The Three Bs: Bach, Beethoven, and… Ben Johnston?

As recorded by the Kepler Quartet, Johnston's quartets illuminate the many possibilities inherent in exploring just intonation within a modern context.

The motto for the Kepler Quartet's monumental recordings of Ben Johnston's challenging and musically advanced string quartets. (Still from YouTube video describing this recording project)

CHICAGO, May 30, 2016 – The time: Feb. 17, 2016. The place: Tanner-Monagle Studios in Milwaukee. The Kepler Quartet is about to record its final take on one of the most monumental recording projects in American history. Once jokingly dubbed “project rabbit hole,” the quartet’s original idea—to record Ben Johnston’s 10 challenging string quartets—turned into a 14-year labor of love.

The composer – who would turn 90 a month later – was present throughout the rehearsal and recording process, helping the Kepler Quartet craft the definitive imprint of his work. The nature of such a collaboration, rare in music history as it is, will hopefully give future ensembles a “composer approved” sonic starting point from which to pursue performances of these extremely difficult compositions

Johnston’s 10 quartets were written over the span of 30 years, with the latter nine focusing entirely on the use of just intonation as opposed to the tempered tuning so familiar to western ears. As mathematically creative as they are artistically profound, Johnston’s quartets may indeed be the last truly “new” expressions possible in the acoustic medium.

If Bach composed his “Well Tempered Clavier” to show off his shiny new tempered tuning system, then it is Johnston’s quartets that illuminate the many possibilities inherent in the exploration of just intonation within a modern context.

For the uninitiated, it works like this: If the standard western tonal system has 12 distinct pitches per octave – with compromised interval measurements to create a pleasing balance – Johnston’s music greatly expands this possibility by using intervals with “pure” relationships. Such a system enables vastly more distinct pitches if the measurements within the overtone series are considered.

For instance, Johnston’s seventh quartet – called the “Mount Everest of string quartets” – contains over 1,200 distinct pitches. In an age where popular singers cannot even complete a simple melody without the corrective assistance of autotune, the tuning demands of Johnston’s work truly exist on an entirely higher dimensional plane.

While Johnston’s musical stylings travel from serialism to more innocent folkloric expressions, his entire output takes place in an expanded universe of sound, a universe that unsettles some even as it rivets the attention of others. The Kepler Quartet’s Eric Segnitz recalls the ensemble’s first performance of Johnston’s tenth quartet, in which the “collective gasp of the audience” could be heard “after the end of every movement.”* This most approachable of Johnston’s works is what would eventually inspire the quartet to record the entire cycle.

Equally approachable perhaps is the composer’s String Quartet No. 5, which emerges from his unique take on the old black spiritual, “Lonesome Valley.” The 5th Quartet opens a true parallel universe of sound, residing as it does on the cusp of the recognizable while leading the adventurous listener into ever newer vistas. (Recordings of the fifth and 10th string quartets are available at New World Records, Catalogue number 80693.)

Kepler Quartet: Ben Johnston’s String Quartets 1, 5, and 10 from Jon Roy on Vimeo.

While Johnston’s early works are serial in construction, his later works emerge from his personal crisis confronting the consequences of academic modernism as well as from his perception of the growing gulf between contemporary music and its ever-dwindling audience.

As with other great reformers of modernism, including Penderecki, Górecki and Arvo Pärt, Johnston’s musical journey also included a prominent spiritual dimension, as this lifelong seeker would at this time convert to Roman Catholicism. While Johnston would continue to explore his microtonal universe, he did so with the ideal of discernible proportions and intelligibility in mind. If new music was to be complex and challenging, it at least ought to be attainable, at least by the average adventurous ear.

The final album on the Kepler Quartet’s long recording journey consists of Johnston’s sixth, seventh, and eighth quartets. As if eager to address the elephant in the room, Kepler begins this recording with the immense and nearly impossible seventh quartet, with the first movement – “Prelude: Scurrying, forceful, intense”– living up to its powerful title, even as the quartet ably navigates the stunning tonal complexity of the work. The final composition of Johnston’s “pre crisis” works, the seventh quartet may indeed mark the zenith of the modernist movement as a whole.

The eighth quartet – the first in Johnston’s “postmodernist” works – follows. Here listeners can immediately appreciate the consequences of Johnston’s aesthetic conclusions, as an intense melodic and contrapuntal clarity combine to carry the work forward. Johnston himself describes this quartet as a “crossing from the darkness of mental illness into the light of lucidity.” Indeed its first movement conforms strictly to a sonata form, while the slowly rolling second movement gives listeners the time and space to enter into Johnston’s tonal vision.

The quartet’s mischievous third movement falls somewhere between a folk dance and a waltz, with its closely packed microtonal melodic material only adding to the work’s humor. Its final movement emerges into an immediately recognizable minimalist texture. Yet somewhere a folk reference – a distant hoedown perhaps? – exists just beneath its surface. In the end, the incredibly complex process that organizes the piece and drives it to its satisfying conclusion is one that would make both the modernist and the minimalist alike experience a frisson of admiration.

Johnston’s sixth quartet takes its inspiration from the notion of “endless melody” found in Wagner as well as the cadential formulas in the compositions of Monteverdi. These ideas are bound up into a thoroughly serialist work which nevertheless draws its tone row out of expanded intonation. While the work has previously been recorded, the Kepler Quartet’s astounding attention to tuning and detail certainly give us a definitive version of this work.

After the major quartets are complete, the Kepler Quartet caps its journey with a brief yet striking poetic gesture called “Quietness,” a short setting of an English translation of a 13th century Sufi mystical poem. The vocal part in this little work is here appropriately sung by the composer himself. When Johnston sings “walk out like someone suddenly borne into color,” one might think of his expanded perception of tonality which doubtless results from spending a concentrated hour inside Johnston’s musical mind.

The medium of the string quartet has historically become a place where the great composers take their biggest chances while also revealing a great deal of their own inner lives and souls. One might risk a comparison to a great composer like Beethoven, whose late quartets became a vehicle for his own vision of expanded musical expression. It may very well be that the wild journey initiated by Beethoven may now have been completed in Johnston’s work. At the very least, one must ask if anything more is possible, or if Johnston’s quartets truly mark the artistic moment where modern composers can finally be free from the constant pressure to achieve newness and novelty in every composition.

What comes next for this newly recorded body of work? In his article for, Eric Segnitz says

“It’s not up to Johnston, or the Kepler Quartet, to say what that further reality might be. We’ve shared our particular window. Now we all get to sit back and be astonished by whatever happens next.”

One thing is certain: This oft-labeled maverick composer, Ben Johnston, is already taking his place in the pantheon of American originals. His richly rewarding works will continue to astound composers while raising the bar for string quartet performances for years to come.

*(From the program notes for Quartet No. 10.)

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