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Remembering Ben Johnston and His Influence on KUSC

Back in 2006, when Gail Eichenthal and I were developing the program which would become Arts Alive, we were auditioning music for use during the broadcasts. We were looking for music for various production elements—the arts news, the Around Town calendar, bumpers, closing music, etc.

Gail and I each had giant stacks of CDs on our desks. We would listen to various pieces, slap a post-it note on the jewel case with the track numbers we liked. Everything went pretty quickly. However, when it came time to choose the theme music for Arts Alive, we were having trouble. Nothing in our giant stacks of CDs was quite right.

Then, Gail called me into her office and played the Toccata from Ben Johnston’s Suite for Microtonal Piano. “What about this?” she asked.

After about 10 seconds, we both looked at each other and knew: it’s perfect.

Composer Ben Johnston died yesterday at the age of 93. He was born in 1926 in Macon, Georgia. In the 1950s, he spent some time in California, working with Harry Partch and studying with Darius Milhaud and John Cage. He was a pioneer in the practice of microtonality, that is the use of intervals smaller than the traditional half-steps or semitones. In Johnston’s sound world, an octave wouldn’t have just 12 semitones—it could have 24 or 48 or more.

The choice of microtonal music for the theme of KUSC’s flagship arts magazine represented, for Gail and me, the vastness of the arts landscape in Southern California and how you never know where you might encounter surprising and meaningful artistic experiences “in the cracks” of the mainstream.

By the way, if you didn’t know, we were also having an impossible time coming up with a name for the program. Gail remembers months of polling staff, asking other peers and colleagues in the arts world, and yes, wringing hands. So, we called in the Big Guns, ie. Ernest Fleischmann (he, of Green Umbrella naming fame at the LA Phil). Within about five seconds of us posing the title question to Ernest, he said, “Why don’t you call it Arts Alive?”

Again, perfect.

I was always so proud of the fact that Ernest Fleischmann named KUSC’s flagship arts magazine and that the theme was composed by that giant of microtonal music, Ben Johnston. We miss them both.

Written by:
Brian Lauritzen
Brian Lauritzen
Published on 07.22.2019

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