Rachele Krivichi, Contributing writer
The four musicians first performed Ben Johnston’s Quartet No. 10 at a Present Music concert in Milwaukee in April 2002. At the end, the crowd let out a collective gasp of delight at the refreshing ingenuity of the music. Second violinist Eric Segnitz recalls that he had not witnessed such excitement over a piece in his entire career.
It was at this moment that a project was born.
The previously unnamed quartet of Segnitz, Sharan Leventhal, Brek Renzelman, and Karl Lavine was formally established as the Kepler Quartet, with the sole purpose of recording all ten of Mr. Johnston’s string quartets — a feat that can be compared to scaling a mountain in a pair of flip-flops. Fourteen years and 1,999 takes later, the quartet can finally say they reached the summit, having completed the most difficult task of their lives.
There are many critics and scholars who say Johnston is the most ingenious composer no one’s ever heard of. Famous or not, he has secured a place in history alongside visionaries like La Monte Young and Harry Partch, the latter of whom was Johnston’s mentor in the 1950s.
At first listen some find Johnston’s pieces inaccessible and complex, seeming to require a sophisticated ear to appreciate. But given the theory behind his music, it is possible that the problem isn’t our ears, but the way they’ve been trained. In Johnston’s opinion, his music is written in a way that the ear should much prefer, the “purer” way, in a musical methodology called “just intonation.”
This concept may seem complex to those are who familiar with traditional “equal temperament” tuning. In Western music, the scale has been divided into equal parts for easier notation. However, this renders the resulting harmonies technically out of tune. In just intonation, the scale is divided into unequal parts so that the harmonies ring true. The outcome is a vibrating tremor that adds a layer of richness to the music when played perfectly in tune.
Johnston arrived at these musical convictions by studying Western music and feeling like it was limited in its mobility. During his musical training he recalled thinking, “Well, they haven’t found the answer yet, that’s clear.”
Johnston grew up in Macon, Georgia, and by the age of 17 he had already written a great deal of music. Later on he entered the Navy and studied at the Navy School of Music. He eventually attended the College of William and Mary for his undergraduate studies, and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music for his graduate degree. He supplemented his education by learning from those like Harry Partch, the famous “outsider” musician and instrument maker, and learning about unorthodox tuning.
He also became interested in the non-Western canons of Ancient Greek, Turkish, and Eurasian music, which is where he drew much of his inspiration for his unique tuning system. In his words, “I thought there was a connection between all the musics in the world. And I don’t think I know everything about all the musics in the world, but I looked at them all and I found connections.”
It may take a few listens of the Kepler Quartet’s recordings to hear these connections, but after a while, and with an open mind, they are revealed. The brilliant mixing of sound engineer Ric Probst affords an untainted rendering of the works. The formidable Quartet No. 7 — considered the most difficult string quartet ever written — rings clear and bright, the musicians withholding vibrato so as to perfectly tune the notes. The music is abrasively emotional, as if operating on a previously unknown plane. Johnston’s compositions are clearly rooted in the past, but may also be a foreshadowing of what’s to come in Western music as the parameters of the equal temperament scale are exhausted. The music is difficult, but the Kepler Quartet makes it sound like a breeze.
During the fourteen years it took to record the ten string quartets, the musicians faced many challenges beyond the complexity of the music. Although Johnston relocated to Madison to be closer to his son-in-law and the quartet, another of its members lives in Boston, and the group was not able to meet on a regular basis. The search for funding, failed relationships, death, illness, and the ticking of the clock as Johnston aged were additional obstacles.
Despite everything, Johnston was “an example of perseverance and a real, honest approach to everything,” said Segnitz. “If he hadn’t persevered in his life, there’s no way we would have for fourteen years.”
Johnston’s perseverance is admirable in an age of fast-paced production where composers, authors, artists, and filmmakers are encouraged to churn out work at a rapid pace. He certainly received recognition in his life, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Deems Taylor Award. However, it may be more apt to reward him for his patience in waiting for a musical revolution that he believed in. It was not until April of 2016, when he was 90, that his dream of hearing all of his works performed — and performed well — became reality.
“Ben took a very heroic stance and stuck to his guns,” said Segnitz. “He gambled it all because he didn’t think he’d ever hear these pieces played. He was just gambling on being right.”
Although the Kepler Quartet isn’t performing any of these pieces right now, Segnitz says they may in the future. For now, they are satisfied in knowing Johnston’s work is preserved for a new generation of music listeners to enjoy and perhaps ponder Johnston’s ultimate question: Is there a “right” way of tuning?