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Wisconsin's World-Class Microtonal Composer

May. 29, 2012
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Composer Ben Johnston is an orchestral music guru, heralded as "one of the foremost composers of microtonal music" and also “one of the best non-famous composers this country has to offer.” He has taught across the world and written extensively, most recently in a book of essays titled Maximum Clarity. The world-class talent, who splits time between Milwaukee and Madison, works locally with the Kepler Quartet.

Yours was one of three CDs nominated—worldwide—for Best Chamber Music for the 2012 BBC Music Magazine Awards. Is it tough being an American in a European-dominated field?

Most of my ancestors are Scottish. They reached England before emigrating to America, and I have much affinity for folk music from the island. Yet, during the Renaissance, both Britain and Scotland kept their distance from continental European culture. They are proudly into self-determination, artistically.

It can be frustrating. There has been critical dislike in that light—of compositional ideas and studies of European tunings exported to North America. But, thankfully, the British are now grasping my real roots and aims. Many thanks to Charles Ives—the composer, not the insurance executive—for letting in fresh air. Maybe a less inhospitable weather is breaking there.

You've been likened in importance to Bartok and Shostakovich and their 20th-century quartets. Who exactly are they?

Both are Eastern Europeans—Bartok from Hungary, with its northern Asian origins, and Shostakovich from Russia, which has survived many changes and conflicts over the eons. Neither left any self-analysis or theoretical explanations. I've gone to lengths to figure out significant aspects of their music—especially their string quartets—and transport these techniques to my own works.

Do you really describe your music in terms of math and logic?

Too often, when people hear math, they run the other way. Fortunately, though scared, they are surprised—even pleased—when it speaks directly to their minds, emotions and curiosity. As a young undergraduate of fine arts and philosophy, I was fascinated with attempts to derive all mathematics from symbolic logic. I was in over my head. And yet, that accounts for my use of mathematical means in composing.

Word is that you're working on another album, from scenic Deerfield, Wis. How's Deerfield and how is the album?

Deerfield is beautiful. It's a real island of agricultural tradition that is almost gone. It lives on, but it has become a strange mixture of rich and poor, with little unity but much beauty. I am an oddity here, but not an outsider.

Where can people hear you?

As with so much these days, begin with YouTube.


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