Sounds Heard: Ben Johnston—String Quartets Nos. 1, 5, and 10
Spanning five decades and scales ranging from familiar 12-tone equal temperament to an extended just intonation pitch continuum that has more than 1200 discreet pitches per octave, the ten Ben Johnston string quartets are one of the pinnacles of the American chamber music canon, but few have attempted to explore them. The 1964 Second Quartet, which has a mere 53 pitches per octave, had been released on a Nonesuch LP decades ago and the Kronos Quartet subsequently championed the Fourth Quartet (1973), a.k.a. “Amazing Grace,” making it Johnston’s most widely known work, but the Kepler Quartet upped the ante in 2006 when their remarkably fluid accounts of Quartets 2, 3, 4, and 9 were released by New World Records in honor of Johnston’s 80th birthday in 2006. For the first time, the staggering range of this music was apparent—from the heady iconoclastic approach to serialism early on to the staggering harmonic and contrapuntal possibilities of Johnston’s middle-period to the instantly accessible yet still totally wacky world of the most recent pieces. And for five years, those of us who were floored by this recording have been waiting desperately for more. Therefore, New World’s just released disc featuring the Kepler’s accounts of 1, 5, and 10 —all of which, to the best of my knowledge, are world premieres—is cause for ecstatic celebration, especially since this second installment contains even more musical surprises.
The Second String Quartet created a unique, almost three-dimensional approach to serialism by exploring the possibilities of a twelve-tone row in just intonation which, by the very nature of the tuning system, must include more than those twelve pitches when the row transposes to other pitch classes. But Johnston’s earliest essay in quartet form, subtitled “Nine Variations”, finally shows us how he got his serial chops. A series of brief movements, all derived from the same 12-tone row, Johnston’s 1959 quartet is clearly indebted to the music of Webern and the epitome of the late 1950s American compositional zeitgeist. But it is also more than that as well. In its stark juxtaposition of sounds and silences it is equally indebted to John Cage, whose music is often thought of as the antithesis of the compositional rigor of post-war American serialism because of the indeterminate processes he pursued in his own compositions. A work like Johnston’s First Quartet creates an effective rapprochement between seemingly opposing aesthetics, and ekes out moments of tenderness (as in the fifth “Fluid, pulsating” variation) and high drama (as in the sixth “Assertive” variation) which also connect him to important American tonal quartet composers of that time like Quincy Porter and David Diamond who eschewed the compositional extremes of control and chaos.
By the time the Fifth Quartet was composed, a full twenty years later in 1979, Johnston had mastered an entirely new compositional language involving a completely new world of harmony based on just intonation relationships extended up to the 13th harmonic of the overtone series. But, like the First Quartet, No. 5 is also a set of variations, although this time based on the Appalachian gospel hymn “Lonesome Valley.” If there’s any precedent for the kinds of compositional juxtapositions and transformations Johnston achieves here it is Charles Ives. (There are no real precedents for his particular approach to microtonality.)
But all this serves as an appetizer for Johnston’s tenth, and to date final, quartet, a remarkable four movement work in which vernacular Americana and scales formed from higher partials are so seamlessly intertwined as to sound inevitable. Johnston’s hitherto unexplored sonic geography here becomes something of a promised land, a place that anyone would enjoy visiting and where folks who probe deeper might want to live for the rest of their lives. And after you hear what he does to “Danny Boy” in the last movement you may never be able to hear the tune again without imagining Johnston’s extended just intonation harmonization of it.
So now with 1 through 5 and 9 and 10 out of the way that leaves only three more to go: 6, 7 and 8. But if the seven quartets recorded thus far were Herculean feats that make preparing for Elliott Carter’s Third Quartet seem like child’s play, the most laborious of the lot is still to come. The Seventh Quartet, the one that has more than 1200 distinct pitches in it, is reputed to be the most difficult to perform string quartet ever composed. Last year, Kyle Gann posted Timothy Ernest Johnson’s MIDI keyboard realization of it on his ArtsJournal blog. But after hearing what the Keplers have been able to pull off, through a combination of their immense musicality and their close work with Andreas Stefik (who prepared MIDI realizations of all of the Johnston quartets they’ve recorded thus far to help them master these unfamiliar intervals), I firmly believe that they are equipped to do it. And hopefully we won’t have to wait another five years.