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In memoriam: Ben Johnston (1926-2019)

American composer Ben Johnston died this Sunday at the age of 93. He was a longtime friend and collaborator of Kronos. Artistic director, founder and violinist David Harrington writes:

“Ben Johnston wrote his String Quartet No. 4 (‘Amazing Grace’) in 1973 for the Fine Arts Quartet from Chicago. When John Sherba joined Kronos in 1978, he brought with him memories of hearing the world premiere of that stunning work as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Kronos began playing this fabulous set of ‘Amazing Grace’ variations in 1979, and soon we became friends with Ben Johnston.

“Over the years, we have performed three of Ben’s ten string quartets, including String Quartet No. 8, which he wrote for Kronos in 1988. As we learned more about the breadth of American music, I noticed that Ben had quoted from his mentor Harry Partch’s Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales for harmonic canon II and bass marimba in Amazing Grace. Combining the fact that the music of Harry Partch was sadly hardly ever performed and that Ben Johnston and his late wife Betty were direct links to Partch, having studied and performed with him, it seemed natural to ask Ben to bring the music of Harry Partch into Kronos concerts. Ben began in 1994 by arranging Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales and Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California, which Ben himself joined us in performance as narrator. Four years later, he also arranged Partch’s iconic U.S. Highball: A Musical Account of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip, which was sung and narrated by David Barron.

“I’ve always thought that, when a great composer makes an arrangement of another great composer’s work, we all get enlarged perspectives and we benefit doubly. In addition to his own huge body of vivid and exploratory music, we have the generous and visionary Ben Johnston to thank for finding a way to allow Kronos into the world of Harry Partch. Ben’s encouragement, his warm smile, the gentle lilt of his voice and his challenging, unwavering vision for what music might be able to be are immensely missed.”

String Quartet No. 4 (‘Amazing Grace’) is available on White Man Sleeps (Nonesuch Records, 1987); Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California is available on Howl, U.S.A.  (Nonesuch, 1996); and Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales is available on Early Music (Lachrymæ Antiquæ)  (Nonesuch, 1997).

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