A challenging new musical language for modern music lovers.

BEN JOHNSTON: String Quartets Nos. 6, 7, & 8—Kepler Quartet—New World 80730-2, 66:43 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

As difficult and dangerous as it is to climb Mt. Everest, people do it because it’s there. Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 7 (1984) is known among string players and ‘experts’ as the most difficult string quartet to perform. According to a recent New York Times article, the Kepler Quartet has made it a cause over the past 14 years to learn and record all of the 10 quartets that Mr. Johnston has written. Now, 90, the composer lives in a farm outside of Madison, Wisconsin and is in failing health. The Kepler Quartet has been so dedicated to finish the project that they rehearsed in a church close to Johnston’s farmhouse (“literally in the midst of a cornfield, in the midst of a cemetery”) so they could consult with him during rehearsals.

What makes Johnston’s quartets so difficult to perform is that he inserts microtones “into the grid of the twelve pitch scale” that is a standard of tuning for normal intervals of the octave scale. Johnston calls it ‘just intonation’ tuning. The system is based on the ratios of overtones of a note, which leave in uneven intervals as it expands. The performers have to listen for and perform incredibly narrow pitch differences at speeds that require not only a keen ear but physical agility that’s hard to imagine. The challenge is overwhelming but also a mountain that’s there to conquer. And the Kepler Quartet appears to have achieved their goal. But, from the listener’s viewpoint, was the trek worth the effort?

The first thing to recognize is that for the normal listener microtonality will sound “out of tune.” That’s because we aren’t used to listening to Johnston’s tuning system. At first hearing of the Seventh Quartet (1984) what comes to mind is musical mosquitoes that buzz about with slides down toward the listener (without biting). In the second movement pizzicatos in the cello and violas organize the higher pitched microtones in the violins, creating a contrast of speeds that’s—as the composer describes “eerie.” The much longer final movement—“Variations with solemnity”—is as if someone is grieving while floating in a dream-like state among the clouds. To this listener everything sounds “off kilter” but there is an otherworldly aura that could be the stuff of an abstract but profound meditational state. It’s intellectually fascinating but takes several hearings to become familiar.

Johnston added his earlier use of twelve-tone technique to just intonation in the earlier Sixth Quartet (1980) in one movement. “I had learned all that twelve-tone technique, and I didn’t want it to go to waste,” the composer stated. But there is a consistent thread of melody from individual instruments that rambles throughout the 22 minute work that provides organization for the listener. Program annotator Kyle Gann calls it “an extended exercise in a kind of Wagnerian endless melody.” In the background there’s a kind of out-of-tune hazy accompaniment that has the effect of magnifying the melodic strands. It reminded me of a vision of someone—heavily inebriated—wandering around San Francisco in the fog. Yet, it its own way it is quite beautiful.

By 1986, when the Eighth Quartet appeared, Johnston had entered a neoclassic period. By his own admission, the composer was in a better place emotionally and the result is a work (within the context of just intonation) that is melodically expressive, dramatically eloquent and more listener-friendly. The movements are classically structured: sonata, ABA, minuet and a rondo finale. The lovely, sad slow movement is followed by a devilish waltz. A manically upbeat finale, redolent of country music, owes much to minimalism—a wacky but ingratiating finale.

Quietness (1996) is a setting of a poem about death by the 13th century Persian Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi, sung and spoken by the composer. It’s a ravishingly beautiful ode to the end of life and this disc. The composer’s strong, low voice adds dramatic sharpness to the music. Johnston’s musical language has grown on me as I listened to this disc several times. Anyone interested in discovering a new musical language and who can listen with open ears will find this disc an arrestingly innovative experience. And, perhaps, as Kyle Gann writes, a window into his other quartets (ten in number), “one of the greatest string quartet cycles of the 20th century.”

—Robert Moon