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Ben Johnston 1926–2019

US composer at the forefront of microtonality died on 21 July, aged 93

The news of Benjamin Burwell Johnston’s death on 21 July was announced on Twitter by Jon Roy, who runs the New Dissonance Twitter account about the US composer and scholar’s music research and performance. “It is with a heavy heart that I write that Ben Johnston passed away today at the age of 93,” reads the announcement. “Ben was a composer of music, theorist, academician, author, mentor and personally speaking – a dear friend.”

Johnston was born in 1926 in Macon, Georgia. He was in the US navy for two years from 1944–46 and then went on to teach composition and theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign from 1951–86. His students included Stuart Saunders Smith, Neely Bruce, Thomas Albert, Michael Pisaro, Manfred Stahnke and Kyle Gann.

Johnston himself collaborated with Harry Partch, organising the 1957 premiere of the latter’s The Bewitched. From 1960 onwards he worked almost exclusively with microtonal notation. He proposed the term extended just intonation, testing possibilities of just intonation with traditional western instruments in configurations such as a string quartet. He also explored surrealism in music and, influenced by his friend and mentor John Cage, indeterminacy. Johnston’s 1986 Quartet No 8 marked the beginning of his neoclassical phase.

In 2016 The Kepler Quartet, who’d spent 14 years studying the works of Johnston, released the third and final disc of their series documenting his complete cycle of string quartets on New World Records. A Ben Johnston Microtonal Scholarship exists at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.

Johnston died at his home near Madison, Wisconsin after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease and dementia.