Selections from The Tavern


Program Note

The Tavern is a setting of Coleman Barth’s translation of Rumi. It’s a Sufi idea of what it is to come as a beginner to that particular brand of spiritual discipline and how, in one aspect, it is a lot like getting drunk in a tavern. In other words, to paraphrase Rumi, it’s necessary to have that intoxicating element there, which is both a tremendous source of energy and a danger. The danger is obvious, especially in the Muslim tradition, since drinking is out – that’s not done. It’s definitely on the wrong side. So, what we’re talking about there is a metaphor, but at the same time the metaphor is out. We’re talking about something which is psychologically not safe. But, on the other hand, it is necessary – and the reason it is necessary is that there has to be a dissolving of the ordinary ego. When you do that, what are you going to put in its place? It is a little bit like drunkenness. It’s not that simple, but the sacrifice you have to make is nothing short of organizing and re-organizing your entire life. I’d say getting into any spiritual discipline is going to be like that. I remember a conversation with John Cage where I asked him what he thought of the Sufi tradition and he said, “I like dry wine. That’s sweet wine.”

We set out to do The Tavern as a collaboration, because John Schneider knows the guitar as very few (maybe not any) know it. I was long ago convinced that the fingerboard, which is removable and based on deciding upon a set of pitches needed for each particular tuning, ought if possible to become the next step in the history of the guitar in performance. Our work to make The Tavern is a major step toward this goal.

BenandJohnI bring to our collaboration a concept of pitch organization based on pure, simple pitch ratios like those used by Harry Partch, but freed from the limitations imposed by his instrumental designs. As he knew, and agreed to from our earliest contact onward, our ways of using these fresh tuning possibilities imply, and in practice produce, very different kinds of music, but with common roots. I am a very different kind of artist from Harry Partch, but what matters most is the results of each approach. Let’s let our musics speak for themselves. A major figure in this peace-making is John Schneider. We must be careful to see this role as liberating —- not as a breaking of tradition. Tradition?? Harry Partch?? What a self-contradiction! The question is not “How do we keep it going?” It is, “Where do we go from here?” – Ben Johnston (Nov 2009)

About Ben Johnston

American composer of mostly stage, chamber, choral, and vocal works that have been performed throughout the world. He is widely recognized for generalizing Harry Partch’s system of Just Intonation (proportional…