More than 20 years ago, the music critic John Rockwell described Ben Johnston in the New York Times as "one of the best nonfamous composers this country has to offer." What has changed is that Johnston is now, I'd suggest, our best nonfamous composer.
At 86, he isn't exactly unknown. The Kronos Quartet has long been one of his champions. He's a legend, at least in the world of microtonality, which explores the pitches that fall between the keys of the piano.
But Ben Johnston continues to be ignored big-time by our big musical institutions. A rare all-Johnston concert Wednesday — which included the belated world premiere of his most recent major piece, 30 minutes long and written a dozen years ago — took place in a small recital hall in the music building at Chapman College in Orange. The program was part of the annual Southern California festival of microtonal music called MicroFest.
Johnston, who suffers fromParkinson's diseaseand uses a wheelchair, managed to make the difficult trip to the West Coast for the event from his home in Wisconsin. The audience appeared to be mostly local students, but it was a historic occasion nonetheless.
It never takes more than a few seconds in any piece to tell that Johnston is up to something. The tuning may sound strange at first, but eventually it seems utterly natural. That is certainly true of Johnston's Suite for Microtonal Piano from 1977, which began the program. Tones in a blues movement, for instance, sound bent without actually bending, thanks to the tuning. Aron Kallay was the engaging pianist, playing excerpts from the suite on an electronic piano of his own invention (built around a spinet but with computer tuning).
Johnston has turned to the Sufi poet Rumi in his late music. In 1998, at the behest of guitarist and MicroFest founder John Schneider, the composer wrote "The Tavern," settings for voice and microtonal guitar of texts about the spiritual aspects of intoxication. The follow-up was another Rumi cycle, "Parable," for mezzo-soprano, violin and clarinet. The singer for whom that was written stopped performing before premiering it. Johnston told me during intermission that he then began to have doubts about the piece and withdrew it for a time.
Both of these Rumi works were Wednesday's centerpiece. Schneider, who had originally performed "The Tavern" accompanying a proper baritone, now half sings, half recites it himself, in the style that is typical of Harry Partch's music (Johnston, as young composer, worked with and was much influenced by Partch).
There is some of the musical magic lost in the this approach, but Schneider's dramatic intensity gives the text new immediacy. "Drunks fear the police, but the police are drunk too," Rumi tells us. With voice and guitar settling on pitches that are readily recognized, a listener somehow learns to more empathize with our everyday absurdities.
"Parable" takes that kind of empathy to a new level. The mood is mystical, clarinet and violin often creating quietly ghostly harmonies in high their registers. Karen Clark, a Bay Area mezzo with experience in early music and new music, brought a rich intensity to stories about a mouse and frog who become friends, about fish who leap from frying pans, about the force of friendship that causes a raven to go underwater and grab a frog.
Texts were not provided in the program and only some words were intelligible. At first hearing, a listener couldn't quite be sure of what was happening. But that, in a way, enhanced that sensation of a profound music suggesting the freedom and danger of letting go of the ego. It will take time to digest this score, there is much to be gotten from it. The performance was stunning.
The concert ended with the first Southern California performance of the tenth of Johnston's 10-string quartets, written in 1995, and also the really belated Southern California debut of the exciting Del Sol String Quartet, a Bay Area fixture for nearly two decades.
The Tenth has the quality of late Beethoven, in that it generates the sublime from the simplicity of classical models. The last of its four movements is a set of variations, but as in Elgar's "Enigma Variations," the theme is hidden until the end.
That theme is "Danny Boy" — yes "Danny Boy" — first disguised as a kind off-kilter, off-key Renaissance dances. When the tune finally arrives full-blown, harmonized microtonality, the feeling I got was of the room doubling in size, so vast were the sonorities. A much too famous tune by a much too nonfamous composer was made magnificent.