Talking Music by William Duckworth (c) 1995 by Schirmer Books ISBN 0-02-870823-7 excerpts 2281w

- pg 131 thru 136 -

DUCKWORTH: Didn't you get married just before going to California to work with Partch?

JOHNSTON: Yes. And I wrote Harry and said, "I'm going to be married when I come out there, " and go back this letter about biological traps ... a nasty letter. That letter got lost. I'm real sorry. That was a classic. Anyhow, he was very upset. He thought this was idiotic. And not only idiotic, but unfair to her, to me, and to the history of music. I think he wanted me to come out there and be his paramour. I really do. But that was not going to happen. When I showed up with Betty he adjusted, but he deliberately gardened in the nude to embarrass her. And he brought boyfriends up to the ranch to embarrass both of us. That was, maybe, a week or two. After that, everything just dropped away and he stopped showing off and everything was adjusted, so to speak, on mutual terms. So that was one of those shoals that one rode over, finally. That was an interesting and difficult situation.

DUCKWORTH: How were you planning to support yourself while you worked with Partch?

JOHNSTON: Well, you see, what Harry arranged was to get me into Berkeley. And I had the G.I. Bill, which paid me $50 a month. So we lived on $50 a month plus whatever our mothers would send us. They were fairly generous, but we didn't have a lot of money. We were really living on nothing. Still, we had more than Partch did.

DUCKWORTH: What was your first impression when you met Partch?

JOHNSTON: He was unlike anything I had ever thought of or could have expected. But I rather quickly adjusted because I thought, "Now what kind of guy would do all these things?" He looked like his pictures in the book, as far as physically. But the way he dressed! He dressed like somebody who lives out in the middle of the woods and gathers firewood. He liked purple shirts ... really special, Partch-type, bad taste. And he had this incredible house he'd made himself out of an old blacksmithy. He was a wonderful carpenter, aside from being an instrument builder. And all these marvelous instruments ... I thought I was dreaming ... This was unbelievable.

DUCKWORTH: Did you and Betty live with Partch?

JOHNSTON: For the time being we stayed in a guest house he'd made -- a little Japanese-style guest house with no furniture in it, just mats on the floor. Then, we had to adapt a cottage for our use, and that meant rebuilding the place. So under his supervision that's what we did. We climbed up on the roof and replaced all the shingles. I was very clumsy and not at all good with tools. I had to be trained, like some idiot, because no one had ever shown me how to do those things. My upbringing just never included anything like that. And Harry had grown up with this, you know. He was very scornful -- just as harsh as he could be -- but he realized we had to learn, so he had to put up with our clumsiness. Betty was no better than I. She had to learn how to cook on a wood stove. She made some impressive food and he liked that. I think he accepted her a little more readily because of that. As far as I was concerned, I wasn't afraid of work. I was willing to do all those things, I just didn't know how and I was clumsy. He could see I wasn't going to be any help to him building his instruments, so he set me to tuning. Every day I had to tune the instruments.

DUCKWORTH: What was a normal day with Partch like?

JOHNSTON: I would practice a part and he would tell me what I was doing wrong. Finally, he would say "That's more like it," and he would begin to get interested himself. "Now try to play it with me." And we would start. We would work up to recordings. And he did the same with Betty, although he would expect her to come down during the morning and work a little while. He would giver her some instrument. He would show her. He was very patient with her, but he made her learn how to do these things. She had a pretty good ear. She was playing some guitars and a little bit of chromelodeon.

DUCKWORTH: What were the afternoons like?

JOHNSTON: In the afternoons we had to do chores. We had to go find firewood ... a great variety of things. Whatever building had to be done. You see, he liked to use his mornings for creative work, which made good sense, and then he would go out and do physical work all afternoon. And he expected me to help him. So we would get in his old Studebaker and drive where we had to go and do whatever we had to do. They were building a ridge road up on top of the coast range and they had bulldozed all of the trees out of the way so there was a lot of wood lying around. And that's what we used to do -- go up to the road and get manzanita roots and things like that.

DUCKWORTH: What did you do at night?

JOHNSTON: Well, we had kerosene lamps so we couldn't do a lot of reading. We would sit and talk ... go to bed early.

DUCKWORTH: After you go to know him, what impressed you the most?

JOHNSTON: Total independence. He was irascibly independent. I learned something about society that I never forgot, and that is, no matter how few people there are, there are the same problems as with millions. It's as though there's a certain amount of good stuff and shit, and they have to go on, even if there are only a few people. That includes war and all the rest of it.

DUCKWORTH: What's the most important musical thing you learned from him?

JOHNSTON: I learned all this just intonation stuff by ear. He discovered I had a good enough ear to know the stuff. I was beginning to develop absolute pitch in Harry's system. He would say, "Sing 16/15," and I would do that. And he would say, "Sing 16/11," and I would sing that.

DUCKWORTH: Did he have absolute pitch in his system?

JOHNSTON: No, no. Relative pitch. Very good relative pitch.

DUCKWORTH: What do you think he heard?

JOHNSTON: I have no idea.

DUCKWORTH: How did he work in his system?

JOHNSTON: I know how he worked, because I watched him do it. He would play one note; he would get the interval; he would get another note. Relative pitch. Theoretically, his mind was so good that everything ... he had it right at his fingertips. Well, I didn't at that point. But I did better than anybody else he'd ever worked with. He like me for that and we got along fine on that level. And he assumed I'd studied his book inside out. Well, I hadn't had an opportunity to, so I quickly did as much as I could, but even so, not enough. So I had to fake a little bit and that was unfortunate, because if I hadn't had to I would have learned an awful lot more from him. I had to teach myself later.

DUCKWORTH: Was he willing to teach you anything you wanted to know?


DUCKWORTH: Did he volunteer anything?

JOHNSTON: No, I had to ask.

DUCKWORTH: Why do you suppose he wouldn't want you to say you studied with him?

JOHNSTON: He's not a teacher. He said, "I don't know how to compose and I don't want anybody claiming to have studied with me because I don't teach." He said, "I need help, and if you give me the help, I'll answer any questions you have." Which is what he did.

DUCKWORTH: Were you satisfied with that?

JOHNSTON: Well, I had to be.

DUCKWORTH: I understand you went out to California without having heard any of his music. What did you think when you finally heard it?

JOHNSTON: I thought U.S. Highball was a masterpiece, as I still think. And the Li-Po Songs were marvelous. That's all there was to hear, just about. The Intrusions that we were working on ... I thought they were wonderful.

DUCKWORTH: How did you hear U.S. Highball?

JOHNSTON: He had put a record out when he was in Wisconsin.

DUCKWORTH: So you could listen to a record? I thought he lived more primitively than that.

JOHNSTON: He had playback equipment. And we had some electricity, but not much. He had a generator and he would run lights and whatever off the generator. But it was fueled by gasoline and gasoline costs money. There was very little money, so we had to use it very sparingly. When necessary, he could play records, but he didn't do it except occasionally.

DUCKWORTH: Did Partch look at your music?

JOHNSTON: Yes, he listened to it. I had made acetates of some things when I was at Cincinnati, and he listened to it and said, "Well, you're really a composer." That's all he said.

DUCKWORTH: Did you write any music while you were there?

JOHNSTON: I had a commission from Wilford Leach. Wilford was a college friend of mine; we did a musical together at William and Mary. We had a lot of fun, and we won a BMI prize for the musical. He got a job at the University of Virginia when he graduated. He was doing a production of one of his plays there, and he wanted music for the production, and he wanted me to write it. But I couldn't because I didn't even have a piano, you know. I told him, "This is hopeless. I can't do this!" But what finally happened was that he was insistent, and I persuaded Harry, and Harry said, "Let's do it with the instruments. That's the logical thing. It will get you acquainted with the instruments." So the first thing we recorded was music for Wilford Leach's The Wooden Bird. Well, Harry wrote about half of it. He had to because I didn't work fast enough.

DUCKWORTH: How long did you work with Parch before he got sick?

JOHNSTON: Six months. We got the Intrusions recorded, but Harry's health started to break toward the end when we were doing Cloud Chamber Music. It never got recorded properly because Harry wasn't up to it and that haunted him. By that time Donald Pippin was out there. He was accompanying ballet in New York, didn't like it a bit, and wanted to be doing something else. The idea of coming to the West Coast appealed to him, so he came out and we did all the recordings. And Donald was a good keyboard player. He took over the chromelodeon duties and that was very satisfactory. Harry was pleased.

DUCKWORTH: Didn't you also record The Letter?

JOHNSTON: Yes, we recorded all those pieces. We did a recording of his setting of Thomas Wolfe's Dark Brother, but it's not a good recording so it's never been released. Well, I have a southern accent, so Harry wanted me to do that and I did. I learned how to intone it and that, I think, impressed him more than anything else that I did. Because I learned it very quickly and very accurately and I didn't need to keep going to the instruments for the notes. I would sing it -- and this happened more than once -- I would sing it and be right and the instruments would have gone out of tune. I would prove it by going to the instruments and showing. him. Things like that happened. That set very well with him.

- pg 138, 139 -

DUCKWORTH: When you left Harry Partch, how did you come to study with Darius Milhaud?

JOHNSTON: Well, Harry introduced me to Milhaud through Agnes Albert, who was a patroness of his. Agnes was a wealthy socialite in San Francisco, who served on the Mills College advisory board. So she had a dinner party and invited the Milhauds and Harry and us. Agnes made them aware of what I was doing, and Milhaud thought that was interesting. And I had a beard. No one had a beard in those days except the Beat Generation; it was still new. So he was a little impressed by that, I think. He thought I was independent-minded. And the first thing I showed him I got to Mills to study with him were some songs I had written, one of which was a setting of Baudelaire; it was the setting of "Le Gout de Neant." He liked it and complimented me on my setting of French words. He really took those songs to be an indication of talent. He was unusually complimentary to me, so it was very nice and everything worked quite well. That's how I came to study with Milhaud.

DUCKWORTH: What was it like to go from working with Partch to studying with Milhaud?

JOHNSTON: Well, it was strange. I really felt like some kind of ... freak is too strong a word, but some kind of curiosity. That's all right. That's good. See, Milhaud understood this type of rebellious artist. He was all for it. His god was Satie. And he was very patient with me. He realized I didn't have much compositional savvy and I'd have to learn quite a lot.