Mark Medwin Review of Johnston Nos. String Quartets 6-8

By Mark Medwin

It should go without saying that music history, as with history in general, is not linear at all. It moves in spirals, exhibiting points of accomplishment and reflection to those willing to see and contemplate them. With the completion of its survey of American composer Ben Johnston’s 10 string quartets, the Kepler Quartet has reached one of these milestones, and it presents a similar point of definition in being the first to play and record Johnston’s brilliant and staggeringly difficult Seventh Quartet.

Johnston, who celebrated his 90th birthday on March 15, 2016, is no stranger to these large and small-scale returns. His compositional career, of which his string quartets are a microcosm, has been defined by them. His use of the 12-tone method and what I’ll call microtonal concerns, while initially representing successive developments in his remarkable aesthetic, merged far beyond the pretense of a composer in search of techniques. This third volume demonstrates the combination as completely and naturally as a single disc can. It was my introduction to Johnston’s music, and, as will become abundantly clear, I now understand it to be some of the most important music of the last 60 years.

While Fanfare may not be the ideal forum to discuss the technicalities of Johnston’s accomplishments, not to mention those of the Kepler Quartet, it seems reasonable to focus in some detail on the Seventh Quartet. As with the late musicologist Bob Gilmore’s expert notes in earlier volumes, Kyle Gann’s superb essay presents the three quartets offered here in historical context, especially the Seventh. He elucidates, for example, the 176-note row, obviously microtonal in the extreme, that Johnston uses to construct its third movement, which can be described as a series of gradually altered repetitions which become clearer on successive listenings. As if to offset any uneasiness on the listener’s part, Gann is also quick to point out the humorous elements in the first movement. The quartet comprises two fairly brief movements and a much longer third, and for those of us less familiar with the intricacies of microtonal music, an initial read can be slightly intimidating. However, listening to the music itself, at least for me, was anything but intimidating; once my ear became acclimated to the new sonorities, it became clear that the sounds we hear as major and minor became, for Johnston, points of historical and stylistic reference, just as bebop was on John Coltrane’s last tour with Miles Davis, or as the blues licks were on Jimi Hendrix’s furthest excursions. It also becomes clear that the composer and performers, who worked closely together on this project, want the various technical components to be experienced as fully as possible, so deliberately differentiated are the quartet’s timbral, dynamic and rhythmic elements. The sudden glissandos at a strategic point in the first movement, called “Prelude,” made me laugh out loud, and the second movement, titled “Palindromes,” wears its serially melodic development on its sleeve, supported by gorgeously evocative pizzicato chords while each instrument presents versions of the row. However, these miniatures are only preparatory to the vast variation set that is the third movement. It shimmers hazily, what my ear stubbornly perceives as thirds and fourths surfacing amidst other and more bracingly complex sonorities that, as with any new language, need repeated exposure to internalize. The movement’s slow ascent is a thing of supreme beauty and, despite its obvious difficulties, of a well-defined and aching simplicity, a noble truth to be assimilated on whatever level the listener chooses. Chords ebb and flow, giving rise to occasional melodies that are then subsumed. The microtonal and serial language represents astonishing unity in what the Kepler Quartet and the recording team has made very easy on the ear.

The Sixth and Eight Quartets are somewhat more immediately accessible; Gann calls the Eighth Neoclassical, and while he is not mentioned in the notes, Bartók seems an obvious predecessor, not just in terms of a return to relative simplicity but in terms of whimsy amidst striking complexity, as does Charles Ives. Finally, we have the chance to hear Johnston’s voice, narrating his 1996 piece Quietness, a freestanding quartet aphorism whose poetic text, courtesy of the Sufi mystic Rumi, makes all manner of reflection and return evident.

It is difficult to imagine a more committed performance of these pieces. Certainly, other groups will bring their insights to bear on such important music, but for now, while celebrating Johnston’s own temporal milestone, we can rejoice that this well-executed project has come to such felicitously fine fruition. This final volume is one of the finest releases of 2016, but it is also one of the finest string quartet discs I’ve ever heard and will ever hear, exemplary of the fortuitous combination of composer, performers and production of the first order.