The Birmingham News – May 12, 1999

By Nancy Raabe
News staff writer

One of the many valued services performed by the intrepid Birmingham Art Music Alliance is its custom of showcasing a guest composer. Monday the consortium had the foresight to bring Ben Johnston to town. His humane experimentation with alternate tuning systems through an impressive body of work has earned him a valued place on the contemporary scene.

The New York Times once called Johnston “one of the best non-famous composers this country has to offer.” Certainly he is among the most accessible of what can be called the contemporary-music radicals. The most commonly used tuning system in music is “equal temperament,” which divides an octave into 12 equally spaced tones. Johnston uses two purer systems, “microtonal music” and “just intonation,” which avoid harmful adjustments that “equal temperament” requires.

This all may sound forbidding. But Village Voice critic Kyle Gann, a former student of Johnston’s, describes equal temperament as “the musical equivalent of eating a lot of red meat and processed sugars and watching violent action films,” whereas just intonation promotes calmness, passivity and tranquillity.

Johnston has argued along the same lines, noting that our modern tuning system may be partly responsible for a cultural psychology that invests much in action and violence, and relatively little in introspection, contentment and acquiescence.

These last were precisely the qualities that came across in his Ponder Nothing, a series of sensitive variations for solo clarinet (Lori Ardovino) on the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Be Silent,” in the raga Alap for solo bass (based on a 14-tone scale) and in his jazzy, foot-tapping Progression, also for solo bass, both played by Robert Dickson. Notable as well were Jim Jensen’s resonant, assured …before the morning watch for percussion ensemble, Dorothy Hindman’s propulsive Dances for clarinet, marimba, and piano, Charles Norman Mason’s engaging, highly rhythmic Windage and Rob Stanton’s finely lyrical Sonata for English Horn and Harp.