By virtue of our recording project, the Kepler Quartet has had a privileged window into the essentially spiritual quest in Ben Johnston’s music. Johnston embraces a richer way of being: to work towards pure, honest relationships with others by using a vertical, harmonic approach concentrating on perfect intervals which produce less discord, increased resonance, and maximum clarity. At age 90, a full fifteen years after he stopped writing music, Johnston has come to a place in his life where his main goal is to have a positive impact on his environment.
Just look at the names: new complexity, neo-romanticism, post-minimalism—three of the broadest trends in contemporary music, all with echoes of pastiche baked right into their labels. Clearly artists have always taken ideas and materials from other sources—how could we not?—but never before have we so celebrated the attribution of those sources.
We have always had cultural gatekeepers: artists, publishers, concert promoters, radio producers, teachers, etc. At the top of this filtering process is the mind and ears of the artist. What can help provide context for the music and enrich and inform the listening experience? Will that change the end result, deepen the experience, or help uncover influence?
Miles didn’t make Bitches Brew by himself; it was the product of a unique compositional collaboration between the trumpeter and his longtime, essential producer at Columbia Records, Teo Macero (1925-2008), an in-house composer, arranger, and producer for Columbia Records who also shaped and directed essential albums by Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Johnny Mathis, and Tony Bennett as well as a recording of music by Alan Hovhaness plus the soundtrack to The Graduate.
Most serious instrumentalists don’t like to sing onstage. They may have sung in chorus or solfege class, and may sing in the shower, but the spotlight is something else. Adding to the stress, stage direction may take the singer/instrumentalist away from his or her music stand, requiring that the instrumental parts be memorized.