Venice, Bayreuth, Urbana

After talking last time about part of the Eighth Quartet, I decided to ask Johnston about the only work on the upcoming recording that has previously been recorded: the Sixth Quartet. It was written in 1980, one year after the Fifth, and first recorded by the New World Quartet in 1983. I am grateful to know what this work sounds like, and am looking forward to the new recording when it arrives. Johnston says this new version will be noticeably different, because of precision tuning work done by the Kepler Quartet.

As I recall my discussion with Johnston about this quartet, I am struck by the seeming dichotomies of the music. First, it has both a clear structure, but at the same time it is also easy to get lost in its flow. Johnston wanted to write a work that featured each member of the ensemble, almost a short concerto for each player, and for each solo to explore different possibilities as to its character or attitude. Listening to the quartet, one realizes that each musician gets an extended turn in the spotlight, and that the music can be divided into sections. But Johnston also decided that he wanted to write a single movement work that didn’t stop: it would be without cadences. It is a river of music without points of rest along the way. I have difficulty squaring these two feelings: the precise form and the breathless current.

Second, Johnston’s thinking on cadences in the Sixth Quartet is influenced by two seemingly unrelated composers: Monteverdi and Wagner. As he studied Monteverdi’s Renaissance works, he decided that what made this music tick was its constant struggle to close, to arrive, to pause. Finding cadences helps delineate Renaissance polyphony. From Wagner, Johnston took the idea of endless melody, as exemplified in Tristan and The Ring. Wagner is famous for his deceptive cadences as a way to extend and expand music in time. One way to describe this quartet is a synthesis of Renaissance polyphony with Wagnerian endless melody.

Johnston emphasized though that it shouldn’t sound like Wagner’s music. An analogue he used was Stravinsky’s use of early music in his late Neoclassical works. The music clearly borrows ideas and techniques from an earlier century, but through a prism that is always Stravinsky.

Although we ended up mostly talking about technique, Johnston pointed out that this was not an abstract work. It has an emotional content. Like one asks of an abstract painting, “what is this a picture of?” We can find emotional resonance in nonrepresentational visual art. I had brought up the twelve-tone technique used in the work, but he shrugged this off as being merely a way to hold the piece together, of only secondary importance to the emotional meaning.


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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