Ben Johnston

(b. 15 March 1926, Macon, Georgia – d. 21 July 2019, DeForest, Wisconsin).

American composer of mostly stage, chamber, choral, and vocal works that have been performed throughout the world.

Prof. Johnston earned his BFA at the College of William & Mary in Virginia in 1949 and his MMus at the University of Cincinnati – College-Conservatory of Music in 1950. He then studied music privately with Harry Partch in Gualala, California and with Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, California, where he earned his MFA in 1952. He later studied music privately with John Cage in New York, New York in 1959–60.

Among his honours were the Guggenheim Fellowship (1959) and the Orchesterpreis der Donaueschingen Musiktage (2008, for Quintet for Groups).

He was also active in other positions. He organised the première of The Bewitched by Harry Partch in 1957. He wrote more than a dozen articles for the journals Perspectives of New Music and Source, among other publications, which appear in Maximum Clarity and Other Writings on Music (2006, edited by Bob Gilmore, University of Illinois Press).

He taught acoustics, composition and music theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign from 1951–83, where he was a professor from 1967–83, later emeritus. He also served as chair of the Music Planning Committee of its Festival of Contemporary Arts from 1962–65.

His primary publisher is Smith Publications.


E-mail address for consulting scores:



The Wooden Bird (incidental music, play by Wilford Leach), 1950 (collaboration with Harry Partch)

Fire (incidental music, play by A. Gregor), 1952

The Zodiac of Memphis Street (incidental music, play by Wilford Leach), 1954

L'Invitation au château (incidental music, play by Jean Anouilh), 1954

St. Joan (ballet), piano, 1955 (also concert version of one section as Passacaglia and Epilogue, orchestra)

Gertrude, or Would She Be Pleased to Receive It? (chamber opera in 2 acts, libretto by Wilford Leach), 1956

Gambit (ballet, choreography by Merce Cunningham), 1959

The Taming of the Shrew (incidental music, play by William Shakespeare), 1961

Carmilla (chamber opera, libretto by Wilford Leach), 1970

Five Do-It-Yourself Pieces (theatre work), any number of players, 1969–81

Calamity Jane to Her Daughter, soprano, violin, synthesizer, drum kit, 1989


Ivesburg Revisited, jazz orchestra, 1960

Passacaglia and Epilogue, 1960 (concert version of section of St. Joan)

Quintet for Groups, orchestra in 5 groups, 1966

Diversion, small orchestra (11 players), 1979

Symphony in A, 1988

Chamber Symphony, small orchestra, 1990


Concerto for Brass, brass ensemble, 1951

Septet, flute (+ piccolo), oboe (+ English horn), clarinet (+ bass clarinet), bassoon, French horn, cello, double bass, 1956–58

Diversions for Four, double bass, piano, vibraphone, percussion, 1959

String Quartet No. 1, 'Nine Variations', 1959

Duo, flute, double bass, 1963

Motet, 3 recorders, 1963

Non più, 3 recorders, 1963

String Quartet No. 2, 1964

String Quartet No. 3, 'Vergings', 1966 (may be performed together with String Quartet No. 4, 'Ascent' or 'Amazing Grace' as Crossings)

One Man, trombone (+ percussion), 1967

String Quartet No. 4, 'Ascent' or 'Amazing Grace', 1973 (may be performed together with String Quartet No. 3, 'Vergings' as Crossings)

Duo, 2 violins, 1978

Twelve Partials, flute, microtonal piano, 1978

String Quartet No. 5, 1979

String Quartet No. 6, 1980

Trio, clarinet, violin, cello, 1981

String Quartet No. 7, 1984

Toccata, cello, 1984

The Demon Lover's Doubles, trumpet, microtonal piano, 1985

String Quartet No. 8, 1984–86

Palindromes, snare drum, 1987

String Quartet No. 9, 1987–88

Ponder Nothing, clarinet/alto saxophone, 1989

Sextet, flute, 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, 1990

Pursuit, bassoon, tuba, 1992

Progression, double bass, 1993

Sleep and Waking, percussion ensemble, 1994 (collaboration with Ronald George)

String Quartet No. 10, 1995

Alap, double bass, 1996

Nightreach, 4 saxophones, 1998–99

O Waly, Waly Variations, 4 saxophones, 1998–99

Octet, flute, clarinet, bassoon, 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, 1999–2000


Night (cantata, text by Robinson Jeffers), tenor, female chorus, small orchestra, 1955

Prayer, 3 female voices, 1966

Ci-Gît Satie, mixed chorus, double bass, drum kit, 1966

Rose (text by Sibyl Johnston), mixed chorus, 1971

Mass, mixed chorus, 8 trombones, percussion, 1972

I'm Goin' Away (text from a folksong from Appalachia), mixed chorus, 1973

Visions and Spels (texts from Amerindian sources [translated by Jerome Rothenberg]), 6 improvisational mixed voices, 1976

Sonnets of Desolation (text by Gerard Manley Hopkins), 8 amplified mixed voices, 1980

Journeys, alto, mixed chorus, orchestra, 1986

On Love (text from the Bible), mixed chorus, 1986

Mantram and Raga, mixed chorus, 1993

Secret (text by Robert Bly), mixed chorus, 1994


Somewhere I have never traveled (text by e. e. cummings), tenor, piano, 1949

Le Goût de néant (text by Charles Baudelaire), baritone, piano, 1950

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucie's Day (text by John Donne), baritone, piano, 1951

Three Chinese Lyrics (text by Li Bai [translated by Ezra Pound]), soprano, 2 violins, 1955

Five Fragments (text by Henry David Thoreau), alto, oboe, bassoon, cello, 1960

A Sea Dirge (text by William Shakespeare), mezzo-soprano, flute, oboe, violin, 1962

Songs of Innocence (text by William Blake), soprano, ensemble, 1975

Two Sonnets of Shakespeare (text by William Shakespeare), countertenor/bass-baritone, flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, tuba, viola, double bass, 1978

Songs of Loss (text by John Donne), tenor, 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, 1986

Ma Mie qui danse (texts by Mie Cecile Inouye, Emily Dickinson, adapted by the composer), soprano, microtonal piano, 1990

Legacy, soprano, violin, 1991

A man and a woman sit near each other (text by Robert Bly), baritone, clarinet, French horn, 1993

Quietness (text by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī [translated by Coleman Barks]), baritone–speaker, string quartet, 1996

Invocation (text by Attar of Nishapur [translated by Charles Stanley Nott]), soprano, string orchestra, 1997

The Tavern (text by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī [translated by Coleman Barks]), voice, microtonal guitar, 1999


Celebration, 1953

Knocking Piece, piano (2 players), 1962

Sonata for Microtonal Piano, microtonal piano, 1960–64

Suite for Microtonal Piano, microtonal piano, 1978


Museum Piece, fixed media, 1968 (collaboration with Jaap Spek)

Auto Mobile (exhibition music), fixed media, 1968–69 (collaboration with Jaap Spek)

Kindergartenlieder, fixed media (2 tracks), 1969 (collaboration with Jaap Spek)

Knocking Piece Collage, fixed media, 1969

Strata, fixed media, 1978 (collaboration with Bohdan Mazurek)


Barstow (Harry Partch), voice, string quartet, 1994

Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales (Harry Partch), string quartet, 1994

U. S. Highball (Harry Partch), male voice, string quartet, 1997

Various works (George Gurdjieff–Thomas de Hartmann), 4 saxophones, 1998–99