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The Daily
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They score!
Composers John Harbison and Ben Johnston have left their mark on history
John Harbison (left) and Ben Johnston are geographically
near each other but sonically worlds apart.
John Harbison (left) and Ben Johnston are geographically near each other but sonically worlds apart.

How many communities Madison's size can claim even one world-class composer? Here in Dane County we have no fewer than two.

Composers John Harbison and Ben Johnston live within a few miles of each other, but their sound worlds are a universe apart. Harbison composes contemporary classical music with large designs and is best known for his operas and big choral works. Johnston's experimental pieces navigate aural spaces as tiny as microtones to get the pure intervals that build his music.

Their answers to my questions were candid. Their musical styles, though different, have the same honest resonance.

All that jazz

When I spoke with John Harbison, 70, we sat in the sunny living room of the "barn," his cozy family home in rural Dane County near DeForest. He composes there when he's not teaching music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and it's also the setting for the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival that he and his wife, violinist Rose Mary Harbison, founded in 1989. The festival is a gathering spot for those of us who hanker for what's new or intriguing in chamber music and for anyone looking for a mellow evening of jazz.

While growing up in Princeton, N.J., Harbison thought about being a jazz musician. His father, a history professor at Princeton, wrote pop music on the side, and his uncle wrote songs and composed for college shows. While the sounds of Ellington and Kern floated through the house, classical composers like Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions also found their way into Harbison's hearing.

The mix sometimes backfired. "When I was in junior high, I played Beethoven's first piano sonata for my piano teacher," he recalls. "When I finished she said, 'I don't ever want to listen to you play that again.' Because I was a jazz player, I inflected everything that way, and I probably didn't have real control in that sense at the time. She was also a composer, and I had been bringing her some of my pieces, and she told me just to bring those from then on. I was sorry that she did that because she was probably a very good piano teacher."

He wasn't discouraged. He kept playing and composing and even got a jazz band together. But when a high school choral teacher encouraged him to write for the choir and gave him an opportunity to conduct, jazz stepped aside to make room for conducting. His classical career took off, and he received a bachelor's from Harvard and a master of fine arts from Princeton, where he studied with Sessions.

Pianists know: If you ever want the challenge of all challenges, pick up Roger Sessions' first piano sonata. According to Sessions, the best preparation for it is to practice nothing but Czerny, Chopin and Bach for 20 years. His advice to composers was to obey only an inner creative urge and not pander to politics or commercialism. He took his own advice.

"When I talked to Sessions' students from a much earlier era, they thought he was an absolute bearcat for detail, understanding the consequence of some small thing in a piece," says Harbison. "By the time I got to him, he never showed any interest in that. All he was interested in was proportions."

Harbison shows similar attention to building music that's sonically balanced without sacrificing energy. One of my favorite Harbison works, the ballet Ulysses, is neatly proportioned, with short, airy interludes between hefty dance music. Contrast keeps the energy high - plodding percussions against frisky woodwinds or dutiful basses against a promiscuous flute. (Ulysses is newly released on CD, and you can find it at the Madison Public Library.)

Besides his teachers, experimental musical trends of the 1950s and '60s shaped Harbison's inclinations. "When I was a student, at least in the institutions that I was familiar with, everyone was agreeing on where we were going," he says. "Students considered composers who weren't going in that direction as being hopelessly out of it, and that included people like late-phase Copland. [Benjamin] Britten was considered okay because he seemed to get it in terms of his own experimentation. History had become clear to a certain phase of the musical world."

Harbison has a solid background in history and often reverts to pre-Renaissance music for inspiration. He sees patterns of events, no matter how far-flung on the historical timeline, and says that the unity of purpose among composers of the '50s and '60s also appeared in the late 1500s.

He seems nostalgic for his early years. "Now composers are all over the map, and they're doing everything," he says. "The good part is that there is no main line or esthetic winner, and that has the advantage that composers are making real choices now. It has the disadvantage that no one is passing through who has very strong criteria or very clear goals. Demanding disciplines like tonal harmony and modal counterpoint are disappearing, and in some sense, a lot of us who are now at this age think we are the last to go through institutions, at least in the States, where that preparation was a part."

Since Harbison composes in all genres, from solo voice to ballet, he has some of that "all over the map" quality himself. Mozart was the same in his ability to write anything well, but we hear the essence of Mozart in all his music whether it's an opera or a piano sonata. Harbison is more elusive. Each piece is different. But there is one dead giveaway. If you have your radio dial tuned to 89.9 or 88.7 FM and you hear some thorny contemporary classical music with a jazz riff floating through sometimes, it could very well be Harbison.

His career path is littered with honors. The 1987 Pulitzer Prize for The Flight Into Egypt and the MacArthur Foundation's genius award are only a few. Harbison gets numerous requests for his work. Among them is his fifth string quartet, commissioned by UW-Madison's Pro Arte Quartet, in celebration of its 100th anniversary in 2012.

But professional glory hasn't ruffled Harbison's quiet demeanor or wry wit. He gives the impression of always thinking and being quietly fascinated with the next idea.

Mathematically exact

Ben Johnston talks with a Southern lilt and exudes genteel hospitality. An ebony grand piano takes over much of the living room in his Sun Prairie home. A number of chairs sit in a semicircle, as if he might have a class there. His piano is tuned using just intonation, a more accurate tuning system than the equal tempered tuning Westerners are used to. Much of his work is based on just intonation.

Johnston had recently returned from Germany when we met. "Quintet for Groups," an orchestral piece he composed in 1966, had received its successful European premiere, and it was also voted the best piece in the 2008 Donaueschingen Festival, the oldest festival for contemporary music in the world. Johnston was happy. "It was shocking, but a good shock, like winning the lottery," he says.

His down-to-earth style makes it hard to believe that he composes in a highly complex way that relies on acoustics and ratio relationships between sound vibrations. An octave in Johnston's world is not just the distance from C to the next higher C, but also a ratio relationship of 2:1 where the higher note vibrates at precisely twice the frequency of the lower. The thousands of ratios that are the building blocks of Johnston's music must be mathematically exact to give him the pure, just intervals he needs. Things get more complex when he combines just intonation with serialism or counterpoint, but, surprisingly, his music often sounds simple and straightforward.

He prefers using everyday words to describe his method, but can't avoid technical terms like the "overtone series" and "partials." He says it's like calling kitchen utensils by their Latin names.

Since the 1970s, Johnston has worked to simplify the surface of his music and hopes that its pure, perfectly tuned intervals will help people who listen to it. Rather than being trapped in an exclusive sonic groove, he says that his music, his marriage and the triumphs over some personal dark times have turned his vision outward to his audience and the musicians who perform his work.

During rehearsals, he's there to help players with tuning and expression, even though his physical challenges make it necessary to use a wheelchair. "A piece of music is not fully composed until it's performed well," he says. To that end, he coached the German orchestra with "Quintet for Groups" and returned to Germany in March for a performance of his fifth string quartet. He also worked with the Kepler Quartet, a Milwaukee-based group, on recordings of his 10 string quartets. The UW-Madison School of Music is hoping to present some of his work late this year, and discussions about tuning are already under way.

Johnston was born in Macon, Ga., in 1926. His father was managing editor for the Macon Telegraph, and his mother was a Sunday school teacher and stenographer. Johnston was raised on Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford and movie musicals, using his father's press pass for entrée to local theaters. He started piano lessons at age 6 and played mostly by ear until some years later. He loved dance music and thought briefly about being a dance band arranger.

It was a simple beginning for someone who was influenced at age 11 by a lecture on the relationship between Debussy's music and the acoustic theories of the 19th-century German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz. "The lecture touched something real in me," says Johnston.

"One reason why it was real in that way was that it happened on a trip back to Macon after we had to move because my father lost his job there. He had sent a reporter to Wesleyan College to cover a lecture from a black man who said, 'Don't you think it's time to put the Civil War fully behind us?'"

The Georgia paper's owners fired Johnston's father. The family moved to Richmond, Va., where his father became city editor, and then managing editor, for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

While a graduate student at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Johnston found a kindred spirit in the microtonal composer Harry Partch through his book Genesis of a Music. He was so taken by the book that he arranged for an apprenticeship with Partch in Gualala, Calif., where the composer lived and built his own instruments. What fascinated Johnston about Partch was not only his use of just tuned ratios, but his true-grit attitude. During the Depression, Partch was a hobo, riding the rails and nearly starving to death. After he survived it all, he wrote music about those days that has no scent of European tradition. Partch disliked academia, but was associated with the UW-Madison from 1944 to 1947. For a short spell in 1956 Johnston invited him to the University of Illinois, where Johnston taught.

Johnston also studied with the French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College. Milhaud loved jazz, and his classes were organized and challenging, much different from Johnston's later studies with matchless avant-garde composer John Cage. "John invited me to come and work with him over a summer," says Johnston. "As an assignment to me, he said to analyze the Webern symphony and bring it to him. But the library wouldn't order it for me, so I went to New York anyway and showed up without it." In lieu of the assignment, Cage gave Johnston the task, with composer Earle Brown, of splicing tape in the wrong order for Cage's landmark electronic work Williams Mix.

What is Johnston's advice for composers today? "Composers must connect what they write with something that is important to them. To me, what is important right now is the difference between order and chaos. That is what the government is struggling with now, and to understand order is terribly difficult. To understand chaos is almost impossible. You need every kind of help you can get."

In 2007, the American Academy of Arts and Letters honored Johnston for his pioneering contributions to American music. Ponder Nothing for solo clarinet is a good example of his simple, peaceful music. His most famous work is "String Quartet No. 4," a set of variations on "Amazing Grace." He also wrote a rock opera, Carmilla.

Johnston retired from the University of Illinois in 1983 and moved to Wisconsin about three years ago to be close to his son, Ross, and to better care for his late wife, Betty.

He shares his home with a cat that he and Betty named Emma. "Emma is important to me," he says. "She reminds me of the way things were."

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