The following is an essay written for the festival about Ben and “Quintet for Groups” by Marc Sabat, who was the guiding force in bringing about this performance.

Ben Johnston’s “Quintet for Groups”
by Marc Sabat (2008)

Some years ago I remember asking James Tenney about his experience with Harry Partch. I recall him telling me at the time that if I wanted to know more about American experimental music and its involvement with Just Intonation I should also look at the very interesting work of Ben Johnston. Born in 1926, the same year as Morton Feldman, Johnston studied and played with Partch in the Gate 5 Ensemble, as well as working with Darius Milhaud at Mills College and privately with John Cage in New York. Like Tenney, his work has been motivated by a wish to draw connections and build bridges between paradoxically opposed positions in 20th century music — among others dissonant counterpoint, spectralism, chance/indeterminacy, and total serialism.

In the 1960s Johnston pioneered a personal way of working that combines ordered rows, microtonally complex counterpoint, and proportional metric relationships within an “extended Just Intonation” organized by means of multidimensional pitch-lattice (Tonnetz) diagrams. Avoiding the limitations of defining a single tuning system, he explores the particularity of pitch subsets varying from piece to piece, always inspired by the utopian ideal of an exactly conceived and notated intonation.

Unlike some of his better-known experimental music colleagues, Ben Johnston seeks to integrate strict formal constructions with a wide-ranging expressiveness based on his personal emotional sensitivity. To this end, he has drawn on Ivesian musical quotation, parody and paraphrase, sometimes deliberate cliché, and more recently on a speculative reimagining of historical idioms. This has led to work which occupies a uniquely unfashionable position in contemporary American music. On the one hand, Johnston is mainly well known for his variations on the hymn “Amazing Grace” and (among specialists) for his advocacy of Just Intonation, while much of his remarkable and radical work has remained largely forgotten and unplayed.

The “Quintet for Groups”, a major orchestral work commissioned by Eleazar De Carvalho in 1965, was completed in 1966, and premiered on March 24 and 25, 1967, by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. According to accounts from the time, the audience was divided, with booing classical symphony patrons pitted against a few vocal new music fans who eventually carried the day. No recording was made, and it seems circumstances were less than ideal — string players who should have been playing some of the divisi parts were instead enlisted to play percussion, causing rhythmic chaos, one of the harpists only showed up on the last day and the other one refused to retune the instrument. At the same time, apparently the wind players had rehearsed with great attention to detail, writing in all of their microtonal fingerings.

The dynamic between chaos and order, which is often mirrored in the political and musical divisions within an orchestra, serves as formal inspiration for Johnston’s piece. The musicians are divided into five groups: a solo woodwind quintet; a choir of brass players; a rhythm section of two percussion, two harps, and two pianos which helps to establish the complex modulations of tempo and tuning; two divisi string groups, positioned left and right. The score combines several kinds of notation bridging freer structures and more strictly determined material. Each instrumental group operates in a distinctively designed musical frame but is open to influence from the others. The overarching shape is a movement between various forms of dissonance and consonance: microtonal, textural, rhythmic.

It is a wonderful set of circumstances that has led to this first European performance of “Quintet for Groups”. In 2007, I had met Bob Gilmore in Ireland, who gave me a copy of his recent anthology of Johnston’s writings, “Maximum Clarity”. When Walter Zimmermann asked me to present some seminars to his composition class at the Universität der Künste in Berlin, I decided to get to know Johnston’s music. I wrote to his publisher, Sylvia Smith, and several weeks later, a large package of scores arrived. I also introduced myself to Ben by email, and he helped me collect CDs, old cassette dubs, and LP records documenting his body of work over the past sixty years. This includes ten string quartets, two major works for microtonal piano, a rock musical for La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (NYC), and assorted solo, chamber and choral works. I found myself especially fascinated with his complex and unknowable music of the 1960s, and curious about one piece in particular, the orchestral score “Quintet for Groups”.

In late summer, word came that Armin Köhler was looking for an interesting American orchestral work for a program at the 2008 Donaueschinger Musiktage. I called Sylvia, who explained that the very large handwritten score was rolled up in an architect’s tube and there was no published copy. To save time, she agreed to send me the original. A day’s work in a Berlin copy shop reduced the parchment rolls onto sheets of A2 paper, which finally arrived a few days later at the SWR.

At 82 years old, welcome to Donaueschingen, Mr. Johnston! We all look forward to hearing your work, many of us for the first time in a live concert.

Link to this on the Donaueschinger Musiktage website (in German).