated.  What I did was to figure out what blues artists were doing.  It involves the seventh partial relationships, which apparently were there all along in African folk music.  That’s probably where it came from, and got into American blues that way.  It’s a very characteristic sound, so I used that and people are aware of that, but it’s not any more so than half a dozen other composers you could name, including Gershwin.

BD:    Then are you a creator or a reflector?

BJ:    I don’t care.  It doesn’t seem very important to me.  Insofar as I have used eclectic style content, it’s been in order to prove how different each of those things sounds when it’s treated this way
which is a rather different motivation from what one usually has.  For example, during the fifties, under the influence of Milhaudwho was after all my teacherI was writing neoclassic music like a lot of people were, a lot like Stravinsky in many cases.  That music had a sort of double intention.  It was to reflect the past, and at the same time, the present.  Later I came back to some of those intentions, especially in the Suite, which is the piece they’re going to play at ASUC [American Society of University Composers] this year.  That is a piece which is deliberately very eclectic, and it’s very neoclassic.  The last movement is a sort of homage to Milhaud.  It’s very Milhaud, but with a difference because this thing is tuned to the overtones between the 16th and the 32nd partial.  So an octave is twelve of those partials, rather than a normal octave.  It’s very strange if you play it, like if you tried to play Bach on it or anything like that.  On the other hand, composing for it I can make it sound extremely normal, which most of the piece does.  Yet every now and then, something very strange happens.  I’ve got a blues movement in that, too, because some of the relationships are available and also sound like blues.  This is a kind of scatter-shot way of getting at the whole thing, but to try to really center on what you asked me, I feel that what I’m doing in one aspect is trying to prove the worth of a new discovery.  It’s not a new discovery, it’s really an old discovery.  It’s like saying people used to grow food this way, and it’s better than the way we’ve been doing it.  People used to tune music this way, and it’s better.  If you build on that, you can get something which is very much more contemporary-sounding than all the twelve-tone music you could ask for.  It’s much more dissonant than anything that any of these hyper-dissonant composers ever wrote, if you want it to be.

BD:    Are you going for dissonance?

BJ:    Occasionally.  The middle movement of the Suite is called Etude and it sounds like Iannis Xenakis.  [See my Interview wih Iannis Xenakis.]  It’s hyper-dissonant, but it is a twelve-tone piece, which Xenakis is not.  He doesn’t write twelve-tone.  It is certainly atonal.  It’s an atonal treatment of those partials, and it’s a lot more dissonant than an atonal treatment of the twelve notes we usually use.  As Partch said, “Not only consonance, but also dissonance is heightened,” and people forget that.  So I can do very dissonant stuff as I please.

BD:    Coming back to my question, then, what do you expect of the audience?

BJ:    I like them to respond with a powerful, affective reaction to what I’ve done.  That isn’t asking something of them, that’s asking something of me
that I should produce that reaction in the audience.  I also want them to accept the music readily, but the more they listen to it, I would want it to be more interesting.  A lot of effort goes into what has traditionally been called the art that conceals art, the effort to make it extremely complex but to sound extremely simple.  String Quartet #4 is a good example of that, but it’s actually an extremely complex piece.  There is an analysis of it in Perspectives of New Music that’ll curl your hair, but the piece is immediately accessible.  It sounds like Aaron Copland; you can get to it instantly, and that combination pleases me.  That complexity underneath means the more you listen to it, the more there is to find.  It’s like the difference between reading a murder mystery by no matter who, and reading Crime and Punishment.

BD:    Do you always strive to write Crime and Punishment?

BJ:    Yeah, if possible.

BD:    Is there any entertainment in your music at all?

BJ:    Yeah.  Sure.

BD:    Where is the balance, then, between the artistic creation and the entertaining creation?

BJ:    I don’t find that there’s any need to make that distinction.  For example, in writing Carmilla, which is a rock opera — it isn’t really a rock opera, but it’s the nearest I could get to one, not knowing anything at all about rock music
— but it is deliberately playing upon people’s most vulnerable musical taste.  It ingratiates itself with you, and it does this in order to get hold of your guts and squeeze and wrench because it’s a very violent story about vampires.  It takes the idea very seriously, so that you begin to get the feeling that this is really about some kind of sex perversion, and it’s very unsettling.  The whole point there is to do what the vampire doesto seduce, not rape.  This approach, without the melodrama, which of course that is, is ingredient in just about everything I do.  The idea is to get to people, in order to say something that I want to say, whatever that is.  Sometimes it’s totally nonverbal.  I really couldn’t tell you what I said, but I do know that I wanted to say it, and that it is different from anything else I ever tried to say or, for that matter, different than anybody else that I also look at musically.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How has what you’re trying to say changed in the last ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years?

johnstonBJ:    In about 1970 a lot of things happened.  I had a very big health crisis, which I needn’t go into in detail, but it was very frightening and it turned out well.  I didn’t suddenly discover that I was dying or something like that, but it was as bad as that, and it really frightened me.  I really didn’t know for a year or for a couple of years whether I would make it through or not.  During the time I was writing Carmilla, which may be one reason that’s such a bitter piece.  That experience threw me back on religion, which I had let drop, and having re-discovered that, I found I was much happier.  It isn’t a matter of comfort, but a matter of responsibility.  It’s like having felt that I had been evading a kind of responsibility for a long time, and that it was time I quit evading that.  So my whole style, everything I wanted to do, changed.  I wanted to stop writing music that was accessible only to other composers and specialized concerts of “new music.”  I wanted to write for more people than that, and more ordinary people.  I wanted to write music my wife would like.  I wanted to write music that people that I knew would never go to those new music concerts, would nevertheless like.  And yet, I wanted to interest the people that I had already been trying to interest, who were going to those new music concerts, and whose whole focus was around that sort of thing.  So with that double intention, it sent me into asking how I could make the work so complicated that it will be interesting, and yet so simple that it will be immediately accessible.  I found I was trying to write a very different kind of music.  The Mass was one of the first pieces I wrote in that way, a little choral piece, which was a setting of a poem my daughter wrote.  What I was doing was trying to write music that was instantly reachable, but which was quite different from anything that people had ever heard, but in a subtle way so that when they really began to get into it, there was a difference between it and other things.  They wouldn’t necessarily understand this, but which is nevertheless very perceptible, and it was the intonation that enabled me to do that.   In order to make sure that it would work, what I did was to bring in the higher partials.  I had been dealing up to that point in what Partch called
five-limit, that is to say, no prime numbers of overtones over the fifth partial, one-three-five, which actually does refer to the triad, although what we call the third is the fifth, and what we call the fifth is the third, in terms of the partials.  You can develop triads so that you get eighty-one notes per octave.  That eighty-one happens to be what I did on that piano, but fifty-three and sixty-five in the quartet, and just any number of notes that you happen to want.  You’re still not using anything new harmonically; it’s all based on the same intervals that everybody already knew.  You can see why I did that.  To ask people to deal with intervals that they don’t already know is much harder.  If they’re dealing with just simply pure versions of the intervals that they are already very familiar with, the task is easier.  I thought that, but in fact it’s much harder because people are used to playing fast and loose with those intervals, and it’s very hard to get them out of that habit.  Whereas if they think they’ve got to play something they know they never heard before, and yet it has to sound in tune, they actually rise to the occasion a little better.  I was bringing in the seventh and eleventh partials — not all at once, but bit by bit, bringing me up to the level of complexity about where Harry Partch was.

BD:    It sounds like you’re taking all of the performer-inspiration out of it, and making them rely exactly on these precise intervals and precise notations.

BJ:    Well yes, but what happens is that I’ve got a very much closer approximation to this ideal that you want to always suggest to people.  Then they can realize it how they will, and it’s amazing how much more subtle that people can be, and how they will get nuances.  I would particularly think that the two string quartets, #5 and #6, would interest you in that way, because both of those groups really get hold of those intonation problems and do something with it.  It goes way beyond what I knew it would be!  It isn’t different from what I knew it would be, it’s just more so.   It’s as if they got my vision, and being players, they were able to do more with it than I could!  This is what you always want.

BD:    So then despite this exactness of notation, you’re expecting more out of the score each time it’s played?

BJ:    Which sounds just cruel, but in fact, it’s really very good.  There’s rather an interesting discussion of Knocking Piece.  Roger Reynolds got interested in that piece, and when he wrote his book Mind Models, he discussed it briefly, and what he says it does is to push thresholds.  [See my Interview with Roger Reynolds.]  It pushes on thresholds of ability, and because it does that, it stimulates a person to play right at the tip of his ability, which of course is what any great performer always wants to do.  This almost guarantees that because you’re working so hard to get those things right, and when you get them right, it feels just marvelous and there’s a kind of an exhilaration that happens!  George Hunter said that about the un-notated, intonational problems of fourteenth and fifteenth century music.  When they rehearse Machaut or Dufay, they would sit and listen to these things until they suddenly found it just slipped into the right intonation, and then they would just savor it.  It’s just beautiful that way; the whole thing was a kind of slightly ecstatic experience of getting the whole thing to have that glow about it.  That’s a very romantic way of describing it, but it works.  It feels more like what the performer is actually experiencing to talk about it that way.  Hunter was the first person to point that out to me.  It was, indeed, an emotional reaction that you sort of knew.  When I heard Indian performers play for the first time live, it was in somebody’s home, so there was a time to sit down and talk with them.  I was asking about the significance of the ragas and what they meant, and why they were played at a certain time of day and what it meant.  I also asked why there were spring ragas and fall ragas, and how that worked.  They were explaining that Rasa, which is their term for emotional content, was what the player memorized, not the raga.  He memorized the emotional content and the raga was right when it expressed that precisely.  It’s just backwards from what we think about.  If we get it right, it will have the right emotional content.

BD:    You’re saying put the emotion first?

BJ:    Play Beethoven right and it will move everybody.  But they go the other way around.  If you move everybody, then you must be playing it right.  [Both laugh]  And that was, again, a lesson.  It’s turned my head around to think differently.

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your works?

BJ:    What I’ve done is gotten into an area that frightens off people that aren’t good enough, so I don’t very often have bad performances.  I have no performance or I have a good one.  That’s one of the things that happens when you notate everything this precisely, and it’s one of the things that happens when you’re dealing with ear training.  You’re asking people to extend their ear training, and go on and do things that they never thought they learned how to do.  It’s willy-nilly what I’ve had to have, but yes, I think I’m very pleased.   It took me ten years to gain enough respect to be able to deal with those performers that they would even look at my music!  It might have taken me longer than that, except for having certain people really push what I did.  I am better-known than I have any right to be, considering how seldom my music is performed.  I think that’s because people remember it.  It’s different enough that it sticks in their minds.  I’m not sure that’s really what it is that makes them remember it, but apparently they do.  It’s interesting.  I have heard that said about Schoenberg, that his reputation is out of all proportion to the number of times people have heard his music.  It’s true, but it’s that good!  It may be ever so forbidding, but it’s just very good, and when you get into it, you have a kind of an experience that you don’t forget readily.  So consequently, without being performed very much, he can remain one of the most important composers of our era.  I think he may never be performed very much because it’s extremely hard to do it really well!

BD:    Do you think there will ever come a time when your music will be easy?

BJ:    I don’t know.  It’s getting easier; there’s no question about that.  I’ve had that experience that you hear described so much, people telling Tchaikovsky that the Second Piano Concerto was impossible, and that no one would ever be able to play it.  [Both laugh]  Now everybody plays it.  I mean, literally everybody.  It’s one of the things you have to play.  I’ve had that experience with Knocking Piece.  The people who played it at first said, “We can’t play the whole piece.  We’re going to have to make a cut.  We can’t stand it. The concentration effort is too great and we just can’t.”  So I said, “Well all right, do what you can.”  So they did what they could, but the next time it was played, they played it all!  It gets easier and easier and easier, and now I hear theory classes learning bits of it.  You pose a problem, and if it’s a reasonable problem and people solve it, then it gets into the pedagogy, and it’s easy to communicate to other people how you do it.  This happens with the intonation.  Even for groups that have only heard one example of that kind of thing, apparently most of them grasp it right away.  I have seldom ever had to go to a group and really work them hard to begin with.  What usually happens is that they take it and they work on it for a long time, and then they bring me in and I tell them what’s wrong.  There usually isn’t a lot wrong.  Certain things do happen.  For instance, there were going to be three performances, not one, on this ASUC Series.  I’m the keynote speaker and they were going to do that as a gesture.  But two of them fell through because there’s a lot of music being played, and to undertake things that are that hard is very difficult to do.

BD:    As a general rule, would you rather have your piece played on an all-contemporary concert or would you rather have it be in the middle of a mixed concert?

BJ:    The second; I would much rather.  For one thing, I think that generally all new-music concerts are terribly fatiguing to the listener, and you fight that no matter what your piece is and no matter where on the program your piece is.  If it’s first, the audience isn’t warmed up; if it’s anywhere else, there is no telling what it came after.  It’s just difficult for the audience, so that no matter what the piece is like, it is in trouble to be in that kind of setting.  That’s one reason I wanted not out of those concerts forever; I wanted at least to write music that wouldn’t be thought of as only suitable in those concerts.  That’s what’s happened with the string quartets, and most of the piano music.  Virginia Gaburo, who plays both of the big microtonal piano pieces
the Sonata and the Suitehas programmed them generally with quite different music.  She has to have an extra piano, one that’s tuned specially for that, but she said that it certainly works much better than to have it on a new-music program.  On the record it’s with Cage and Nancarrow, as odd ways to use the piano.  [See my Interview with John Cage, and my Interview with Conlon Nancarrow.]  That is what they focused on.

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BD:    In your opinion, where is music going today?

johnstonBJ:    That’s very hard to answer.  I certainly don’t think it’s going where people thought it was going fifty years ago, but I’d like to think that what’s happening is a humanizing of music, or re-humanizing of music.  It got terribly de-humanized in the face of the twentieth century, and I think that the greater composers are exceptions.  They’re not inhuman like that, but if you start listening to all the rest of it, then you see that an awful lot of it had its...  I don’t know what happened exactly, but there’s something very strange about the emotional content, for one thing.  People seem to be primarily concerned either with intellectual constructs, or with hyper-emotional states, like abnormal or insane states.  All this stems from people like Berg with the two operas which deal a lot with abnormal psychology, or Schoenberg with the Pierrot Lunaire.  I’m sure it all stems from that, but it also stems from the feeling of alienation, and all those things that people talk about in contemporary psychology.

BD:    Are we’re getting away from this now?

BJ:    I hope we are.  I think maybe we are.  Maybe what is happening is that the complexity of contemporary life has knocked down to a kind of simple phase in terms of how people begin to experience it.  With computers and with TV and a lot of the things that we take for granted as technological main pillars of what we do nowadays, life actually gets simpler on account of those things.  On the one hand it is getting more complicated, but it’s a lot easier to cope with it, and I think that part of that has actually relaxed people somewhat.  There’s a movement that I sense to rediscover the importance of the interior life as people traditionally have described it.  You see it a lot in people who are overtly religious and give more attention to things like meditation and contemplation, and less attention to the more external aspects.  I think that this inwardness is helping to correct a lot of the stresses in early twentieth century music.  It’s been a violent period, Lord knows, and it reflects the external world, I guess.

BD:    Are you then optimistic about the future of music?

BJ:    I don’t know whether to be or not.  I feel good about what I’ve been able to do, because I feel that if people go in that direction at all, it will enable them to be complex in a way that’s understandable.  I know they need to be complex because it’s clear.  We’ve got a very complicated world that we live in; you cannot be simple-minded about it and live.   So we’re stuck with the complexity, but does it have to make us neurotic?  Maybe not.  [Laughs]  There’s a kind of analog between how to deal with complex relationships sanely, and how to deal with complex pitch relationships and still be in tune, so that it really does sound complex and nobody would think it was Mozart again
not that that would be bad, but anything again is not so good.  We are finding how to be as simple in our way as he was in his way.

BD:    You say
anything again is not so good.  Even going to another performance of the same work is not so good?

BJ:    No, another performance of the same work is going to be new in some sense or it isn’t any good.  If it is just a carbon copy, then it will be dull, and I think that’s what’s wrong with getting your favorite record out and playing it again
which I don’t do anymore, or very little.  I found that I wore out certain pieces so that I didn’t hear them anymore.

BD:    You wore them out in your ear?

BJ:    Yes.  I heard them too much.  I heard exactly the same performance over and over again!  A little groove is worn in my ear, so that I know exactly what’s going to happen every second, and it’s not good!  Of course it’s a lot better if it’s a superb performance to begin with, because that means that you have not discovered everything in it on one or two listenings.  Then it’ll take you maybe fifteen or twenty listenings to get out of it what was put in to begin with.  But that’s a great performance.  Some of them are, some of them aren’t, you know.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Are there perhaps too many young composers coming along today?

BJ:    There are an awful lot, and I think it’s like everything else — there’s just too much of everything.  One learns how to cope with that, and one of the ways is to turn it off, which I think to everybody’s unhappiness is what has been done to the majority of contemporary composers.  People are just turning them off almost before they had a chance to get started, which is a damned shame because there are a lot of babies being thrown out in that bathwater.  But if you really are different in an interesting way, then I think there’s a good chance people will notice because there are too many people who aren’t, and the contrast is fairly obvious after a while.  The problem is worse than it probably was once, but it’s the same, it’s not a different kind of problem.  I’m sure in the eighteenth century in Europe, that to be a successful Kapellmeister was much more likely than to be a Bach.  There were a lot of those, and I suppose too many, maybe.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    There is a work in your catalogue listed as being a chamber opera.  Would you tell me about it?

BJ:    There are two.  There’s Carmilla, which is the rock opera, and Gertrude, a neo-classic piece.  Both of them were written with Wilford Leach.  Leach is the director of New York productions of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and of The Pirates of Penzance, so he’s better known for that.  He’s a very interesting playwright and I’ve known him since we were in college together.  He’s the one I always ask to work with if I can.  He’s too busy now, I guess, but the last thing we worked on was Carmilla, and Gertrude was the thing before that.  Gertrude is a spoof, in a way.  He did his thesis on Gertrude Stein, so in a way it’s about Gertrude Stein, but it isn’t, exactly.  It’s a commentary on the legend of Gertrude Stein and Isadora Duncan and Ernest Hemmingway and a lot of the American ex-patriots.  So it’s like a very ‘in’ joke, and the whole thing is essentially funny.  It takes just a few players, but what’s hard about it is that the players, ideally, if you wanted to do it absolutely well, should be mime dancers and able to sing and act
all those things.

BD:    That’s asking an awful lot!

BJ:    Yes, it is.  Consequently, the way we’ve always done it is to have surrogate performers like Brecht.  You just sit them beside each other, and when dance is called for, the dancer gets up and does it.  When singing is called for, the singer gets up and does it, and when straight acting is called for, somebody else gets up and does it.

BD:    All being the same character?

BJ:    Yeah, which is okay.  You can do that by costuming them all the same way, and doing a few other things like that.  It’s a detachment that’s required in order to get that done, but with a kind of ironic text, it’s ideal.

BD:    Are there any other operas still in your mind?

BJ:    No.  It’s so hard for people who have to do a lot already
be on stage, memorize the whole role, act and all the restto worry about the intonation as much as I demand.  So I haven’t tried to make that happen.  The only person I know who has is Alois Hába in the opera, The Mother, where it is quarter tones, eighth tones, sixth tones, etc.  I’m not sure what he used, but there are very elaborate tonal systems.  Apparently it was very successful, but I’ve never seen it.

BD:    When you’re presented with a number of commissions, how do you decide which ones you’ll accept and which ones you’ll decline?

johnstonBJ:    I don’t get that many so I usually accept them.  Well, actually, I don’t.   Sometimes people ask me to write pieces and I just can’t find that I know what to write for them, so I end up not doing it; or I try and I don’t like it, so I never give it to them.  But other times, somebody asks me to do something, and I do find the right thing to do.  So I go ahead and do it, and I didn’t even expect to write that piece.  I hadn’t been thinking about it or anything else, but for some reason something worked.  It’s very hard to explain exactly why that happens.  I’m writing a cello piece for Laurien Laufman.  I hadn’t planned to write a cello piece and I didn’t particularly want to, but I got an idea that suited and I liked the way she played.  So I just wrote this piece very quickly and it worked fine.  The other one that I can think of is a piece I did for Richard Rood, a violinist in a string quartet for New Music of America when it was in Chicago.  They played one of my quartets and he liked it, so he said, “I have a group that is a trio with a clarinet.  I’m the violinist and there’s a cellist.  We have a pianist, but you probably would want to use the trio, because we don’t want to re-tune the piano.”  So I said, “All right, I’ll write you a piece.”  I had wanted to write a piece involving a woodwind with strings, and that suited me very well.  It’s a very light piece and not very long, but it’s pleasant.  So there’s one that I just did without knowing that I wanted to do it.  Ward Swingle commissioned a piece for the Swingle Singers.  I had done them one at his request earlier and he didn’t like it.  What I did in that case was to do a big band jazz piece for them with microtones.  They said the microtones made it so hard that they couldn’t put it on their pops concerts, but they didn’t want to put it on another kind of concert because they didn’t think it fit.  So it fell between, and they never did it.  It was done later by Kenneth Gaburo and the New Music Choral Ensemble, and it’s a nice piece.  [See my Interview with Kenneth Gaburo.]  But anyway, I got to thinking about the New Swingle Singers and he said, “I want you to write the piece that you never wrote for me.”  So I did.  I decided that it was going to be a totally uncompromising statement of where I wanted to be technically, so it’s ferociously hard.

BD:    Too hard?

BJ:    No, it isn’t too hard, but it’s at the limit for one-on-a-part vocal.  It wasn’t that I wanted to make it so hard, but I wanted to utilize all the overtones up through the sixteenth partial.  The others aren’t prime, so they result from combinations.  It was a very complex harmonic and melodic palette to be using.  Also, I always wanted to deal with Gerard Manley Hopkins, and that’s what those sonnets are.  They’re very powerful, being about spiritual crisis and death, and they’re absolutely without parallel in the English language.  I think they’re amazing poems, so I was really asking a lot of myself, but that was something that I just knew I wanted to do.  I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I wanted very much to.

BD:    When you’re writing a piece, how do you know when it’s finished?

BJ:    If you’re setting a poem, that isn’t so much of a problem because in a certain sense, one whole aspect of the work is already complete.  You only try to make your contribution to it as appropriate as you can, and then you know when you’re finished.  Very often I will make a very elaborate intellectual plan for the piece, and I will then structure the piece around that.  I plan the climaxes.  I plan everything including all the psychological events to work within that structure, so when I come to the end of the structure, that’s it.  So I’m not usually through-composing and working blind.  I often compose that way if I’m dealing with a text, because then I have something that is already composed, and I am dealing with it.

BD:    Do you ever find that when you’re writing a piece, it goes in a direction you didn’t plan?

BJ:    Oh yeah, sure, sometimes to the extent that you have to start all over.  It’s as if the piece had a will of its own, and you only discover that after a while, and then have to undo all those things that you were trying to impose on it which it wouldn’t accept.  I think it’s because anything we actually compose and anything you do creatively is coming out of a deeper stratum of yourself.  I’m not trying to talk depth psychology, it’s just that it’s not the ordinary level that is speaking.  The level that is speaking is not susceptible to your everyday will.  You can’t just turn it on and off like a faucet.  It comes and goes pretty much of its own accord.  That’s where all these symbols that have been used for centuries come from
like the muse — because they better describe the experience than something else does.  You’re not really being dictated to, but at the same time, something is happening which you do not have volitional control over to a complete extent, by any means.  You can only modify it.  It’s as if you have a nozzle, and you can make a fine spray or a coarse spray, but you can’t really change what’s coming out.  It’s water and that’s what’s available, and what comes out is often is very disconcerting.  I think that’s what’s wrong with Marxist theory when it comes to art.  The idea there is that you express true things about human life in art, and you know beforehand what truths are so you use art to put them across to other people.  Well, art just doesn’t work that way.  It’s going to go its own way, and you don’t know what you’re saying until you’ve said it!

BD:    So, it’s a constant discovery?

BJ:    Yeah, and so I think that that’s just wrong-headed.  That does not describe the way how art works, and that is why Russians and all other Marxist countries always have a problem with the arts.  It’s because the Marxist theory just doesn’t work that way in art.  If you really believe and live according to those things, it would come out in your art anyway, and you wouldn’t even have to try to make it do that.  So the idea that you try to make it do that is wrong to begin with.  That’s just an illustration of what I’m saying, but there are a lot of other things that are like that.  If you are going to tailor-make what you’re doing for, let’s say, a particular TV audience or a commercial purpose, you’re up against a similar problem.  If you’re really making art, you don’t know what’s really going to come out.  You have to have enough rope to hang yourself
which you might do [both laugh] but enough to make something work!  If you’re on too tight a leash, nothing happens.  It really has to be loose.  You have to have a lot of lead to go and do things.  It’s a lot like science.  You can’t just dictate to science; it’s what they’re going to discover.

BD:    Do you ever go back and revise your scores?

BJ:    Yeah.  I don’t too often go back to old pieces and re-do them, but I have done that.

BD:    What do you say to future generations when the musicologists are digging around and declare, “Here is the urtext, so let us do that.”

BJ:    I hope they’ll have the good sense that I’ve heard people express in terms of Hindemith’s revision of one of his song cycles, the Marienleben.  The earlier version is much better than the later version.   And I hope people will be able to say in other cases that the later version is better than the earlier version, if it is.

BD:    So you will let posterity decide which is the better version?

BJ:    Yeah, sure in that case.   I can’t think of a good example of that, but some of Rimsky-Korsakov’s pieces that he re-did are genuinely improved.

BD:    What always comes to mind for me is Bruckner, but that’s because he was being screamed at by so many people.

BJ:    [Laughs]  I think if you’re that good, even if you listen to all those people and get messed up, you don’t get completely messed up.

BD:    Is composing fun?

BJ:    Yes, of course it is.  It’s like any other kind of creative activity
— there’s a lot of pain involved and there are unpleasant reactions.  I suppose a lot of it is like having to deal with human relationships that you wish you didn’t have to deal with, like being a parent.  There are certain things you would just as soon not have to do, but you do have to do them.  In a way they’re the most rewarding things, but there’s an element of dread, almost, in getting into them.  Doing really important things with your children often has that feeling about it.

BD:    Do you regard your scores as other children?

BJ:    No, not really, but there’s enough of a parallel that there can be at least a little bit of comparison made.  The point is not that they’re like people, but one’s feeling about them is a little bit like a parent has about a child, I suppose.  You have to let them go at a point.  After they have been played and they have their life, you sort of don’t mess into them too much.

BD:    Is the audience always right in its opinions?

BJ:    No, of course not.  In fact, audiences have been resoundingly wrong at times, given the later history of a work and what they thought it was and whether they liked it or not.  There’s nothing foolproof.  It’s just that in the long run music is a communication of a sort, so if it doesn’t connect ever, there’s something drastically wrong.  So eventually, the audience is not so much right as necessary.

BD:    Thank you for being a composer.  [Picks up the text of Johnston
s lecture for the upcoming symposium]

BJ:    Well, it’s a pleasure to do it.  [Pointing to the printed text]  I had quite a struggle writing that address because to say what I want to say in it demands that I deal with what I am doing and how I think about it, and it gets to be I, I, I.  I wanted very much to avoid that kind of ‘and then I wrote’ ex cathedra attitude.  It was not easy to do.  Not that I tend to want to speak that way, but I do believe in what I’m doing, and when I get to talking about it, I can get very passionate sometimes.  It can sound to people as though I’m saying, “Why don’t you quit doing all those things you’re doing and do this?” which is really not what I meant!  On the other hand, I think what I’m doing is important, or I wouldn’t do it.

BD:    But you allow for all kinds of other creativity?

BJ:    To be done also, yeah.  What I hope I’ve done is to put that into context, but that’s what made it hard to write.  Also, I tend to want to write very terse, densely packed stuff, and that’s what I’ve done.  So it’s going to be hard to read out loud.

BD:    I’m glad we finally got together.

BJ:    Yeah, I am, too.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on April 7, 1987.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1991 and 1996, and on WNUR in 2006.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To see the list of all of my guests and where their material has been used, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.