A Beginning and a Shady Scherzo

This is the first in an ongoing series of essays spurred from conversations I regularly have with Ben Johnston. The beginnings of this blog date back a few years, and we have waited until now for the right setup to post this work online here at the Keplers’ website. This first essay and conversation date from mid-July 2013.

David Kulma

The Kepler Quartet asked me to help with a blog they wanted to make involving Ben. He and I had been speaking regularly at the time about music and composing, and Ben thought our conversations would be useful material for the blog. I readily agreed, wanting to help Ben and the quartet as they continue work on their project recording all of Ben’s quartets. Ben and I have tried multiple ways of tackling this challenge (including a few extended interviews), and after a few tries I believe we are ready.

We have decided to take a topic or question and discuss his thoughts, and then afterward I will write a short essay on our conversation. This method creates something easy to edit for length and content, as well as avoiding the overly technical rambling that sometimes occurs in our phone talks. I would love to take any questions that someone has for Ben, and have him answer them in this format.

At this point in Ben’s musical life, he is focused on performance practice rather than composing. He works with the Keplers (and other interested performers) as they conquer the difficulties of his music, notably working on pitch accuracy. Although Ben spent many years creating a life’s work in extended just intonation, he is far more more interested in discussing his aims and the possibilities of his work.

He speaks with me about finding ways to reach the heart of the music, its emotional content. He wants the performers to find meaning in the music, and to find ways of expressing it. He firmly believes that the particulars of extended Just Intonation allow him (and the performers playing his music) to achieve these meanings with more precision and power.

Recently, Ben and I were discussing how the Keplers were coming along with his Eighth Quartet. Like his two later quartets, the Eighth explores historical musical styles through the prism of Ben’s microtonal mind. The work is in four movements, like one by Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. He told me about the third movement, which is the standard place in a Beethoven quartet for a scherzo. Scherzo is the Italian word for joke, so Ben wanted to comment on scherzo movements, but also jokes. Scherzo movements are not necessarily funny; there are few laugh-out-loud moments in instrumental music. Scherzos are usually lighthearted compared to the rest of a quartet’s movements.

Ben wrote music in the right form for a scherzo, but decided to give it a shady aspect. Instead of being lighthearted, it has an ironic humor. It is a little bitter. While working with the Keplers, he urged them to avoid creating a comic effect that would trivialize the music. He kept asking them complicated, emotionally upsetting questions to keep this character in mind as they worked. He compared it with a crisis in life, that to survive you have to laugh, or it will kill you.

A metaphor Ben used with me compared the music to a Hitchcock movie villain. You could have the villain act cute during the movie, creating one mood, or he could act as if he has a subterranean emotion showing that he is no longer free. Ben clearly wants the latter.

Ben also emphasized with me that he does not want it to turn into program music. He finds ways of describing the music to help the musicians achieve the correct mood, rather than giving them a story to follow.

 I am a composer-performer originally from Cleveland, Ohio. I first got to know Ben’s music through reading Kyle Gann’s blog and books, and listening to CDs of his music, among those the first recording released by the Kepler Quartet. I met Ben at a microtonal conference at Wright State University, and was able to then meet and talk with him regularly after I moved to the Chicago area. I am very pleased to be able to help Ben and the Keplers with this blog serving as Ben’s interviewer. If you would like to learn more about me, please visit http://www.davidkulma.com/.

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