reviews (cd 3)

reviews (cd 2)


  • BBC Music Magazine
  • Time Out New York
  • Detroit Free Press
  • The Wire
  • Notes From a Defeatist
  • Fanfare Magazine



Ben Johnston's got to be some kind of genius. Anyone who can simultaneously make a string quartet sound like a hyper-sophisticated electronic gizmo which IRCAM, if it's lucky, might hope to aquire by the year 3010, and like four boiled-as-an-owl cowboys busking their way through outback folk tunes, more than satisfies Schopenhauer's criteria about men of genius hitting targets that no one else can see—while the talented merely hit targets others find a bit tricky. His mature works are written entirely in just intonation, and this concentration on tuning is Johnston's portal into reimagined pasts and dizzying futures. His String Quartet No. 10 (1995) hallucinates about the past lives of the archetypal Classical string quartet. String Quartet No. 5 (1979) dives ever deeper into the eddy, transforming and redistributing folk material, disguising familiar melodic hooks with camouflaged just-intonation harmonics which reveal galaxies of texture no one knew existed. Johnston's First Quartet (1959) is resourceful academic serialism; and, apropos the Kepler Quartet's genius playing, they hit notes few other groups could even hear.



FANFARE | July/August 2011

This is Vol.2 of the complete Ben Johnston (b. 1926) string quartets. The composer has undertaken the monumental task of enlarging Western harmonic practice exponentially, by devising a system to allow for purely tuned intervals based on almost any proportion available from the harmonic (overtone) series. The result is a world of sound that is utterly strange and haunting, and yet simultaneously familiar, and weirdly "right." Indeed, it comes closest to the exact definition of the "uncanny" as almost any music I know. The 1959 First Quartet is in fact serial. It's wonderful to hear a young ensemble like the Kepler approach this music with a natural expressiveness and lively drama that belies any bias that this sort of music should be presented as coldly abstract or neutral. The Fifth Quartet (1979) is a set of variations again, this time on the mournful folk song Lonesome Valley. Sometimes the tunings, even when they create unusual pitches to normally-tempered ears, are nonetheless quite clear; at others things become far more obscure. But marvelously, even when at its most ambiguous or complex, the music remains beautiful. By the 1995 Tenth Quartet, Johnston returns to a certain classicism, though in the spirit of reinventing the past, not merely trying to re-enact it. In four movements, it consists of a true sonata allegro, a slow fugue, a scherzo, and a set of variations that eventually reveal "Danny Boy" as their cantus! The music is playful, tuneful, and masterful in its handling of the various forms and traditional practices. Johnston is, I think, one of the one or two greatest living American composers in the classical tradition. He is also unbelievably courageous, because this project has bet on history to justify him, since the performance difficulties of this music are real and extreme. He demonstrates a mastery of traditional practice that's unquestionable, combined with a radical vision that's embedded in the very DNA of the notes. In this sense he's Beethovenian. He's also Bach-like, in that he can weave the most elaborate contrapuntal webs, yet they are anchored in a firm background harmonic structure we really hear (even when things feel really far-out, they always return to some sort of satisfying resolution; traditional part-writing and voice-leading are never forgotten). None of this enthusiasm would be possible without the devotion and skill of the Kepler Quartet. They've studied this music for years, and the results pay off. This is truly Great Music.




One of the most exciting recordings that have come my way in recent years is the 2006 Kepler Quartet CD of four string quartets by Ben Johnston. Now finally the second disc has been released, and it's worth the wait. This time, the Keplers present Johnston's first and last quartets, together with one from the middle of the sequence. The Fifth Quartet opens the disc and is quite simply one of the most astonishing pieces of music I've heard in a very long time. It's a set of variations on the Appalachian song "Lonesome Valley," and in this respect is a natural successor to the Fourth Quartet. Johnston's Tenth Quartet dates from 1995, but paradoxically feels like the work of someone younger. It's an energetic, smart and witty piece, ebullient and extrovert where the fifth is inward and contemplative. The last movement, it eventually turns out, is another set of variations on a famous tune—a tune so famous, in fact, that's it's a high-risk strategy to use it, as in lesser hands the point where its identity is revealed could be a moment of appalling kitsch. In this event, it's a wonderful coup de théâtre that will leave all but the most curmudgeonly listener with an enormous grin on their face. The final work on the disc is Johnston's First Quartet, perhaps something of a period piece in its post-Webern serial style, typical of its 50s origins. The Kepler's performance brings a luminous quality that makes the piece (another set of variations, though of a much less obvious sort) seem much more voluptuous and much less "difficult" than this sort of music is commonly characterised as being. This set confirms that Johnston's is one of the finest and richest quartet cycles of the 20th century. It's to be fervently hoped that the Kepler Quartet manage to raise the funds to complete the cycle. In the meantime, anyone who cares about music and what it's capable of should immerse themselves in these extraordinary works. All three of these quartets are stunning... a genuinely overwhelming experience not quite like anything else you've heard.



NEW YORK TIMES |Feb. 17, 2011

No composition or body of work is so utterly forbidding that a sympathetic interpreter can’t make a solid case for it. Consider the contemporary string quartet: the Kepler Quartet is demonstrating a crucial advocacy in a series of CDs devoted to the quartets of Ben Johnston, an American maverick born in 1926, whose early Neo-Classical and serialist phases led to a thoroughgoing investigation of microtonality.

The first Kepler disc made a compelling bid to position Mr. Johnston’s canon among the most striking accomplishments in American music. Confirming that impression, the second installment offers a shorthand overview of Mr. Johnston’s stylistic development. His String Quartet No. 1 (“Nine Variations,” 1959) shows a firm grasp of serialism, with a Webernian economy and lucidity.

During the 1960s Mr. Johnston fell under the sway of Harry Partch, the iconoclastic microtonalist, whose influence is felt in the disorienting slurs and blurs of Mr. Johnston’s String Quartet No. 5 (1979), a single-movement span in which the Appalachian gospel song “Lonesome Valley” is radically transformed but never disappears entirely.

Likewise in the 10th Quartet (1995), one of Mr. Johnston’s lissome latter-day reconciliations of sonata form and expanded intonation, the familiar melody of “Danny Boy” emerges in the frisky finale. Here and throughout the disc, the Kepler players demonstrate a security and conviction that make this complicated music irresistible.



BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE | May 2011 "Chamber Choice" *****

Intellectual as well as technical virtuosity are required to play the music of Ben Johnston, and in this second volume of his quartets, the Kepler Quartet continue their accomplished advocacy on his behalf. The lucid structures and creative energy of Johnston's music continue to delight the ear and stimulate the mind, as they did in Vol. 1, released in 2006. Johnston's First Quartet (1959) is a well-crafted set of Webernian serial variations. However in the early 1960s Johnston, under the influence of Harry Partch, began using pre-18th century systems of just intonation, eventually adding intervals derived from the upper partials of the overtone series. If all this sounds horribly mathematical and dry, fear not. Johnston's Fifth Quartet (1979) is a wistful set of variations on the Appalachian folk song "Lonesome Valley", that evoke an inimitable sense of lost worlds. In his most recent (1995) quartet, Johnston set himself the task of writing the 18th- and 19th-century forms as if the harmonic techniques made feasible by equal temperament had never happened. Amazingly, it all sounds perfectly natural.



THE WIRE (UK) | April 2011

A brittle melody draped with ghostly harmonics opens Ben Johnston's extraordinary single-movement String Quartet No. 5 (1979). Like Charles Ives, Johnston can create textures of sound that suggest the intangible play of light, but like Ives, his feet are firmly planted on the democratic turf. He evolved a theoretically sophisticated yet engagingly listenable approach to microtonal composition, revitalising chamber music from within. No.1, "Nine Variations", is an advanced 12-tone piece, as attuned to the proportional clarity and ventilated structures of contemporary architect Mies Van Der Rohe as to the Viennese past. No. 10 is a remarkably sure-footed and wide-ranging translation of that devotion to clarity into his mature idiom, culminating with "Danny Boy", jolted out of its sentimental complacency when harmonized in Just Intonation. But sample No. 5 and you'll hear immediately what's special about Johnston. His imagination plays across the string quartet format like the play of moonlight in a familiar room described by Nathaniel Hawthorne—a New England writer greatly admired by Ives—"making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontime visibility."




The ten Ben Johnston string quartets are one of the pinnacles of the American chamber music canon, but few have attempted to explore them. The Kepler Quartet upped the ante in 2006 when their remarkably fluid accounts of Quartets 2, 3, 4, and 9 were released by New World Records. And for five years, those of us who were floored by this recording have been waiting desperately for more. Therefore, New World's just released disc featuring the Kepler's accounts of 1, 5, and 10—all are world premieres—is cause for ecstatic celebration, especially since this second installment contains even more musical surprises. Johnston's hitherto unexplored sonic geography here becomes something of a promised land, a place that anyone would enjoy visiting and where folks who probe deeper might want to live for the rest of their lives. If the seven quartets recorded thus far were Herculean feats that make preparing for Elliott Carter's third quartet seem like child's play, the most laborious of the lot is still to come. But after hearing what the Keplers have been able to pull off, with their immense musicality, I firmly believe that they are equipped to do it.




These three quartets come from the beginning, middle, and end of microtonalist Ben Johnston's career. All are first recordings. The First Quartet (1959) is a sample of his early flirtation with serialism. Johnston brought the score to John Cage while studying with him on a sabbatical from his job at the University of Illinois. The Fifth Quartet (1979) is an "impressionist" fantasy on the gospel song 'Lonesome Valley' that couldn't be more contrasting. By this time Johnston had fallen in with Harry Partch and his embrace of expanded just intonation (Johnston worked with Partch and played in his ensemble). As with so many composers of the time, Johnston became fed up with American academic atonality and searched for an alternative. He ended up in the "American Maverick" tradition of Ives, who could easily have written this piece, but likely without applying Partch's elaborate tuning theories. Johnston credits Debussy and Mallarmé as inspiration, though the rugged surface could never be confused with turn-of-the-century France. Skipping ahead another quarter century, the 10th Quartet (1995) finds Johnston in the midst of a "late" neoclassical period, with classical structures, and a generally positive outlook. There is a sonata form first movement (complete with exposition repeat), a fugal slow movement, a crazily polyrhythmic scherzo, and, as a grand finale, after some Renaissance-style consort music, the Big Tune, 'Danny Boy', which turns out to be the generator for the entire quartet. The work ends (appropriately, if you think about it) with arpeggiated harmonics casting a mystical glow over the proceedings, and perhaps the entire cycle. I congratulate all involved for their hard work and extraordinary commitment. They are in the midst of recording all of Johnston's quartets (this is the second volume; the first—Quartets 2, 3, 4, and 9, released in 2006).




Ben Johnston's first, fifth and latest string quartets sketch his evolution as a composer from the late 1950s to the mid 1990s, with an intriguing head-on collision of sensibilities suggesting serialism one moment, and Renaissance music the next. Johnston has the requisite American voice—albeit an utterly esoteric one—to cohere it all. Interpretations by quartets with less proximity to the composer than the Kepler (formed to premiere "No. 10" nearly ten years ago) would undoubtedly yield less persuasive performances; the quartet emphasizes the wit and ebullience of Johnston's compositions, which gives their erudition human form. For anyone who wants to flesh out their understanding of post-war American composition beyond the staples, Johnston's music is recommended, generally, and this CD is a particularly good place to start.



FANFARE |May/June 2011

Ben Johnston has a well-established prominence as a member of the generation of avant-garde composers after Cage and Partch, both of whom he studied with. The present CD contains three works that span his entire mature career. The first quartet, subtitled "Nine Variations," stands as one of his few purely serial works. Each of the brief sections may be seen as a transformation of an unstated idea, passing by with Webern-like speed.

Cast in a single movement, String Quartet No.5 uses the traditional Appalachian gospel song Lonesome Valley. Lest you think that Johnston had gone "conventional" by this point in his career, I can assure you that this setting of an Appalachian song is unlike any you've ever heard, underpinned as it is by the most unusual swirl of microtonal harmonies you've likely encountered. The String Quartet No. 10, written in 1995, is the most conventional on this disc and would be quite intelligible to most listeners, the only novelty coming in its tuning and rhythmic complexities. And it is a remarkable musical experience, one that I shall not quickly forget. Johnston's accomplishment in these works is seminal in American music. I am compelled to note the mind-boggling playing of the Kepler Quartet on this CD. To bring off microtonal music convincingly requires almost superhuman skill in intonation, lest the music lapse into a hellish morass of discordances. This feat is accomplished without any sacrifice of the music that lies between the notes. I suspect that few other quartets could accomplish what the Kepler Quartet has in this recording. This CD is an essential acquisition.




Despite Milton Babbitt's recent death, the crusade of leading U.S. personalities of the '60s continues in full swing, as is the case with George Crumb or with Ben Johnston, who, following his encounters with Harry Partch, carried forward from that decade his investigation of Just Intonation—that is, with his harmonies grounded in a system of pure, non-tempered tuning—as a distinctive hallmark of his poetic creativity; the Kepler Quartet has successfully continued recording his string quartets, a project that they initiated in 2006 for New World Records. It is interesting to consider the path taken by Johnston—the twin influences of Webern and Cage, Ivesian transformation, an historical odyssey from the Renaissance to the Romantic, using traditional American folk song: decidedly modern, very twentieth century.



AMAZON, 5 stars

The second volume of the three of Ben Johnston's complete string quartets is a major achievement. This music lovingly ignites Western musical history in stunning ways. Its use of pitch overcomes the 12-note "equal temperament" tuning system of almost all classical music of the past two hundred years. The pure, untempered tunings behind Ben Johnston's music present us with potentially millions of colors. This is highly expressive music, often beautiful, thoughtful, vigorous, colorful, playful, intense, and more. The last movement of the 10th Quartet is an astonishing experience, and it's only the beginning. (Never has it been more of an epiphany that « ma fin est mon commencement ».) The beginning of the 10th is frankly fragrant, as if Western music history has just gotten rid of a bad cold. The bouquets just grow and grow... Admittedly, listening to these quartets is a bit like learning a foreign language, but listeners may grasp this music much more quickly! The 5th quartet has elements familiar to many, including a few folk tunes, subtly but significantly in an American style. The 1st Quartet, a sparse serial work from 1959, is the only one of Johnston's quartets in a more-or-less tempered idiom. Odd though it be, it reminds me a little of another work from that year, Stravinsky's splendid Movements for Piano and Orchestra. The Keplers play this music as if they've known it for hundreds of years—their extraordinary dedication and talent are an equal part of the celebration. And a mighty one it is, a revelation and a revolution unlike any other.




The Baddest Composer You Probably Don't Know

I always find it refreshing in this age, when even the most embattled, embittered, and reclusive of artists still have some sort of aggressive "web presence", to find a truly incredible composer that I've never heard of... Ben Johnston was introduced to me through a new release in which the Kepler Quartet performs his String Quartets 1,5, and 10. Johnston's use of just intonation and serialism is so natural and integrated with his use of folk and gospel song that the microtonality just becomes a very intense emotional coloring for the listener. I seriously suggest giving it a close listen, it will reward you.


reviews (cd 1)

BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE | December 2010, Five Stars

Here's Vol. 1 of the Kepler Quartet's projected series of Ben Johnston's string quartets. His music certainly deserves wider attention, as it inhabits an expressive world that fascinates the ear and heart long after one comes to grips with its provocative theoretical framework. The Second and Third Quartets are like the love children of Milton Babbitt and William Byrd. Their clear narrative carries over into the Fourth and Ninth Quartets- the former is a set of variations on "Amazing Grace" that progresses from restrained viol consort to ecstatic Brucknerian counterpoint in just over ten minutes, while the Ninth applies some startling temperamental shifts to classical and romantic idioms. Music for the heart.



BANGKOK POST | June 2007

A compelling case... Any listener will find themselves in gorgeous new musical territory. The ease with which the ear understands the radically untraditional harmonic writing testifies to Johnston’s fluency in his very special compositional language. The performances here by the Kepler Quartet are impassioned, and the degree to which the players have mastered the exotic tunings to the point where the chords glisten and flash is something to marvel at.



Paris Transatlantic | August 2006

This is the first disc devoted to the complete string quartets (ten of them) of Ben Johnston, all superbly performed by the Kepler Quartet and accompanied by a perceptive and informative essay by musicologist Bob Gilmore. Let's hope Gilmore is right when he states that Johnston's time has come.



All Music Guide | 2006

This is music of great integrity, startling vitality, and striking originality, yet it is virtually unknown. A cross between homespun American populism and sophisticated experimentation of the avant-garde...The Kepler Quartet is so compelling in its performances that these radiant recordings should be regarded as authoritative.


Fanfare | July/August 2006

With this kind of advocacy, the music has more than just a chance of survival; instead, it seems that it must survive...a triumph, and a joy to know the remaining quartets are already in the pipeline.



Cambridge Journal TEMPO | October 2006

The company of American composers includes some number who, even though they might be justly described as legendary, are much more likely to have been heard of than to have been heard. Ben Johnston is a case in point. His work concentrates on the beautiful sonorities made possible by tuning intervals exactly according to the overtone series. The performances of Kepler Quartet are luminously sonorous and completely masterly. Two of these quartets have been recorded previously, but neither with anything like the same quality of performance or of recording quality.



Detroit Free Press | March 2006

One of the unsung geniuses of American music. Johnston's music is fresh, colorful, communicative, witty, unpredictable and profoundly human. It is also far more difficult to play than it sounds, so God bless the Kepler Quartet , which has undertaken the Herculean task of recording Johnston's 10 string quartets.



Strings Magazine | October 2006

Johnston employs just intonation to create a surreal dreamscape—The Kepler Quartet is a world-class ensemble, with the ability to play modern without sounding gimmicky or contrived.



The Wire | April 2006

Plain old C major never sounded like this before, and neither has the string quartet.



Article published in Chamber Music | August 2006

Now that the Kepler Quartet is undertaking the formidable task of recording his complete ten string quartets, it's becoming public that Johnston, who just turned 80, has penned the most substantial output in that medium since Shostakovich.



American Record Guide | May/June 2006

If this first release is representative, this will be one of the most important new-music recordings of the year.



Records International | March 2006

This is a release of great significance. Johnston's cycle of string quartets are works of immense interest. The inventiveness of the works on this disc alone suggest that Johnston is one of the major figures of American music in our time.

celebrating the music of Ben Johnston