Robert Carl Review of Johnston String Quartets Nos. 6–8

By Robert Carl

We have here the culmination of an epic process of both composition and recording, following one another over decades. Ben Johnston (b. 1926) has written 10 string quartets, nine of which have explored every nuance and possibility of the tuning system called “just intonation.” It achieves more perfect tunings of the intervals we usually hear within the tuning embodied in the piano (called equal temperament), but compromises that perfection in favor of everything except equal octaves and half-steps. Because I’ve reviewed the other discs in this series in Fanfare 29:6 and 34:6, with more extensive explanation, I’m going to refer devoted readers there for the conceptual background. Suffice it here to say that Johnston’s gamble has been one of the most audacious of music history, an attempt to rewrite Western practice for traditional instruments, instead of making his own (like his mentor Harry Partch), or using technological prostheses (he is of a generation that has missed most of the possibilities here). Instead he’s written incredibly difficult music for acoustic instruments, and above all strings, which with their unfretted fingerboards have the capacity to attain any indicated tuning—still incredibly difficult, but theoretically possible. And here’s the great thing—the result has been incredibly musical. 

Johnston’s 10 quartets fall into groups (I’m falling into the convenient musicological taxonomic trap here, I know). One to 3 are all serial, though only the Second and Third are “just.” With Nos. 4 to 7, Johnston opens up a new phase of his practice. In No. 4, he uses the hymn Amazing Grace to present an essay on the potential of his system to explore tunings of ever greater complexity, yet always rooted in a recognizable vernacular source that assures we hear these variations against a clear template (it remains his most popular piece to this day). The remaining three of this group explore ever more abstract and experimental aspects of the system, playing tricky structural games and culminating in the Everest of the Seventh (more below).

And then finally, in Nos. 8 to 10, the composer moves into a “Neoclassical” mode, writing quartets that fit within more traditional formal molds. But even here the audacity is breathtaking: Johnston sets out to write the music that the 18th and 19th centuries would have written, had equal temperament not been invented. In short he travels back in time to reinvent classical music’s history.

Let’s take the outer two of the three pieces on this disc first. No. 6 (1980) may well be the most abstract of all in the series. It’s also serial, though it uses a combination of overtone- and “undertone”-based hexachords to create its 12-note row. It’s in a single movement, and its character is that of “endless melody” (identified as such by Kyle Gann in his typically excellent notes, though I thought so myself before reading them). Or perhaps, you might call it endless harmony. The effect is that of a kind of eternal present, but one that is constantly surging towards some sort of goal, a strange combination of teleology and stasis.

No. 8 (1986) is far more immediate in its familiarity. Four compact movements follow the traditional course of a string quartet, from sonata-allegro opening, to tripartite slow movement, to scherzo with trio, to quasi-rondo finale. Of these, the second and fourth are the standouts to my ear, the former a deliciously relaxed bluesy number, the latter a buzzing neo-bluegrass romp.

And then there is the Seventh (1984). It has awaited this recording for any acoustic realization, so it’s over 30 years ahead of its time. It is so difficult because of its final movement, which involves a gradual ascent over its 16 minutes of only an octave, but one made up of 176 tones! Before that are two movements, and in some way I feel the piece traces a sort of “Divine Comedy” structure. The first, Prelude, is short, dark, and scurrying, interrupted with agonized Expressionist outbursts; it’s “infernal.” The second, “Palindromes,” is strict, repetitive, and obsessive, as each instrument takes a sul ponticello tremolando solo (just look it up) against pizzicatos of the remaining three. This is a sort of purgatory that feels claustrophobic.

The aforementioned final movement has an enormous gravity and a sober serenity. I have read Gann’s enormously detailed, clear, and erudite notes, and feel that if I give them time, I’ll always understand more of the extraordinary technical armature of the movement with each pass (and he himself credits a dissertation by Tim Johnson as critical to his own understanding). But the wonderful news for us remaining mortals is that the music is deeply moving, a testimony to finding a peace amidst turmoil that reminds me of late Beethoven. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Finally, there is a small dessert, Quietness (1996), a memorial to the composer Salvatore Martirano (an electro-acoustic pioneer who was a colleague of Johnston’s at the University of Illinois and deserves more postmortem attention). Johnston intones a text from Rumi with the Quartet, and though his voice is now old and gravely, his ear is dead-on, and the effect is deeply moving. Apparently his part has been recorded for use hereafter with any performance—a wise move that transcends the death of which the poem speaks.

From my first review of the set, it appears the entire project has taken at least a dozen years. So let attention and honor once more be paid to the Kepler Quartet (Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violins; Brek Renzelman, viola; Karl Lavine, cello). They have undertaken a gargantuan project, with a similarly gigantic contribution to American music. Johnston is a colossus, his stance spread perhaps the widest of any composer, in both the realms of the most radical experiment and devoted traditionalism. What a grand gift that he is able to hear his vision realized and gamble justified while still alive.

No reader should be surprised to see this at the top of my 2016 Want List.