BEN JOHNSTON – The Second Quartet

American Modern Contemporary composer Benjamin Burwell Johnston Jr. [born 1926] has written at least 10 string quartets. He composes using just intonation. This is a highly theoretical concept, one for which I am not equipped to explain. Detailed analysis can be found on the internet. However I can say that it changes the pitches of the notes of the major and minor scales, and sometimes adds more pitches. Listening to these works gives one a sense of the effect.

The Second Quartet, from 1964 contains three movements. The first, marked – I. Light & quick, with grace & humor opens with a mysterious sound and texture. Cascades of seemingly unrelated notes are expressed from all instruments – this leaves a sense of total abstraction. After a time the entropy disappears along with the tempo and a quiet section is stunningly beautiful. A return to the opening sound soon turns a little angry, before returning to the inherent peaceful nature of the music. Ambivalent harmonies abound in this sound world and the music becomes very sparse at the close.

The next movement, marked II. Intimate, spacious begins with a solo violin drifting over another. Again mysterious, I find this section absolutely beguiling. A period of sparse interjections, which sound great in stereo, gives way to a moaning solo violin and then into a harmonised passage. A pure, shrill solo violin statement leads to a more conversational section which fades into nothing. Out of the silence a haunting cello appears, together with an extremely soft violin. The end is 17 seconds of silence.

The final movement, marked III. Extremely minute & intense, not fast, is the longest in the work. Seemingly random musical activity occurs and the intonation leads to some strange harmonies. This is the darkest music heard thus far. Now some harmonised descending melodic lines clash as they negotiate this strange tonal environment. Dissonance prevails for a time, before the music becomes positively energised, creating a marvellously mild cacophony. A section of intertwining melodic lines moves into another, a mixture of violins over sustained, slightly dissonant chords. A peace returns, with the music so soft. The conclusion is a succession of barely audible tones which gradually peter out.

Being drawn to abstraction, this piece is fascinating to me. Here we have a composer who defines his own sound world. Interestingly, I find that the composer markings bear little resemblance to the performances – in fact, some of them I don’t even understand. For example, Extremely minute & intense is not really meaningful, especially when you consider the music which follows. Also, I should tell you that I recently listened to the Fifth Quartet, from 1979, and 15 years is a long time in Johnston’s development. The contrast with the discussed work is significant, and I found it quite difficult – it’s not about the system that a composer uses, it’s about the intent…

The review CD, Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 4 & 9, performed by the Kepler Quartet, and on the New World Records label is available at Amazon US and UK.

There are many Ben Johnston quartets on Spotify, earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Unusual music that drew me in to the composer’s world.


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