Thoughts on the Ben Johnston Colloquim

I’ve returned home (my house still half in disarray from the recent move) from the weekend colloquium at Wright State University honoring composer Ben Johnston. It’s difficult to write about a conference without going on and on at length, considering the variety of participants, presentations and performances, each stirring up the atmosphere, catching interest and provoking questions in different ways, worthy not just of mention but deserving thoughtful response and commentary. To do the whole thing justice would take all day, so I’ll just give my impressions of the main focus of the event, and say a few words about my part in the festivities.

At age 84 (his birthday is today!), Ben Johnston is one fearlessly honest and uncompromising human being. Speaking mostly from his wheelchair, there were moments when he rose with effort to speak. At one such instance, in response to Kyle Gann’s keynote address, he hobbled over to the presenter and among other things, he said, “Music is supposed to make people better. Otherwise, what are we here for?” as well as, “Make use of the terrible things that happen to you; make use of the good things that happen to you; the result is maturity.” These are insights given from the perspective of a man whose career has had among its successes also its serious crises.

I have the sense that Johnston has never written music to please anybody, not even himself. Rather, he does what he does simply in order to honestly respond to existence. That response has been and continues to be deeply felt and intensely personal to the point of requiring an extension of the existing language of music composition. His expressions have often been so uniquely crafted as to be beyond the comprehension of classically trained performers, and as a result many of his works have never been played. Some of his string quartets, for example, baffled performers for over twenty years for their complex microtonal construction, until the Kepler quartet had the courage to record them. Kepler violinist Eric Segnitz, who was in attendance, told me that he sees these recordings as only a first step.

Johnston later spoke, when asked, of his student experiences with Harry Partch, John Cage, and Darius Milhaud, and he retold several offhand anecdotes, such as when he spliced the tape for Cage’s Williams Mix (1953). His sincerity and self effacing manner were disarming; ego clearly has no place in his way of being. That Johnston has been doing his pioneering microtonal work for so long almost entirely in the realm of the abstract, in his head, using a pencil and paper, without the aid of computers, just completely boggles my mind. The man is an inspiration.

I was pleased to learn of a website dedicated to Johnston at A New Dissonance, where can be found mp3s and videos of Ben’s music, as well as blog posts by the composer himself. More information about Ben Johnston is here.

For my part, as one of the invited speakers, I spent the last week and a half preparing my presentation. I was grateful for this opportunity to gather up some of my work which had been languishing on my shelf for over ten years and put it into a presentable form (here’s the press blurb). My plan is to add pages to the website on the topic in the near future (a placeholder has existed for several years now). After my presentation, Johnston approached and kindly told me that he was interested in what I was doing, which of course pleased me. He also added with a smile, “but it’s not easy.” The photo above was taken by Kyle Gann after the final concert.

The event was organized by cellist and composer Franklin Cox, who also gave stunning performances of music by Johnston and Bach on the final concert. I learned also that Dr. Cox held a colloquim on Elliot Carter last year and plans to hold future events annually. Bravo and thanks to Franklin; more people should be keeping an eye on what’s going on in contemporary music at Wright State!

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