By CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM
According to experts, the most difficult string quartet ever written is Ben Johnston’s Quartet No. 7. It was composed in 1984 but went unperformed for decades. Musicians who knew the score, with the ingenious palindromic structure of one movement and variations teeming with over a thousand microscopically distinct pitches, considered it well-nigh unplayable.
Now the work is available on a CD that the Kepler Quartet released hard on the heels of the composer’s 90th birthday in March. The album, which also contains Mr. Johnston’s sixth and eighth quartets and a short piece for voice and strings called “Quietness,” marks the completion of one of the most ambitious and single-minded recording projects in American music. The Kepler players — the violinists Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, the violist Brek Renzelman and the cellist Karl Lavine — dedicated the better part of the past 14 years to learning and recording all of Mr. Johnston’s 10 quartets. The sixth alone took them a year and a half to master.
The three-disc survey reveals a musical landscape which, though thorny for the players, produces music of disarming charm, strange beauty and sometimes dreamlike familiarity. “I don’t even think of it as a cycle,” Mr. Segnitz said of the quartets in a telephone interview. “It’s an edifice.”
At the same time, the quartets raise questions of the practicality and cost associated with such an uncompromising compositional voice. Like the preposterously difficult rhythms Conlon Nancarrow developed in his studies for player piano, the microtonal intricacies of Mr. Johnston’s quartets can seem like exercises designed to measure the gap between human imagination and ability.
Other ensembles have collaborated with Mr. Johnston, among them the La Salle, Concord and Kronos quartets. But, as Mr. Segnitz said, the complexity of Mr. Johnston’s tuning system and the amount of rehearsal time it requires have proved impractical for groups with busy touring schedules.
“They have to keep their careers going and can’t be derailed by something that’s almost impossible,” he said. The Kepler Quartet, he added, was founded with the sole purpose of playing Johnston: “We carved out a niche in our lives to do it.”
The nature of his writing has created a mystical aura around Mr. Johnston that has been further enhanced by his physical distance from the centers of American music-making. After spending much of his career teaching at the University of Illinois, he now lives on an isolated farm on the outskirts of Madison, Wis. As his failing health made travel increasingly difficult, the Kepler players moved closer to him, rehearsing in a church close to the farm — “literally in the midst of a cornfield, in the middle of a cemetery,” in Mr. Segnitz’s description — that over time became a focus of pilgrimage for musicologists curious to hear the realization of one of the most esoteric bodies of work in the chamber-music literature.
In a Skype interview from his home, Mr. Johnston was reluctant to talk about his music in other than mathematical terms, even as he conceded that the system of multiplication and division that is at the base of his tuning system “doesn’t sound terribly exciting.” Still, he continued, “it opens the doors to new sounds. Because I think of mathematics as a means to an end. It’s not a means that a lot of people admire, because it seems too schoolish, so classroomish.”
If his music resonates with listeners, who praise it for its clarity, he said, it’s because the tuning system he devised is “a kind of order that I’m presenting, and it’s interrelated with the emotional meaning. But I don’t tell people what it is. It’s like Abstract Expressionist painting.”
Mr. Johnston traces his interest in tuning back to his childhood in Macon, Ga., where he quizzed family members on the physics of tuning a piano and peppered his music teacher with questions about the organization of sound. “I became interested in the sounds in a fairly abstract way,” he said. Soon he challenged the system of equal temperament that has dominated Western music for centuries. In equal temperament the octave — the space between one note and the next highest iteration of that same note — is divided into 12 half-steps spaced equally apart, allowing for harmonic modulation and easy communication among different instruments. But in creating an orderly horizontal sequence of pitches, certain intervals — the vertical harmonic relationships between two notes played simultaneously — are distorted so they no longer ring true.
Mr. Johnston’s tuning system is built on the pure ratios of the overtone series of a note. (A given note, when sounded, contains a rainbow of overtones, with the first widely spaced out and successive tones crowded together, ever more closely.) In basing his tuning on the physical properties of the natural overtone series, Mr. Johnston follows in the footsteps of composers like Harry Partch (with whom he studied), Lou Harrison and La Monte Young.
But he goes further in two ways. By using higher partials from the harmonic series — the 11th, the 13th and even the 31st — he requires players to listen for and perform ever more narrow pitch differences, some just a few cents apart. (A cent equals one hundredth the distance between a half tone in the regular scale.) And while some other composers limit their microtonal adventures to slow-moving works with relatively few, and gradual, harmonic changes, Mr. Johnston’s string quartets include fast passages made up of dazzling, hyperkinetic streams of notes.
The effect on an ear accustomed to standard tuning can be invigorating. The simplest of Mr. Johnston’s quartets incorporate folk music set in clear harmonies that gain a rosy-cheeked innocence from the meticulously tuned intervals. The melody of “Amazing Grace” makes an appearance in the Fourth Quartet, perhaps the most instantly lovable of Mr. Johnston’s works.
Another good point of entry to Mr. Johnston’s sound world is the Tenth Quartet, which bursts out of the gate with a jaunty romp. The microtonal warp of the harmonies adds a tangy twist, in a way that seems novel and natural at once — much in the way audiences accustomed to the pointed toes of classical ballet might have adjusted to the reappearance of flexed ankles and knocked knees of modern dance.
The emphasis on clean intervals throws other parameters off kilter: Within one instrument’s melody, a given note may be tuned up or down depending on what function it plays within the ensemble’s larger harmonic structure. In a telephone interview, Ms. Leventhal, the Kepler’s first violinist, compared this attention shift to a “Zen-like” focus on the present: “You are not dealing with absolutes like ‘an A is an A,’” she said. “It’s an open, infinite spiral, a kind of harmonic questing and adventuring that is based on natural phenomena and on pitches generated one from the next. There’s a lot of beauty in the structure.”
The resulting work often reflects the fertile chaos of the natural world. In liner notes to the latest recording, Mr. Johnston describes the opening movement of the Seventh Quartet as “the most involved microtonal writing I’ve ever done,” adding that it “just crawls all over the place.” In the myriad intervals, tiny and irregularly sized, which govern the chromatic surge of the music here, Mr. Johnston seems to be taking a microscope to a flamboyantly vital world of sound that thrives in between the cracks of conventional music.