Ben Johnston doesn't follow the rules of music. Sure, he's got degrees from two colleges and a conservatory. But from an early age, Johnston heard music differently. When he was growing up in Georgia, he questioned the standard scales he was taught in school. "I played by ear and I invented my own chords," he says.
In Western music, we're taught that there are set notes in scales, but there is actually an infinite number of pitches in between those notes. They're called microtones, and those are the notes Johnston likes to work with.
"String Quartet No. 4," Johnston's take on "Amazing Grace," is probably his best-known and most-performed work. At his home in Madison, Wis., surrounded by a flock of peacocks and a herd of barn cats, the 90-year-old composer says the work has its roots in his childhood, in slavery and in his desire to hear what the song might have sounded like if Beethoven had covered it late in his career.
It was actually Johnston's love of the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Broadway show tunes that made him want to be a composer. Then, during World War II, he heard Stan Kenton's band. "It was the first time I heard real jazz improvisation," Johnston says. "Immediately, I could get it by ear. It changed my whole approach to harmony."
After the war, he apprenticed with the iconoclastic American composer and instrument-maker Harry Partch and studied with composers Darius Milhaud and John Cage. All of them encouraged him to follow his own path.
Johnston later became a mentor himself — he taught at the University of Illinois for over three decades. Composer Larry Polansky, who studied under Johnston there, says Johnston's work is groundbreaking and necessary. "We need Jackson Pollock, we need John Ashbery, we need James Joyce and we need Ben Johnston," he says, "because they do question something that generally goes unquestioned."
Polansky, who went on to become a professor himself, says Johnston taught him there was more to music than the standard Western scale. "To enforce and entrain a very specific set of pitches and reify them as somehow natural ... just doesn't make any sense," he says.
Johnston has used all of the notes he can wrangle in dance music, percussion pieces and orchestral work, but he spent the bulk of his career — almost four decades — composing 10 unique string quartets. Johnston, who celebrated his 90th birthday this year, recently received a special present: the completion of a more than decade-long effort to record them all.
The Kepler Quartet formed in 2002 with the specific intention to record these compositions — and it took 14 years of rehearsing and recording to get them all down. Eric Segnitz, the group's second violinist, says the rehearsal process required both learning and unlearning. "There was a fair amount of invention and learning curve and getting rid of any preconception of what a chord actually sounds like," he says.
Segnitz says what struck him even more than the complexity of the music was the way Johnston has never veered from his vision. "There are all sorts of pressures on modern composers to reach an audience, to be popular — it's like high school, basically," he says. "So the fact that someone has cut through all that is very meaningful."
That doesn't mean the composer can't be playful. In his "String Quartet No. 10," Johnston subtly teases a traditional tune through four movements. "You build up this enormous expectation until finally you get to the end and ... we reveal the tune," he says. "It turns out to be 'Danny Boy!' "
Johnston now wants musicians to take his ideas into the future. He sees his string quartets as a foundation, and he wants others to build upon his tunings — and keep making what he calls the "sounds that people never thought they wanted to hear."