Johnston taught composition and theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1951 to 1986 before retiring to North Carolina (Gann 1995, p.1). While there he was in contact with such "avant-garde" figures as John Cage, La Monte Young, and Iannis Xenakis (Gann 1995, 1). Johnston's students include Stuart Saunders Smith, Neely Bruce, Thomas Albert, Michael Pisaro, Manfred Stahnke, and Kyle Gann. He also considers his practice of just intonation to have influenced Mannfred Stahnke, and with James Tenney, Larry Polansky (Bremel 1995).
Johnston began as a traditional composer of art music before working with Harry Partch, helping the senior musician to build instruments and use them in the performance and recording of new compositions. After working with Partch, Johnston studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College. It was in fact Partch himself who arranged for Johnston to study with Milhaud (Duckworth 1995, 122). Johnston, beginning in 1959, was also a student of John Cage, who encouraged him follow his desires and use traditional instruments rather than electronics or newly built ones (Bermel 1995). Unskilled in carpentry and finding electronics then unreliable, Johnston struggled with how to integrate microtonality and conventional instrumentals for ten years and struggled with how to integrate microtones into his compositional language through a slow process of many stages (Gann 1995, p.1). However, since 1960 Johnston has used, almost exclusively, a system of microtonal notation based on the rational intervals of just intonation, what Gann (1995, 1) describes as a "lifelong allegiance" to "microtonality".
Other works include the orchestral work Quintet for Groups (commissioned by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Sonnets of Desolation (commissioned by the Swingle Singers), the opera Carmilla, the Sonata for Microtonal Piano (1964) and the Suite for Microtonal Piano (1977). Johnston has completed ten string quartets to date. The Kronos Quartet, led by David Harrington, has a standing offer to record all ten quartets, but its label, Nonesuch, has thus far refused the offer (Bemel 1995).
Following on the ideas of Theodor Adorno, Johnston believes that music has the power to influence and even control social trends. Johnston believes that an equal tempered tuning system based on irrational intervals contributes to the hectic hyper-activity of modern life. "Tempered tuning is not the acoustically simplest kind. In just tuning, any interval is tuned so as to eliminate 'beating' (the result of vibrations interfering with each other). Just intonation is the easiest to achieve by ear. In this kind of tuning, all intervals have vibration rates related by small whole-number ratios. The larger the integers of the ratio, the greater the dissonance" (Johnston 2006, 42).
Johnston has received many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959, a grant from the National Council on the Arts and the Humanities in 1966, two commissions from the Smithsonian Institution and the Deems Taylor Award. In 2007, the American Academy of Arts and Letters honored Johnston for his lifetime of work. His Quintet for Groups won the SWR Sinfonieorchester prize at the 2008 Donaueschinger Musiktage (Lamparter 2008).
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