Cutting-Edge, Elegantly Menacing Ben Johnston String Works from the Kepler Quartet
The Kepler Quartet – violinists Sharan Leventhal and Eric Stignitz, violist Brek Renzelman and cellist Karl Lavine – first joined forces to play some of the most amazing, extraordinary music you probably have never heard: the string quartets of microtonal composer Ben Johnston. It’s full of some of the most otherworldly riffs and hooks you’ll ever hum to yourself. The now-nonagenarian American composer should be vastly better known than he is, someone who was decades ahead of his time when he wrote his first string quarter in 1959. Few other composers use microtones – the intervals between the notes in a particular scale – as tunefully, and memorably, and impactfully as Johnston. The work of Per Norgard comes to mind, but Johnston is even more adventurous. A better comparison would be a similarly cutting-edge composer in a completely different idiom, the extraordinary “post-chromodal” jazz saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh.
The ensemble have recently released a three-quartet album comprising Johnston’s Quartets Nos. 6-8, completing the group’s epic cycle of the composer’s ten quartets. The entire project is an astonishing achievement. It’s one thing for a string player to get the western scale into muscle memory on a particular instrument; those who play Middle Eastern or Asian music, or jazz, have the additional challenge of halftones and quartertones, and blue notes. Johnston’s music requires a vast spectrum of variations per pitch, and the quartet have mastered all of them – and the meticulousness of these recordings bears that out.
Not all of these pieces are strictly microtonal: Johnston’s earliest work here draws on the Second Viennese School, and the playful spaciousness of John Cage, but with more dense, disquieting close harmonies. He also has a thing for English folk themes and Gershwin, both influences you would hardly expect to hear in this context. Johnston’s music can be as ethereal as it is rhythmic and balletesque: jaunty waltzes juxtapose with airy, horizontal interludes. He has a penchant for labeling sections as “impetuous,” “nervous, diving” or “vigorous, defiant” and then making good on those themes. Another of his favorite tropes is to diverge very slowly and almost imperceptibly from traditional western harmony, as he does most vividly in String Quartet No. 9, building an atmosphere that becomes grotesque and sometimes downright macabre. The ensemble tackles all of this with expertise, and verve, and gusto: they are clearly having a ball with this stuff, especially when his sense of humor is going full force.
Each of the string quartets here is worth hearing: the two pieces de resistance here are No. 5, from 1979, and No.10, from 1995. The former slices and dices an allusive Scottish folk-tinged ballad theme. Pitches and their doppler doppelgangers go further and further outside, taking on the ambered quality of a brass section. Flurries of pizzicato alternate with calmer gestures that remind of Gershwin more than, say, Beethoven, up to an intense, menacing coda and then a very subtly twisted cello-fueled outro.
The latter is a real stunner, with an ending that’s just the opposite of all the foreshadowing Johnston goes through – it’s far too good to give away here. Otherwise, it’s packed with neat touches: hints of medieval folk tunings, a lustrously dirgey canon, latin-tinged counterpoint, a long, thorny tumble through thickets of pizzicato and an ending that quietly packs more of a wallop than the loudest, most horror-stricken segments here, of which there are many.
Of the quartets on the new album, No. 6 is the most enigmatic, most statically hypnotic and least dynamic – and hardest to pin down – of the lot. A circling, Reichian, hypnotic sense gives way to starkly swaying unease and then a final segment with some ominous narration: “Your way begins on the other side,” Johnston intones. No. 7 opens with a shivery menace, shifting to an extremely devious, dizzyingly waltzing, pizzicato palindrome, then a series of variations, Johnston’s tonalities expanding with characteristic delicacy and a matching, offcenter menace.
No. 8 moves from a twisted minuet to a woundedly steady, canonical march and a scherzo that hardly seems funny, with a hazily swaying conclusion that shifts with somberly cello-fueled counterpoint to an austere, still outro. Much of this can be found on New World Records’ album page.
The cycle also includes dynamic performances of String Quartet No. 1, in a Schoenbergian vein; the stark, sobering, angst-ridden No. 2, a quantum leap in Johnston’s work and otherwise, No. 9, which warps elements of folk, Stravinsky and the neo-baroque; the brief No. 3, balancing spacious horizontality and more jaunty melody; and the windswept, stunningly echoey, harrowingly challenging No. 4. It’s safe to say that its own elegant way, there won’t be anything this wild or individualistic released in 2016, quite possibly for the rest of this decade.