Classics Today: Ben Johnston’s Microtonal Significance

Artistic Quality: 10
Sound Quality: 10

Review by Jed Distler

For decades, Ben Johnston’s 1984 String Quartet No. 7 had the reputation of being the most difficult quartet ever composed. The long third-movement variations are based on hundreds of pitches derived from minuscule divisions of the octave that make even Johnston’s other microtonal works seem minimalistic by comparison. Yet if the rigor, specificity, and sophistication of Johnston’s microtonal language requires a great deal of time and commitment for even the most patient and tenacious musicians to master, the musical rewards are completely worth the trouble, as the Kepler Quartet’s premiere recorded performance brilliantly bears out.

From the listener’s end, it’s easy to adjust to assimilate the aforementioned third movement’s disarming melodies, broad sustained chording, and multi-colored sequences involving overtones via Johnston’s microtonal sound world. The palindrome-based second movement, marked “Eerie”, features gorgeous ponticello effects interacting with sparse, unpredictably deployed pizzicato
chords. The first movement’s sudden glissandos are purposeful rather than effect-oriented, and evoke images of kids tag-teaming down a treacherous water slide.

Quartet No. 8 is easier to grasp (and to perform) on the surface. Indeed, one could peg the first movement as “detuned Shostakovich”, or the finale as a “microtonal hoedown”, and leave it at that. Yet Johnston’s carefully pinpointed pitches are imbued with a slightly unsettling intensity and ambiguity.

Imagine you’re looking at a tree, and the form of the tree is clear, the colors seem slightly but decisively off, yet you can’t turn away because the unusual details pull you in and make you observe something familiar in a completely different light.

If you’re new to Ben Johnston’s quartets, start with No. 8, play No. 7 next, and then you’ll be ready for the more austere and foreboding No. 6 in one uninterrupted movement. Written in memory of composer Salvatore Martirano, the brief Quietness for string quartet and voice features Johnston himself intoning the vocal part in a gravelly fashion, relishing every word.

This release marks the culmination of the Kepler Quartet’s complete Ben Johnston quartet cycle. Violinists Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violist Brek Renzelman, and cellist Karl Lavine devoted much of the past 14 years to learning, mastering, and ultimately inhabiting Johnston’s aesthetic. Their intricately honed ensemble values, characterful solo turns, and wide palette of nuances extend far beyond merely playing the unplayable, setting performance standards that will keep young, enterprising quartets humble for decades.

Kyle Gann’s analytical notes may elude general listeners, yet they are extremely helpful for composers, performers, and scholars who want to dig deeper into these fascinating, singularly compelling works. In sum, this release crowns one of New World’s most important recording projects.