J.V.V. Elsworth: ‘Five Johnson Organs in Westfield’, American Organist, xxvi (1943), no.2, pp.33–5; no.3, pp.57–9
T. Murray: ‘The 1877 Johnson Organ in St Mary’s Church, Boston’, Diapason, lxv/11 (1973–4), 1–3
O. Ochse: The History of the Organ in the United States (Bloomington, IN, 1975)
B. Owen: The Organ in New England (Raleigh, NC, 1979)
J.V.V. Elsworth: The Johnson Organs: the Story of One of our Famous American Organbuilders (Harrisville, NH, 1984)
See Johnson, Blind Willie.
Johnson, Willie Gary.
See Johnson, Bunk.
Johnston, Ben(jamin Burwell)
(b Macon, GA, 15 March 1926). American composer. His music was first performed in public when he was 16, and his interest in ‘more nearly perfect’ tuning is documented as early as 1944. After serving in the US Navy, he played in dance bands and then completed the BFA at William and Mary College, Williamsburg (1949). In 1950, he abandoned studies at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music to work with Partch in Gualala, California; he also enrolled at Mills College and studied with Milhaud (MFA 1952). In 1951, he was appointed to a combined dance and music position at the University of Illinois; he was granted tenure there in 1959, became a professor in 1967, and retired as professor emeritus in 1983. In addition to composition and teaching, he organized the première of Partch’s The Bewitched with Alwin Nikolais’s choreography (Urbana, 1957), chaired the university’s influential Festival of Contemporary Arts (1962–5), held guest professorships and lectured widely on microtonality and other subjects. He also sought performers willing to learn his music, made more challenging by a microtonal notation based on actual pitch (rather than the tablature found in Partch’s music).
Johnston’s reputation has rested primarily on his work in microtonality. However, his earlier music was in equal temperament, with a tendency towards neo-classicism (Septet, the early piano pieces), theatre music, and sensitive song-settings. Beginning with sections of Gambit, he explored serial techniques, later incorporating metric modulation and proportional relationships. Humour found its way into his work through quotation and pun (Ivesberg Revisited, Newcastle Troppo) and popular eclecticism (Gertrude, or Would She Be Pleased to Receive It?). He also experimented with indeterminacy (influenced by his teacher and friend Cage) and improvisation, especially in a performance-theatre context (Five Do-It-Yourself Pieces).
With Five Fragments (1960), Johnston began using just intonation. While Partch’s theory was proundly influential on him, his more comfortable relationship to Western art music and lack of instrument building skills led him to compose primarily for traditional instruments and genres, especially the string quartet. In many works he has synthesized just intonation, proportions, and serialism, where ratios might determine duration or metric modulation (Knocking Piece) or a row exist in microtonal as well as transposed forms. He employs two structuralist approaches to just intonation: scalar (e.g. Suite for Microtonal Piano), where the 12 repeating pitch classes per octave range as far as the 27th partial; and three-dimensional ‘lattice-work’, starting from C and evolving according to the partials chosen; this develops Partch’s theory of expanded consonance beyond the 11th-partial limit while increasing greatly the potential for modulation, a frequent device in the quartets.
Despite his commitment to just intonation, Johnston has never been dogmatic about compositional choices. The majority of his pieces are tonal; many works or movements are in ternary or variation form. He has often composed for amateur ensembles, although many have found these works difficult. While he has composed relatively little theatrical music since the 1950s, Carmilla (written with Wilford Leach) and the tour de force Calamity Jane to Her Daughter have proved two of his most popular works.
The 1960s were years of personal crisis, and this is reflected in a pervasive use of almost violent contrasts and personality changes (Sonata/Grindlemusic for microtonal piano, with 81 different pitch-classes spread among the 88 keys). In Crossings, the conflict of Quartet no.3 (‘Vergings’) is followed by a period of silence, and then resolution in Quartet no.4 (‘Ascent’), a variation set also known as Amazing Grace. Johnston’s subsequent conversion to Catholicism is felt more in the spirit of later works than in specific borrowings; their tone is more American vernacular than religious.