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Maximum Clarity and Other Writings on Music

Ben Johnston

Publication Year: 2006

Described by New York Times critic John Rockwell as "one of the best non-famous composers this country has to offer," Ben Johnston reconceives familiar idioms--ranging from neoclassicism and serialism to jazz and southern hymnody--using just intonation. Johnston studied with Darius Milhaud, Harry Partch, and John Cage, and is best known for his String Quartet No. 4, a complex series of variations on Amazing Grace. This collection of Johnston's writings spans his whole career and shows him to be a truly literate composer who writes about music, his own and that of others, with eloquence and charm. _x000B__x000B_"Maximum Clarity" and Other Writings on Music spans forty years and brings together forty-one of Johnston's most important writings, including many rare and several previously unpublished selections. They include position papers, theoretical treatises, program notes, historical reflections, lectures, excerpts from interviews, and letters, and they cover a broad spectrum of concerns--from the technical exegesis of microtonality to the personal and the broadly humanistic. The volume concludes with a discography of all commercially available recordings of Johnston's music.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: Music in American Life

Front Cover

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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. v-vii

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Editor's Achnowledgments

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pp. ix-x

For the initial encouragement to compile this edition of his writings (more years ago now than I care to remember), my warmest thanks go to Ben Johnston, who has been unfailingly patient throughout the long process of gathering and selecting the texts included here. I also want to extend special thanks to Brian Belet of...

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pp. xi-xxiv

For the past fifty years Ben Johnston has been the most genuine kind of radical: a composer who has made a mark on American music in the late twentieth century not by loudly espousing a cause but by the persuasiveness of his thought and the appeal and fascination of his music. He has been described by critic...

Ben Johnston: A Chronology

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pp. xxv


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Aesthetic Theory; Philosophical Background for Mathematical Theory; Musical Background for Application of Mathematical Theory 1959-60

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pp. 3-9

Beginning with the four physical characteristics of musical tone (pitch, timbre, duration, loudness), it is possible to develop an aesthetically wellgrounded theory of music as a complex of rhythmic phenomena perceived at different rates of speed. Suzanne Langer (in Feeling and Form) regards music as evocative of the subjective experience of time...

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Scalar Order as a Compositional Resource

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pp. 10-31

When listening to music we hear changing sound qualities in rhythmic patterns which create an illusion of growth. Most people hear music most readily as rhythmic gesture. Their musical present moment is the beat, the bar, the phrase (or the equivalents of these in less traditional music). Tone qualities, noise...

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Proportionality and Expanded Musical Pitch Relations

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pp. 32-40

Before considering the problem of expanded pitch resources in contemporary composition of music, I shall contrast two different traditions for the realization of precise pitch relations in performance. The first tradition may be represented by the practice of Gregorian chant.1 In plainchant the melody...

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Microtonal Resources

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pp. 41-45

The term microtones denotes musical scale intervals smaller than the semitones of twelve- tone equal temperament. The use of microtones provides so- called neutral intervals and unfamiliar near- equivalents of common intervals as well as the small intervals themselves. Hence, microtonal refers to music in which successive or...

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Tonality Regained

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pp. 46-52

It is now possible to say that the concept of tonality has been elucidated and generalized. Using just intonation of various kinds, it can be shown how traditional seven- tone triadic tonality expands to twelve- tone chromaticism and thence to scales of fifteen, nineteen, thirty- one, thirty- four, fifty- three, and sixty- five tones per...

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Music Theory

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pp. 53-61

A theory of music comprises acoustics, aesthetics, and stylistic practice. The musical theories of a culture reflect not only its attitude to the arts but also its religious, philosophic, and scientific biases. China, India, Greece, and Islam developed musical theories...

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Rational Structure in Music

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pp. 62-76

“Over the whole of the historical period of instrumental music, Western music has based itself upon an acoustical lie. In our time this lie—that the normal musical ear hears twelve equal intervals within the span of an octave— has led to the impoverishment of pitch usage in our music.”1 We lie especially when we...

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A Notation System for Extended Just Intonation

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pp. 77-88

Extended just intonation is a kind of ratio- scale tuning based upon pure intervals—i.e., those analogous to the pitch relationships of the harmonic series. To handle the complex ratio relations necessary to achieve a truly accurate just tuning of modulatory triadic music, plus its many harmonic extensions beyond simple...


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Musical Intelligibiliity: Where Are We?

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pp. 91-102

Music is first of all for the ear. Well- designed music alerts memory, integrates a span of time. Its event patterns evoke symbolic insight. In a time of rapid change it is hard to achieve this. Our tradition is branching again. We need a larger cultural context. Vocal polyphony originated during the same period when the Gothic cathedrals were being...

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A Talk on Contemporary Music

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pp. 103-106

Let me begin by asking some awkward questions about the place of music in our lives, because for many people contemporary art music seems baffling. They are tempted to accuse it of unnecessary ugliness. The first question is: What is music for? Why do we bother with it? The question is embarrassing because it should be so easy to answer, and it is not. In the first place we do not...

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Festivals and New Music

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pp. 107-108

A musical event is, most frequently, a transaction among three participants, a composer, a performer, a listener. Music exists for the listener. If it is art, however, it does not aim simply to gratify the most comfortable of his tastes. Rather art music leads him into aesthetic experiences which have been judged valuable. The...

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Three Attacks on a Problem

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pp. 109-117

Schoenberg’s solution to the impasse of music in his day was a heroic but temporary expedient. The sickness he diagnosed was real; the therapy he devised was more than adequate for him and for his time, since he enjoyed great creative vitality. Between his right and left hand, no collusion: his practice did not restrict...

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On Context

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pp. 118-121

Thinking about music is not nearly so clean- cut and so specialized a problem as some of us university musicians seem to think it is. There is no doubt that the role of music in our lives, the place of art in our values are undergoing profound changes. This ferment is part of a much larger and more pervasive process, a...

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Contribution to IMC Panel

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pp. 122-125

I’m going to talk in turn, briefly, about each of three topics: the sounds of things to come; the attitude of the youth; and the composer, the performer, and the changing audience. I think that the sounds of things to come will be many things to as many people: no one style or idiom, but a plurality of them rubbing shoulders. In my opinion the...

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How to Cook an Albatross

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pp. 126-133

The world of “serious music” stubbornly bases itself on a sterile presumption. Since the “standard repertory,” in no matter what areas of performance, is historical, it creates a museum situation. While there is nothing wrong with having museums, we should not take their contents to be the principal means to satisfy contemporary...

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Art and Survival

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pp. 134-142

The aims of avant- garde art show themselves in large part destructive: happily so, to be sure, but quite ruthlessly so. It is important that destruction not proceed indiscriminately, as well. Most musical concerts are, without any need to parody them, a form of anti- art. Nevertheless, if concerts are to be destroyed, what then will be the occasions when we listen...

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On Bridge-Building

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pp. 143-148

In the sixties, I wrote a paper called “On Context,” in which I expressed the opinion that we are collectively at a moment of history where a chasm faces us, which we must either bridge or fall into. I sounded an optimistic note, though the paper came just at the darkest point of the decade. (It was read the very day Martin...

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Seventeen Items

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pp. 149-150

1. Since 1960 my music has concentrated mainly upon microtonal just intonation, though I have done a variety of other kinds of works as well. I am concerned not to compose all works in a single, predictable style. I aim to show the applicability and value of microtonal just intonation to a great variety of kinds of...

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Art and Religion

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pp. 151-152

Properly understood, art and religion have the same aims. Only we do not commonly understand either art orreligion. Is religion superstition, a primitive, childish worldview? Is a religion a group of ideas manipulating groups of people? Is religion an institution dedicated to good...

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Extended Just Intonation: A Position Paper

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pp. 153-155

In 1962 and 1963, when I was writing “Scalar Order as a Compositional Resource” for Perspectives of New Music, I sent several versions to the editors before we agreed on one for publication. The story of the second revision is instructive. I had been trying to meet what I felt was Perspectives’s rather thorny prose style and...

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A.S.U.C. Keynote Address

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pp. 156-162

Being here reminds me pointedly of the American Society of University Composers meeting in St. Louis in 1967 when the membership rejected the narrower focus of many of its founding members and set itself to represent the actual state of American music as reflected in colleges and universities. I remember in particular...

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Just Intonation and Mere Intonation

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pp. 163-165

Any time there are two sound sources or more vibrating at the same time there are resultant patterns of interference between them. If these are simply related enough, they are intelligible to a listener. If they are too complexly related, that listener will probably try to account for them by regarding them as approximations of simpler...

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Without Improvement

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pp. 166-170

In William Blake’s symbolical work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, one of the “Proverbs of Hell” reads: “Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement are roads of Genius.” In the very manner of making art there is important symbolism. Since it does not belong to a particular

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Maximum Clarity

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pp. 171-180

Imagine looking at home movies when the person running the projector suddenly improves the focus. It is a pleasant but definite shock to see how much clearer the images are now, even though we had accepted them before the adjustment. This is a very precise analogy to what happens when the players in a musical ensemble clean up...


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On String Quartet no. 2

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pp. 183-184

For over fifty years the art of music as practiced in the West has been tending toward a split between an art of noise and an art of tone. Especially since the 1960s the great majority of avant- garde composers have turned their attention to the art of noise, feeling, as have also many more conservative musicians, that...

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On Sonata for Microtonal Piano

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pp. 185-186

My Sonata for Microtonal Piano deploys chains of just tuned (untempered) triadic intervals over the whole piano range, in interlocked consonant patterns. Only seven of the eighty- eight white and black keys of the piano have octave equivalents, one pair encompassing the distance of a double octave and the remaining six...

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The Genesis of Knocking Piece

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pp. 187-191

In the early 1960s Wilford Leach, with whom I had collaborated on and was later to collaborate with on Carmilla, approached me about doing incidental music for his play In Three Zones, subsequently produced at Lincoln Center. I proposed to Leach that...

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Quintet for Groups: A Reminiscence

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pp. 192-195

I was chairman of the Music Planning Committee for the Festival of Contemporary Arts at the University of Illinois during the early sixties. On the second big festival we undertook with a generous budget (for those times) to include composers and styles which in general the performance faculty neither understood...,

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On Carmilla

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pp. 196-198

My opera Carmilla, with text by Wilford Leach, is based upon the novella of that title by Sheridan Le Fanu. The most significant departure from the source text is the ending, in which the killing of the vampire is presented as a premonition, preceding the last scene, which deals with the seduction of Laura, the victim, by Carmilla, the vampire...

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On Crossings (String Quartet no. 3 and String Quartet no. 4)

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pp. 199-200

Twice it has happened to me that during or just after the lengthy composition process required to produce a complex work (I work very slowly on such pieces, with much care and computation), an almost equally elaborate one will emerge with surprising...

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On the Age of Surveillance

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pp. 201-202

In the fall of 1978 I wrote a “ Do-It-Yourself-Piece” (one of a genre of my devising which entails a typewritten recipe on how to make a piece of music). This one was the fifth in a series (actually the sixth, as one not so- called qualifies) and, like some of the others, pushes back the boundaries of what can be called music, since it is altogether...

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On String Quartet no. 5

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pp. 203

I composed String Quartet no. 5 in 1979 for the Concord Quartet, but they delayed performance of it because of unrelated recording commitments. When in 1983 the piece was requested on a Chicago retrospective concert of my music, I requested that they release the work so that the Tremont Quartet could premiere it, promising...

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On String Quartet no. 6

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pp. 204

String Quartet no. 6 was composed for the New World Quartet on the occasion of their winning recognition from the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation. It has required not only more than usual care and creative partnership from within the quartet but also, during the rehearsal period, from me. Without a spirit of true...

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On Journeys

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pp. 205-206

The commissioning of Journeys coincided with my moving from Urbana, Illinois, to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, my wife’s childhood home. My own childhood was spent in Macon, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia, so this move has been, in a real sense, a homecoming. My wife and I had lived in Champaign- Urbana...

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On Sleep and Waking

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pp. 207-208

When Ron George approached me to compose a percussion work for him, he offered to design and build instruments capable of being tuned as I would like, and sent me recordings of his own work. I liked best the American gamelan, so we decided to work together on a gamelan composition. I wanted to do a work...


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Letter from Urbana

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pp. 211-215

The 1963 Festival of Contemporary Arts at the University of Illinois included twelve musical events as well as two lectures and a roundtable discussion which posed questions illuminated by the concert programs. Edward T. Cone’s lecture, “The Irrelevance of Tonality,” developed the thesis that there are musical works in the...

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To Perspectives of New Music Re. John Cage

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pp. 216-218

Dear Sirs: I have a bone to pick with Perspectives. If it were not that this magazine is the leading scholarly publication in the United States which deals with new music, my taking up this issue would hardly be worth the trouble, since it concerns a matter (I think) of diehard aesthetic bias. But Perspectives has been good to me, printing...

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The Corporealism of Harry Partch

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pp. 219-231

What was planned this past winter for Harry Partch cannot now take place, because he died last fall. But that underlines the urgency that something else has to happen: the rescue of his life work, which could easily slide into oblivion. More than is usually the case, there is after Harry Partch’s death little certainty that any continuity...

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Harry Partch/John Cage

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pp. 232-234

The motivation to be avant- garde is a complex thing, often compounded of dissatisfaction with one’s own time, enthusiasm for new possibilities, and nostalgia for the past. Artists of the Renaissance, in turning their backs on the medieval world, looked back to classical times before looking to the newly discovered larger world...

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Harry Partch's Cloud-Chamber Music

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pp. 235-242

The challenge provided by Harry Partch’s pitch usages is much stronger than it appears, lost as it is among half a dozen more radical- seeming elements in his work. In particular, the impressive array of sculptural new instruments of the plectra and percussion types, whose sound has a strong attack component followed by...

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Beyond Harry Partch

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pp. 243-250

Most of American culture sees art as a variety of entertainment, and “serious” art as a not very successful variety of high- class amusement. Note the adjective: an interest in serious art is seen as a credential for identification with a higher social class. The government, and the majority of the people, thinks that art should support itself like any other commercial enterprise and that if a minority...

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Regarding La Monte Young

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pp. 251-258

My relevance to La Monte Young is that I am a composer who is involved, as he is, in just intonation. About this much more later. But as a writer on him I could function as a critic, which is a variety of journalism, or I could reminisce and comment...

Notes on Sources

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pp. 259-262


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pp. 263-266


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pp. 267-270


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pp. 271-275

back cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252091575
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252030987

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: Music in American Life