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A Barnful of Music
Howard Johnson and the Signal Hill Ranch

photo of howard johnson in working clothes sitting in front of his barnHoward Johnson and his wife Liz, owners of Signal Hill Ranch, donate their high-tech barn as a venue for the Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival.

Musicians performing for the first time in the barn atop Signal Hill during the Methow Chamber Music Festival have a surprise in store: outstanding acoustics.

“The acoustics were not random,” says Howard Johnson, owner of Signal Hill Ranch. He’s an electrical engineer by trade and knows a thing or two about how to create state-of-the-art acoustical experiences.

“It makes a huge impression on an audience that they don’t notice,” Johnson laughs. Specially designed, large wooden panels on each side of the hall and a canopy over the stage focus the sound right out into the audience, Johnson explains. Even the dirt floor was designed with acoustics in mind. Where horse manure once lay, Johnson installed an underlayment of gravel to help reflect sound. The combined effect is crystal clear, resonating music.  

Local metalworker Barry Stromberg crafted the ironwork railing that runs along the balcony, and Methow woodworker Bruce Morrison carved six-foot replicas of the scrolled head of a violin that hang at the back of the seating area. Otherwise, it’s undisguised barn ambience.

Originally built to house show horses, the barn sits high on a pastured, east-facing slope between Winthrop and Twisp with stunning views of mountains and hillsides all around.  If the timing and weather are right, audiences can enjoy top-flight chamber musicians while, through an open barn door, they watch the moon rise over the hills - one of those special Methow Magic moments.

This will be the third year that the well-traveled music festival (which opens Friday, July 22) has been held at the Signal Hill barn.  The festival was started in 1996 by violinist John Konigsmark. Performances were held in a meadow in Mazama, then moved to a tent, and eventually a barn, in Winthrop.

Thanks to the generosity of Johnson and his wife Liz, the music festival now has a 200-seat home renovated and engineered especially for the purpose. Not to mention a “real Texas Ice House” where drinks are dispensed to patrons before and after concerts.

Johnson and his wife moved to the Methow from Woodinville in 1999 with their two daughters, Alexandra and Katherine. Like so many other newcomers to the valley, they fell in love with it as vacationers. And when the music festival needed a new space, the Johnsons offered their barn. 

“When I met (artistic director) Kevin Krentz I was extremely impressed with him,” says Johnson. “I like to work with a person who has to make something work,” he adds. “Mostly I just wanted to do it to have a beautiful festival site.”

Johnson uses part of the building for his business, Signal Consulting, Inc. There’s also a television studio he uses for such things as broadcasting experiments to students. 

A well-known computer hardware architect, Johnson holds a doctorate in electrical engineering from Rice University. In the 1980s, he designed the first integrated voicemail for telephones, called PhoneMail. For the last 14 years, he’s been signal integrity editor for Electronic Design News, and he’s the chief technical editor of Ethernet standards for the IEEE, a professional technology organization. Overseeing the task of setting the rules of the road for the Ethernet is hardly easy. It means getting 450 engineers to agree what those standards should be, he explains, laughing. “Have you ever tried to get two contractors to agree on something?”

Johnson holds 14 patents, and his focus is on hardware connections, which determine how fast data can be moved electronically. The bottom line: They need to be smaller so they can work faster, he says.  “Everything works faster when it’s smaller.”

In addition to three textbooks and 350 technical papers, he’s the author of “High Speed Digital Design A Handbook of Black Magic,” which has been translated into Chinese and Russian, among other languages. For each of the last 18 years he’s been invited to the University of Oxford in England to lecture on digital design, and he travels the world to share what he knows. 

“High Speed Digital Design” has a co-author, UC Berkeley professor Martin Graham, who was Johnson’s mentor for 20 years. “He’d never written down anything,” says Johnson, and Graham’s invaluable knowledge would have been lost had Johnson not recorded it for others to learn from.  Today, says Johnson, “About 10,000 people have taken my courses,” among them digital engineers from such firms as Intel, Dell and Cisco.

Johnson grew up in Texas. His mother was a church choir teacher, and she insisted her children learn to sing. Johnson says he learned pretty well – he readily belts out a persuasive note to demonstrate the acoustical properties of the barn. But his sister, Gale Odom, did even better at music. A soprano with a long list of professional performance credits, she’s dean of the Hurley School of Music at Centenary College in Shreveport, La., and she’ll perform this year at the festival.

For his part, Johnson took up music again after many years and plays an upright bass with the Pipestone Orchestra.

Johnson stresses that although he’s donated the barn space, it’s the music festival volunteers who make it all work. There’s constant tweaking and improvement of the venue; this year, for example, the back corners of the seating area were raised two steps to provide better viewing. There’s work to be done year ‘round, he says. At the moment, he’s looking for gardeners willing to plant and tend flowers at the site.