Chamber Music, Contemporary Music Media Review Print

A Chamber Music Milestone: Ben Johnston's Ten Quartets, Recorded by the Kepler Quartet

August 29, 2016 - Raleigh, NC:

Ben Johnston: String Quartets 2 (1964), 3 (1966), 4 (1973), & 9 (1988). Kepler Quartet. New World 80637. Available here.
String Quartets 1 (1959), 5 (1979) & 10 (1995). New World 80693. Available here.
String Quartets 6 (1980), 7 (1984), 8 (1986), & "Quietness" (©2006, spoken by the composer). New World 80730. Available here.

Over the past decade, New World Records has issued three CDs containing Ben Johnston's ten quartets. The first came out in 2006, followed by the second in 2011 and the third this year, in 2016, as Johnston turns 90. The Kepler Quartet, formed in Wisconsin in 2002 after performing Quartet No. 10, is devoted entirely to the performance and recording of these ten quartets. Its members are Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violins, Brek Renzelman, viola, and Karl Lavine, cello. Bios of these artists are here.

Johnston taught for many years at University of Illinois but took early retirement in the 1980s and moved to Rocky Mount, NC. After early experience as an acolyte of Harry Partch he set off on his own. The quartets have occupied him throughout most of his professional life (1959-95). Collectively, they may be seen as touchstones in a fascinating career, much as Beethoven's or Shostakovich's works for strings are retrospectively viewed.

The three CD sets do not take the quartets in order, but for the purposes of this review, I will treat them chronologically. There is a wide variation in styles from the first to the last, but all use some degree of microtonal and serial techniques, frequently in extreme complexity.

Quartet No.1 (1959) is titled "Nine Variations." However, the theme is never stated, and as the variation techniques are abstruse and twelve-tone, which was fashionable at the time, there is no chance for the listener to have any idea what the theme might be. This was very much an avant-garde work at the time, and was intended to embody elaborations of the idea of the piece – which may or may not have meaning to the audience. John Cage reviewed the score and offered much advice. The overall impression is what one has come to expect from strict serial compositions.

Quartet No. 2 (1964) is considerably harsher on the ears than the first quartet, with maximal leaps in what could be considered melodic lines, if only defined as one note after another by the same instrument. The microtonal technique uses a 53 note scale, although any vibrato smears out the pitch more than the microtones do. The high notes are extremely high, which can serve to clear the sinuses, but much of the therapeutic effect is drowned out by the sensation of chewing ground glass.

In the third movement, there is much thrashing and bumping about; the liner notes mention "violent extremes." The composer said "To extend musical order further into the jungle of randomness and complexity…that is perhaps the fundamental aim of contemporary serious music." This was not the aim of any other era of music, or any other art form, and speaks volumes as to the role of "serious music" today. If you asked Bach, he'd say his music was in service to God, and Handel would say "to make people better." These sentiments do not have much place in the academic composition scene of the last three generations.

Quartet No. 3 (1966) is in one movement, again with a 53 note scale and serial technique. The second movement was written ten years later. During this time, Johnston wrote a number of papers about nature and contemporary composition. He describes modern life as chaotic, and his personal experience of these years as "a private season in hell." He has managed to share this hell with the world by means of his compositions.

I tried listening to the second movement, titled "The Silence" (1:38), but didn't hear anything. That is because it is, actually, just silence. Johnston wrote of this at length, and it would be a shame to not share some of this academic eloquence with you, the dear reader. (Note that "Crossings" is referring to a performance of the Third and Fourth quartets together, bridged by "The Silence.")

"Crossings is a traverse, a transformation/journey from one leaf of a diptych to the other, from one rim of a canyon to the other, from one quartet to another. One is invited to try which pairings the work-as-perceived will accept: old world/new world? international style/world music? serial emphasis/proportional emphasis? personal/transpersonal? The philosophical game is still more challenging when only one leaf of the diptych is contemplated, when only one half of the mapping is known. String Quartet No. 3, issuing into silence, asks us an urgent question. And what is the question?"

What indeed! (It does go on, but that's enough for now.) Oddly enough, there are computer programs now that can generate composers' (musical) statements automatically, which read about like this. However the technology did not exist in 1966, and composers had to do it on their own.

Quartet No. 4 (1973) is a set of variations, more or less, on "Amazing Grace." As such, there are times when there is an identifiable melody, which helps; this is Johnston's best-known composition. There are three different kinds of tuning in its 11 minutes, but the audience will likely not notice this detail.

Quartet No. 5 (1979) is in one movement, and is in variation form based on "Lonesome Valley," an Appalachian gospel song. The microtonal technique results in very harsh dissonances that maximize the feeling of "out of tune."

Quartet No. 6 (1980) uses microtonal just intonation through the 11th harmonic, with 61 different pitches. After this quartet, the CD includes "Quietness," from 1996. This uses a string quartet with a recording of Johnston "singing" in a manner reminiscent of Florence Foster Jenkins, who also used chaos and microtonal techniques.

Quartet No. 7 (1984) waited 30 years for performance; the first was for this recording. It has a reputation as the most difficult quartet ever written, although there is no clear metric for this dubious distinction. It is the last movement that is so formidable, using a 176 pitch row with no repetitions, as each pitch is a few cents higher than the one before. Not recommended for those with epilepsy or prone to migraines, especially as this movement lasts a very long 16:15.

Quartet No. 8 (1986) is described as "neoclassic," but it is hard to tell. There is some recognizable harmony. Timothy Ernest Johnson's dissertation* based on this music says it is a "crossing from the darkness of mental illness into the light of lucidity."

Quartet No. 9 (1988) was composed after Johnston moved from Illinois to Rocky Mount.

Quartet No. 10 (1995) is a retrospective piece. Johnston described the final movement as "sort of a music history essay period-by-period." The final movement includes "Danny Boy."

All in all, these ten quartets are unlikely to grace the concert hall near you anytime soon, or any other time either. The labor required to perform them is phenomenal, and only a few expert specialist players could try. It is not surprising that this quartet does nothing else. The results are to the taste of a minute audience, and these CDs will probably suffice to saturate the need. The general concert-going audience will not appreciate this music. The other serial and microtonal works written during these decades are largely forgotten by now, and new music has moved on to other techniques, for the most part. As a general rule, one catches more flies with honey than vinegar. However, writing music desired and needed by an audience is of little importance when the composer is supported by an academic institution.

*Unpublished as of this writing.

For much more information on Johnston and this project, click here.