Regarding Ben:

A Keynote Address for the Microtonal Conference at Wright State University

By Kyle Gann

Charles Ives once fantasized about "some century to come, when the school children will whistle popular tunes in quarter-tones." It has long seemed to me that when I hear people whistling popular tunes, quarter-tones are indeed often involved, but I think what Ives had in mind was that the popular tunes would be written in intentional quarter-tones. I don't think this is likely to happen in my lifetime, but I do think that, thanks to several other important composers, Ben Johnston chief among them, the time may soon come when musicians feel free to hit the occasional seventh or even eleventh harmonic in their music, vernacular and otherwise.

I love listening to quarter-tone and sixth-tone music. It instantly puts you into a world in which our habitual musical categories fall apart. You lose the moorings that every musician gets trained into, and the rational part of your brain, the part that can analyze and identify what we hear, gets short-circuited, and has to surrender to pure sonic experience. However, in general I find that, in a long quarter-tone piece, the delicious strangeness becomes uniform, and settles into a monochrome grayness. It's like being dropped on an unfamiliar planet: the initial thrill of exoticness gives way to relentless disorientation. The quarter-tone musical universe is too strange, and difficult to get used to. In this world the composer, faced with all those new available pitches - though of course there are sensitive exceptions in the music of Wyschnegradsky, Eaton, and others - the composer tends to exclude the familiar, and thus minimize contrast.

This is the principle according to which Ben Johnston's microtonal music - and not only his music, but his entire approach to music - has always seemed stronger to me, more inviting, and more enduring in its appeal. Its starting point is the harmonies that have been used in music for hundreds of years. From that point it grows outward into more exotic harmonics, which we learn by hearing, as the fineness of our pitch discrimination increases, to incorporate into what we are already familiar with. Theoretically speaking, Ben, like Harry Partch before him, does not take a sudden left turn from 1920, as the quarter-tone composers did, but goes back to the tuning arguments of the 16th century and starts over. For the Renaissance musician, a sharp multiplied a musical frequency by the fraction 25/24 - and so does it in Ben's music. In Renaissance music, major triads represented a set of tones vibrating at ratios of 4, 5, and 6 - and so they do for Ben. The C major scale represented the center of the musical universe, and a take-off point for more exotic phenomena - and so it does for Ben.

What happened in the 16th century, limiting our musical resources for the next 300 years, is that a decision was made to exclude the number 7, and all larger prime numbers, from our theoretical vocabulary. Under English influence in the 15th century during Henry V's war of occupation, French theorists were convinced to expand their tuning arsenal from 2 and 3, the octave and perfect fifth, to 5, which gave them a consonant major third as well. But when they came to the number 7, the seventh harmonic, despite the advocacy of certain intelligentsia like Nicola Vicentino and the famous mathematician Marin Mersenne, the theorists balked. The victorious Zarlino insisted on the infamous senario, the numbers 1 through 6, as the basis of musical consonance. He argued by analogy on the grounds that there are six directions (up, down, right, left, forward, and backward), six zodiac signs (as long as you count only the ones visible above the horizon), six visible planetary bodies (as long as you don't count the Sun), and so on. That there are seven days of the week, let alone 13 full moons a year and a 19-year cycle of sun and moon phases, he seems to have conveniently overlooked. The decision was cultural, political, and even racist, besides being sixist. The hindus and arabs used prime tuning numbers larger than 5, and the good Catholics of 16th-century Italy were not going to follow the path of the heathens. And so for over 300 years, Europe and then America sweated by on 12 impoverished pitches only designed for the playing of simple triads.

This was the decision that Harry Partch set out to undo in 1928 when he burned his early music in a pot-bellied stove in New Orleans and started over with the 7th and 11th harmonics. It was Ben Johnston's contribution to create a notation in which to think musically with the 7th, 11th, and even higher harmonics, and to pursue an expansion of acoustic-instrument performance practice with those harmonics.

The fact is probably already familiar to this audience, but I will recount it ritualistically, that in Ben's most famous work, his Fourth String Quartet based on the common folk tune "Amazing Grace," he gave us a vivid template in how to expand music through the harmonic series. The piece, as you all know, is a set of variations. The first statement of the theme uses only the primitive pentatonic scale of the French 14th century, based on ratios of 2 and 3 - also presumed to be the scale of rustic folk fiddling. The first variation adds in the pure thirds added by the fifth harmonic. The fourth variation adds so-called "blues" notes of the seventh harmonic, and the fifth brings in the seventh subharmonic, until at the end the music traverses a symmetrical 23-tone scale firmly anchored in the key of G- (that's G minus, not G minor). At the very end, pitches are again subtracted precipitously, and the music ends in a simple and familiar final cadence.

At the same time, of course, Ben opens the piece with the beat divided only into simple 8th-notes and triplets. When he adds in the fifth harmonic, he also adds quintuplets to the rhythm, and as he folds in 7th harmonics he adds in septuplets, in systems so intricate that one variation is based on a structural polyrhythm of 35 against 36, which also happens to be the pitch ratio difference between a 7th harmonic and a regular Renaissance-era minor seventh. In this mirroring of the same numbers in both harmony and rhythm, Ben achieves in the work a beautiful manifestation of the vision Henry Cowell sketched out imperfectly in his 1930 book New Musical Resources. In that book Cowell theorized that the languages of pitch and rhythm could be developed isomorphically rather than separately, as had been traditional. (Tomes have been written about Ben's microtonal usage, but his role as a rhythmic pioneer, I think, has never been sufficiently acknowledged.)

Had Ben never written another work, this piece, the Fourth Quartet, would have been a sufficient blueprint for how music could expand its resources magnificently in the 21st and 22nd centuries. It is an ontogeny on which a phylogeny could be fashioned. All of my own music has taken place, rhythmically and harmonically (even my non-microtonal music), within the expanded universe opened up by that piece - not simply because I studied composition with Ben, but because he solved, notationally, pragmatically, and creatively, the impasse posed by the premature moratorium on prime numbers higher than 5 adopted in the late Renaissance. (One could say something similar about Harry Partch, whose own rhythmic explorations have also been too little noted, but Ben solved it for those of us whose carpentry skills are less than impressive.)

I first met Ben around 1976 when I was a student at Oberlin, but I didn't get to know him until 1983. At a wonderful concert of his music in Chicago, I went up to him and asked if I could study with him. I had already finished my doctorate, but I had never studied regularly with a very famous composer, so I asked to drive downstate to Urbana every now and then for a lesson with him. It turned out that he was also traveling to Chicago frequently to attend a Zen temple, and so sometimes I would meet him there instead, and eventually I started attending the Zen services with him before our lesson. What I didn't tell him was what I was saying to myself: that although I loved his music, I wasn't going to get involved in this microtonality business, because it was too much work for too little payoff.

Ben never proselytized for microtonality. But in my very first lesson, he made a casual comment about how nice one of my harmonies would sound if you tuned it properly, and he reeled off the fractions. I had been the star math student of my high school, and merely realizing that I possessed what it would take to enter Ben's new harmonic world presented an attraction from which I was helpless to draw back. He didn't need to encourage or convince me. I suddenly realized at that moment that a door had just shut behind me, and there was no return. I wrote very little music in my four years with Ben, but I filled entire notebooks with pages and pages of fractions. Not until 1991 did I finally manage to write a piece that was completely microtonal in conception, that couldn't be meaningfully approximated on the piano. I figure Ben delayed my composing career by five years. But he bestowed upon me the heady pleasure of being able to compose harmonic progressions that had never been heard before.

I can't guess what might have happened if I had studied microtones with John Eaton or Easley Blackwood instead, but I do know that Ben's approach made intuitive sense to me because it started with the familiar and moved out gradually and organically into the exotic - sometimes in a calculated and dramatic fashion. I remember when I first started driving to Urbana that he would first bring in and enthusiastically play me the music he was working on. He'd start playing - I particularly remember this happening with his piece for trumpet and piano The Demon Lover's Doubles - and the music would seem rather normal. A couple of minutes later, I'd start thinking, "Gee, Ben's piano is badly out of tune, you'd think he'd call a piano tuner." And then by the end of the piece his piano would have become miraculously in tune again. I was stumped. I didn't understand tuning enough at the time to realize what was happening; I know now that his piano sounded more and more out of tune the further he strayed from the central key it was tuned to.

I want to replicate for you an experience Ben gave me once by playing you The Demon Lover's Doubles. I used to have a recording of this on cassette, but unfortunately it's been misplaced over the years, and so I've made a MIDI version whose quality I apologize for, but that will at least give an accurate representation of the tuning.

[musical example]

This is a subversive piece. It draws you into a false sense of security and then suddenly [at 2:28 out of 4:10] throws you into an abyss in which you doubt your own senses - and it does so with just a simple 12-pitch scale tuned to one key. Looking back, I'm embarrassed that at 28 I was too ignorant to fully get the joke. I'm also glad that I was forced to make a MIDI version, because it wasn't until I added the dynamics that I realized how clever the conception is. The middle variation is loud and bangy, and then the music turns mysteriously quiet just as the last four disorienting pitches get added in. The whole scale is tuned to the key of D, but those last four pitches - 15/14, 11/9, 15/11, and 14/9, if you're keeping track - load in two more unexpected dimensions of the harmonic series. You've been riding along comfortably with 2, 3, and 5, just as your family had done for generations, and suddenly you get a visit from 7 and 11. This simple-sounding world is not what you thought. It contains a portal to the demonic world - a world that studying with Ben soon made me eager to enter. And the music raises your sense threshold with its grand loudness before suddenly sinking down to a pianissimo level at which not only are you hearing something really weird and unexpected, but you're not quite sure what you're hearing because it's suddenly so soft. It's one of the great sucker punches in music. And in 1985 I was a great sucker.

I later found a more subtle example of Ben's pitch magic in his Suite for Microtonal Piano of 1977. In this piece the piano is tuned entirely to overtones of C, specifically the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 11th, 13th, 15th, 17th, 19th, 21st, and 27th harmonics. According to one of the prevailing misconceptions about just intonation, this should mean that only music in the key of C major should be playable in this scale. However, Ben couches the second movement in the key of D, and the fourth in the key of E with an interlude in G. Each of these movements sounds perfectly at home in its tonic key, yet each offers a different set of intervals to the tonic note, and thus a different repertoire of peripheral harmonies. In effect, Ben has invented the possibility of treating an unequal 12-pitch scale as a mode, with different potentials on each tonic. The scale contains only five perfect fifths, and it is on these fifths that Ben grounds his basic harmonies. Exotic intervals available on D that aren't available on C include the ratios 19/18, 11/9, 13/9, and 17/9. The range of chords on these pitches, which would sound jazzy but rather tame on a conventionally tuned piano, offer a vastly expanded range of consonance and dissonance of which Ben takes full advantage. The climactic chord progression ranges from a chord whose ratios would have to be analyzed as 27:32:44:52:72 down to one that is simple 2:3:4:6. This range provides an entirely new dimension between extremes of consonance and dissonance unknown in previous keyboard music. In 12-tone equal temperament, dissonance depends mostly on seconds and sevenths; on Ben's piano, one has not only those but strangely tuned thirds and sixths, a completely different flavor of dissonance - or as Harry Partch memorably put it: "an entirely different serving of tapioca.

I'd now like to contextualize all this with reference to Ben's quiet, little noted, but persuasive contribution as a music theorist. Though not as noisy or controversial about it as some other composers later were (notably one of his more outspoken students), he was probably, or seems so in retrospect, the first to publicly criticize serialism on theoretical grounds, and not from a conservative position, but from a radical one - not because it went too far, but because it didn't go far enough. Much later, Fred Lerdahl would write a paper about "cognitive constraints" in which he demonstrated that our brains are not wired to process permutations as musical phenomena; years later, George Rochberg would publicly stop writing 12-tone music and scandalize his colleagues by returning to Romanticism; soon, the first minimalists would return to writing in a diatonic scale. But before all of these, as early as 1959, Ben was writing about the limited intelligibility offered by an interval scale in a 12-tone context. In 1962 he drew on then-recent findings in experimental psychology to draw a distinction between nominal, ordinal, interval, and ratio scales:

A nominal scale is a collection of equivalent and interchangeable items. An ordinal scale is a collection which is rank-ordered in terms of some attribute. An interval scale is a rank-ordered collection in which the intervals of difference between items are equal. A ratio scale is a rank-ordered collection in which the items are related by exact ratios.... Each of these scales includes all of the measurement possibilities of its predecessors, plus one more.[1]

The major and minor scales of European tonality are ratio scales, because it is possible to judge the ratio of each frequency to the tonic. Twelve-tone method gives us only an interval scale, because all we can hang on to are a group of intervals whose size differences are uniform. It is because the methodology of 12-tone music allowed only for interval scales and not ratio scales that Ben was able to announce that, "in an important and basic way serialism is... a less sophisticated technique than tonal organization."[2] As long as the basis of music was triadic, he wrote, the out-of-tuneness of 12-tone equal temperament was of negligible importance, but in the long run the system offered an inadequate conceptual model for expansion. "When many of these usages become outmoded," he wrote,

and a search for new principles of musical organization begins, as has happened in the 20th century, the one-sided model provided by equal temperament becomes a serious but largely unrecognized limitation. When musical organization based upon a linear (interval) scale replaces that based upon a ratio scale, there is a net loss in audible intelligibility.[3]

Note, however, that unlike other composers who identified a fatal flaw in the 12-tone language, Ben didn't stop writing in it. I once asked him why, since he was a just intonationist, he continued to write 12-tone music, and he answered, "Well, I had learned all that technique, and I didn't want it to go to waste." In his 12-tone music, though, he applied his own critique as a reform. In his remarkable String Quartet No. 6, the first hexachord of the row is a harmonic series on D, and the second is an undertone series on D#. This means that all 12 notes of the row are not equal in weight, because one note in each half of the row is the fundamental from which the other five pitches are derived. The pitch matrix for this row contains 63 different pitches within the octave. The piece rocks back and forth between overtone series' and undertone series', in a thoroughly tonalized 12-tone technique.

Ben's point of view, reaching back into the Renaissance and breaking with some of his immediate contemporaries, brought him to take stands that were both radical and conservative. As he wrote in 1976:

Feeling that the harmonic mode of pitch perception is far too important a resource of human capability for it to be allowed to fall into disuse, I have set about to reestablish ratio scale usage in pitch organization. This has entailed a number of radical means (large numbers of microtones, for instance, entailing new performance techniques, especially for wind players), some strongly conservative practices such as the resumption of a sharp awareness of degrees of consonance and dissonance as a major musical parameter (which amounts to revoking Schoenberg's much-touted "emancipation of the dissonance"), and even some radical reactionary attitudes, for example, the rejection of the idea that noise, "randomness," and ultracomplex pitch are the primary frontiers for avant-garde exploration.[4]

I'd like to add to Ben's critique the complementary formulation expressed by George Rochberg, another excellent 12-tone composer who decided there was something wrong with the idiom. According to Rochberg, every new era in music history took the previous era's practice as a basis and added to it. Not until the atonal period ushered in in the 1930s, he wrote, did musicians begin to prohibit use of the resources that had served previous composers. The 12-tone style mandated an avoidance of octaves, an avoidance of triadic points of tonality, an avoidance of evident regularity. And as Rochberg wrote, an aesthetic based on negation and prohibitions cannot serve the human race for long. As Ben put it,

It is clearly necessary to generalize the concept of tonality if it is not to be abandoned altogether. The solution should have the characteristic of including traditional methods within it, as special, limited cases.[5]

I don't know how, or to what extent, this attitude seeped into my mind through Ben, or how much it simply made irrefutable common sense. But I do know that in 1983, around the time I started studying with Ben, I overcame a deeply ingrained, college-implanted artificial squeamishness, and started composing in triads. It has seemed increasingly obvious to me that we can't achieve our greatest potentials in music without using all the effective musical devices that served composers in the past, as well as adding those innovations which are unique to us. Serendipitously, Ben turned out to be the perfect mentor, not only to allow that large thought to settle, but to stretch it out in both directions, past and future, to make it seem infinitely commodious and inexhaustible.

There are many, many different approaches to microtonality. All of them are valid. Each one suits a different set of creative needs. In the long run, some will turn out to have been more fertile than others. For me, it is this capacity of Ben's approach to reach deeply into the past, and yet remain open-ended with regard to the future that makes it the most rewarding. It satisfies my need for history, flatters my limited mathematical talents, gives me adequate means for organizing only five pitches to the octave or 500 as I need at the moment, and offers me an infinity of potential organizations, absorbing even 12-tone music itself into the ongoing evolution of tonality. I've always loved the words that Ben wrote in his original liner notes to the "Amazing Grace" quartet. Because that piece is so well known we forget that it is part of a pair with the Third Quartet, which is serial in technique, and that in performance there is a mandatory 60-to-120-minute silence between them, symbolizing the abyss between one kind of musical practice and another, more fertile one. Ben writes,

It is an amazing grace to have come through an abyss. It is an amazing grace to see once again that the simplest and purest of relationships are the means to cope with the multitudinous and complex.[6]

It seems to me that in this era of economic scarcity and questioning of the great tradition of classical music, we have reached a temporary endpoint in the extent of music's outward development. The achievements of Stockhausen and Brant with multiple orchestras are going to be difficult to surpass any time soon, or even equal, and for most of us, even a conventional orchestra seems out of reach - and when it is within reach, we can't get enough rehearsal time to try anything innovative. Exceeding the length of Feldman's chamber pieces, Glass's operas, and John Luther Adams's sound installations is a daunting and possibly barren prospect. My prediction for the future, partly based on the curiosity I've been sensing among young composers about microtonality, is that for the next few decades the impulse for musical innovation will go inward to its own materials rather than outward. Ben's notation, his theoretical framework, and the example of his music have already provided us with a map of the vast inward musical universe whose exploration will take us decades if not centuries. I read interviews with pop musicians and classical musicians who say that everything's already been done in music, all we can do is repeat. And I remember the door onto a new universe that Ben opened for me, and I think, "What in the world are they talking about?"

[1] "Scalar Order as a Compositional Resource" (1962-3), in Gilmore, Bob, ed., Maximum Clarity, p. 10.

[2] "Musical Intelligibility" (1963) in Maximum Clarity, p. 99.

[3] "Scalar Order as a Compositional Resource" (1962-3) in Maximum Clarity, p. 14.

[4] "Rational Structure in Music" (1976), in Maximum Clarity, p. 62.

[5] "Musical Intelligibility" (1963) in Maximum Clarity, p. 99.

[6] Ben Johnston, liner notes to Fine Arts Quartet, Gasparo CS 203.


Me and Ben with Momilani Ramstrum at Wright State University, March 14, 2010.

Copyright 2011 by Kyle Gann

Return to the Kyle Gann Home Page

return to the home page