Ben Johnston and the members of the Kepler Quartet
Stay Tuned: Celebrating Ben Johnston’s 90th Birthday with his 10 String Quartets

Stay Tuned: Celebrating Ben Johnston’s 90th Birthday with his 10 String Quartets

[Ed. Note: Today, March 15, 2016, is the 90th birthday of maverick American composer Ben Johnston. To celebrate this major milestone, the Kepler Quartet—which has spent the last 14 years working closely with Johnston to learn and record his music—has finally completed their third and final installment of the world premiere recordings of his entire oeuvre for string quartet on New World Records which will be released on April 15, 2016. Though Johnston’s ten string quartets are thoroughly idiomatic and often extremely beautiful, his music offers some unprecedented challenges to would-be interpreters. For more than half a century, Johnston has eschewed today’s common practice tuning of equal temperament in his music and has instead explored just intonation (intervals tuned to precise numerical ratios) which derives from the overtone series. Most of the quartets use intervals as complex as those derived from the 13th harmonic in the overtone series, but one quartet goes as high as the 31st harmonic. Another quartet, the Seventh—christened “the Mount Everest of String Quartets” by Kyle Gann and a work which has never been previously performed let alone recorded—contains more than 1200 distinct pitches. This is a hundred times the amount of tones that most string players are ever asked to play. So how did the Kepler Quartet tackle this music? We asked the quartet’s second violinist, Eric Segnitz, who was also the producer of the recordings, to offer his personal perspective on the process. We’ve also included some short video clips featuring Ben Johnston and the members of the quartet as well as a brand new video clip that was recorded during the final recording session.—FJO]

Video by Ross Monagle

Ben Johnston has been called a genius, a hero, a visionary. And by the standard criteria, that is all true. New advances in a domain of knowledge? Check. Sacrificing or not compromising for personal concerns, achieving feats of ingenuity for the greater good? Check. Able to envision past, present, and future in a parallel universe that recognizes beauty as it already exists? Check. He even dares you to go on that journey with him.

This year marks composer Ben Johnston’s 90th birthday, and the passage of fourteen years since the Kepler Quartet (in which I play second violin) began to record the entire cycle of Johnston’s ten string quartets. Much has been written about Johnston’s music, so I will concentrate here on the history of these recordings.

By virtue of our recording project, the Kepler Quartet has had a privileged window into the essentially spiritual quest in Johnston’s music. At age 90, a full fifteen years after he stopped writing music, Johnston has come to a place in his life where his main goal is to have a positive impact on his environment. He has come to embrace a philosophy that there are two ways to live. He has forsaken the so-called “hero’s journey”—a linear approach to life that mirrors melodic values, in favor of another, richer way of being: to work towards pure, honest relationships with others by using a vertical, harmonic approach concentrating on perfect intervals, the advantage being that it produces less discord, increased resonance, and maximum clarity—to borrow the title of the 2006 book of Johnston’s collected writings.

This harmonic approach cannot be achieved at our society’s breakneck pace. It requires deeper consideration, more serious engagement, and—above all—slowing down. I remember when I was coached by Rudolf Kolisch and Zoltan Szekely, the respective founders of the Kolisch and Hungarian string quartets, the groups that first brought the Schoenberg and Bartók quartets to the public. Besides being awestruck, I remember thinking at that time, “Man, are these guys slow!” They were ultra-methodical, and could spend three days on the opening of a Mozart string quartet, or two months staring at a Bartók score before picking up an instrument. Those were memorable experiences, but also ones that could drive a headstrong, career-anxious youth nuts.

Now I understand.

As St. Thomas Aquinas put it: “It is better to enlighten than merely to shine.”

By necessity, the Kepler Quartet is not currently a performing quartet. We have been a stealth unit, secluded in a remote church in the middle of a cornfield, rehearsing with the composer to make recordings. We’ve needed to approach these works much as they were written: contemplated intuitively, at a distance from society, with the belief that what is “normal” does not apply—not with this music.

Ben Johnston and the members of the Kepler Quartet

Ben Johnston (bottom left) with the members of the Kepler Quartet. Brek Renzelman and Karl Lavine (top row), Sharan Leventhal (middle row). and Eric Segnitz (bottom right). Photo by Kae Hubred.

St. Tom again: “It is better to give the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.”

The cover of the Kepler Quartet's first CD devoted to the music of Ben Johnston (New World Records 80637-2).

An excerpt from String Quartet No. 4 “Amazing Grace” (1973) as performed by the Kepler Quartet: Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz (violins), Brek Renzelman (viola), and Karl Lavine (cello). From the first disc in the series, Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 9 (New World Records 80637-2) released in January 2006. Streamed with permission.

Whatever possessed us undertake a task of such Brobdingnagian proportions? We premiered the Tenth Quartet in 2002, working with Johnston on a concert series for the Milwaukee-based new music group Present Music. The collective gasp of the audience after each movement sent a clear message. Similarly, anyone who has played his Fourth Quartet (“Amazing Grace”) will tell you, as the final variation begins, a life-affirming catharsis occurs–one of the special moments in music, like the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony when all hell breaks loose. What is behind that? How can that possibly happen? What musician wouldn’t want to know more about that? When you discover that Johnston’s Fourth Quartet was conceived entirely (harmony, rhythm, structure) based on a specific set of organic ratios, it’s even more mind-boggling. And when you learn that the work was written in response to a personal crisis, it takes on a universal quality. Our collective and individual relationships with Ben were very natural from the beginning; he had so much to give, and we had so much to learn.

Did we know it would take fourteen years? Obviously not. The project started as an impulse to record the work we premiered. We talked to ten record labels. Seven were interested, and a few suggested that we do the entire cycle. The consensus was that somebody had to do it, but that early in the project no one really had any idea what they were talking about. (Our code name was Project Rabbit Hole.)

Kepler Quartet: Ben Johnston's String Quartets 1, 5, and 10 from Jon Roy on Vimeo.

This project could never be done again, certainly not with the direct guidance and mentorship of the composer. Three of the members of the quartet live in Wisconsin; Brek Renzelman and I both live in Milwaukee and Karl Lavine lives in Madison. Early in the project, Johnston and his wife Betty relocated to a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, to be closer to their son Ross. Ever since then we’ve had constant access to Ben’s intellect and generosity—a resource that can never be replaced.

Other groups, however, now have these recordings made under his guidance as a resource. We’ve already begun to see the effects. Someone once told me that if something can be measured, it can be made. The recordings provide information—and encouragement—for other groups to explore these compositions.  An incredible oeuvre of music, once largely inaccessible, is now available to the world, an open secret. Judging from breakthroughs in the past thirty years, we can anticipate rapid advances in technology, education and performance standards—it all goes hand-in-hand.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the La Salle, Concord, Fine Arts, Walden, New World, Stanford, Composers, and Kronos quartets for the tremendous work they’ve done on Johnston’s music. They are our heroes! We’ll be another link in that chain now, and feel honored to be part of the continuum.

St. Francis of Assisi wrote: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

The cover for volume 3 of the Kepler Quartet's recordings of the complete string quartets of Ben Johnston (New World Records 80730-2).

A sneak preview from the first movement of the world premiere recording of “the Mount Everest of String Quartets”—String Quartet No. 7 (1984)—performed by the Kepler Quartet. From the final volume of the series, Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 6, 7, and 8 (New World Records 80730-2), which will be released on April 15, 2016. Streamed with permission.

A good starting point is to explain our process, and why it has taken four people fourteen years to do this. Kyle Gann half-jokingly referred to the Seventh Quartet as “the Mount Everest of string quartets.” We understand his analogy; each quartet is a steep and rocky climb, often exhilarating, and the more we learned (the higher we climbed), the slower we got.

First, we do the math.

That is, we translate pitches from the score into numerical cent values.  I’d always heard about the correlation between music and arithmetic;  I understand it better now. Johnston devised an ingenious notation system for Just Intonation which is practical yet defiant. It always reminded me of a quote by William Blake: “I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s; / I will not Reason or Compare: my business is to Create.” Johnston’s notational symbols tell the harmonic function of the note as well as the exact number of cents, which can be measured with a standard electronic tuner. But the performer needs to decipher as many as seven different pitch qualifiers per note, in an assortment of configurations, depending on how high Johnston has composed in the overtone (or undertone) series (as opposed to the usual single half-step,  sharp #  or flat b). Understanding exact pitch relationships is essential, which meant preparing from scores only—we never read from individual parts.

Then we listen.

This required commissioning MIDI realizations of these scores. Luckily, we’ve connected with Andy Stefik and Tim Johnson, who have vast expertise working with digital synthesis. The materials they created for us never served as a guide in rehearsal or recording, but were used individually by each member. In general, MIDI is nasty to listen to, but in this case it functioned as a can-opener for the brain. When we would hear one, we would realize the extent to which we had to unlearn all those years of tempered-scale indoctrination, and open up the mind to new possibilities. After all, we named our group after Johannes Kepler, the astronomer and mystic who intuited the leap from Pythagorean musical intervals to predicting the elliptical orbit of the planets.

Johnston SQ8 rehearsal snippet from Jon Roy on Vimeo.

Of course we rehearse.

Not as easy as it sounds, especially when the players and composer live in different cities around the country and have to coordinate busy freelance schedules, not to mention personal lives. The rehearsals generally are a lot of slow tuning and hard listening, more balancing of chords than I’d ever dreamt possible.  Each new quartet presented its own unique and intricate Gordian Knot. At times we became entangled ourselves, but eventually, the solution would emerge. We consulted with Johnston constantly, which entailed many philosophical discussions, because the pitches are only byproducts of the emotional nuances Johnston sought. Always, there was philosophical underpinning to those emotions, and always, Johnston helped us to find it.

Johnston’s critiques were always leavened with large doses of humor—which is an integral part of his music and personality—and social commentary. In one breath, he talks about world events, and in the next, about what is happening on the working farm where he lives with his wonderful caregiver and her large, bustling family.

Then we start recording, but in our own way.

We’ve had a no-holds-barred approach to making these recordings. We would tackle a phrase in multiple ways, to satiate any self-doubt. We have what we call a “three-drink-minimum,” always recording three times as much material as we need. There were so many things to remember at these sessions and a few things to forget. Our earliest recording sessions at an indie rock venue featured a rat rustling in a paper bag, a beer keg completely emptying onto a carpet, and noisy snowblower repairs in July!

The CD cover for the Kepler Quartet's second volume of string quartets by Ben Johnston (New World Records 80693-2).

An excerpt from Ben Johnston’s only quartet in 12-tone equal temperament, Nine Variations a.k.a. String Quartet No. 1 (1959) performed by the Kepler Quartet. From the 2011 CD Ben Johnston: String Quartets 1, 5, and 10 (New World Records 80693-2). Streamed with permission.

Intonation has always been the highest priority in these recordings because that’s what defines Johnston’s masterpieces. But everything else had to be right to create a cohesive artistic statement.We’ve taken seriously our mission of accurately documenting these works the way Johnston conceived them. I remember when we began the First Quartet, I asked if Johnston wanted a Webernian crystalline approach or a more full-throated romanticism. He raised his eyebrows and said, “Both. I want it all!” When asked about production values, Johnston replied that he sees these recordings as reinventing the art of chamber music. It’s “more like a film than a stage play.” There is some hyperbole in his words, but also some truth—no Pixar magic, just a lot of hard work to make the best recordings we can. We’ve come to view in a positive light the fact that Johnston’s quartets demand scrupulous attention to detail. There’s more to consider about this music on many different levels, and it’s all good.

Engineering is critical.

I brought some studio experience to the project, though it mostly falls into the category of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” We’ve been extremely lucky to have had another genius as a full partner in this endeavor. Ric Probst is a brilliant engineer, cajoler-in-chief, and something of a psychologist as well, managing all our quirks, keeping things moving, bringing perspective to the table. Throughout the project, he cheekily skewered the digital editing process, and our classical pretensions, using his unusual and lengthy background to do so—a reminder of where this stuff fits on the spectrum. Once, when we were caught up in some frustrating minutiae and badly needed perspective, he said, “I remember editing Bootsy Collins hits in Cincinnati, and having bits of reel-to-reel tape spread on the floor in front of me.” Then, nodding at a computer running ProTools, “This is [expletive deleted]!” The man’s great ears, great skill, and wry wit saved the day many times. No one deserves more credit or thanks than Ric.

At this point, I’ll take a moment to thumb through my Kepler flip book and introduce the three indomitable spirits whose sacrifice and devotion have made this possible. I met our first violinist, Sharan Leventhal, when we were in high school youth orchestra together. I remember my first impression: “She’s such a brilliant player; she doesn’t even seem to play the same instrument as the rest of us!” I met the violist Brek Renzelman just after he graduated from Indiana University, when he won a titled position with the Milwaukee Symphony. He’s been the glue for the quartet, in both a musical and administrative sense; the most conscientious “inner voice.” For ten years, cellist Karl Lavine was my comrade in the trenches for Kevin Stalheim’s Present Music; we played 60 different programs of new music together. During Karl’s tenure with Present Music, Brek was also a regular, and Sharan guested frequently. As a foursome, we performed a lot under the Present Music banner, and even recorded the Kamran Ince quartet Curve for Innova during that period.

And then came the Big Bang for our project: the premiere of Johnston’s Tenth Quartet in 2002.

While scouring a music library looking for something else, I found the score to Johnston’s Tenth Quartet. Research revealed that not only had the piece never been played, but that it hadn’t even been commissioned! A very good omen if you believe that real art is “what you are compelled to do.”

I timidly phoned Johnston, who was newly retired from the University of Illinois and living in North Carolina, and I invited him to Milwaukee. He graciously accepted even though he’d only previously worked with more established quartets. It still strikes me as an act of blind faith for him to have entrusted a nascent, unknown group with an important premiere, much less the recording of his entire quartet cycle.

Fast-forward fourteen years.

St. Augustine: “The reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”

The final step: going public.

When we are done with recording and engineering, the record label finishes the process: mastering the disc, preparing the notes and packaging, and distributing. Once again, we’ve had the very best of luck to end up on New World Records working with the visionary Paul Tai. He understood the importance of this project way before we did, and steered us clear of obstacles many times, with unwavering patience. The future of this music is in good hands.

St. Gregory: “The proof of love is in the works. Where love exists, it works great things.”

The composition of these ten quartets spanned a 36-year period in Johnston’s life. Modest man that he is, he would never claim saintly status—or genius/hero/visionary status for that matter. But it’s hard not to notice the constant evolution and steady growth through all ten quartets, moving ever closer to his altruistic ideal of the harmonic way of living.

The very first quartet was written before he composed exclusively in Just Intonation and shows him to be a masterful composer already, one who kept adding tools to his toolbox. About that constant evolution—whoever commissioned a piece thinking it would be like his previous work was in for a surprise. Johnston seems to have spent his whole life asking the big questions, seeking answers anywhere and everywhere. And yet that rock-solid Johnston DNA is found in every note that he wrote from the first quartet onward.

If our project had indeed been a film, it would have had a large ensemble cast, each member with a significant role to play. It took a whole network of idealistic people to make this happen: the composer, the quartet, the engineer, recording studio and venues, fiscal agent, record label, publisher, MIDI mavens, arts organizations, funders and fundraisers, media specialists, advocates, caregivers, family members, and especially, our spouses—those with us and those departed. They have been most generous, patient, and constant, the true saints of this project.

We fervently hope listeners will take the time to delve into Johnston’s music. It’s a wonderland waiting to be explored—a new way of hearing that will never leave you. Not a rehearsal passed without a moment when four seasoned professional musicians had to lay down their instruments, and just say, “Wow!”

Pondering the completion of this recording project, stray thoughts led me to a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

One great poem should be born of
the sum of all your poems, recording
more than the surface reality, more than
“what’s passing by the window.”

Find the further reality, if there is one.

It’s not up to Johnston, or the Kepler Quartet, to say what that further reality might be. We’ve shared our particular window. Now we all get to sit back and be astonished by whatever happens next.

I once asked Johnston how he had gravitated towards studying with people of such disparate aesthetics as Harry Partch, Darius Milhaud, and John Cage and managed to incorporate influences from jazz and folk music to serialism, from Gurdjieff to Catholicism, from Renaissance music to rock opera, to achieve something so intensely personal. His reply was very telling. “Well,” he said, “I just wanted to invite everybody to the party!”

From all of us, happy 90th birthday, Ben! Thank you for inviting us to the party.

Ben Johnston and Eric Segnitz.

Ben Johnston and Eric Segnitz. Photo by Kae Hubred.


A note of thanks to the Wisconsin Alliance for Composers for acting as our fiscal agent throughout the project. And thank you to all the wonderful supporters of this project—foundations, our Kickstarter family of contributors, private donors—and special thanks to two angels who have asked to remain anonymous for now.


Additional links worth exploring

There’s some essential information on Just Intonation in “An Introduction to the String Quartets of Ben Johnston” by Sharan Leventhal, originally published in American String Teacher (Volume 64, Number 3, August 2014).

Perhaps the best overall introduction to Ben Johnson is to watch him present his own 101-minute autobiographical lecture “Who am I? Why am I here?” on April 15, 2006 at Scripps College in Claremont, California, during the 2006 Microfest, an annual festival of microtonal music in Southern California.

More details about Ben Johnston’s book of collected essays, Maximum Clarity, is available in Frank J. Oteri’s 2007 conversation with Ben Johnston on NewMusicBox.

The Kepler Quartet’s website includes more detailed biographies of individual quartet members.

Booklet notes by Bob Gilmore for the previous two New World CD releases are reproduced here and here. And here is a link to Kyle Gann’s notes for the upcoming third release.

Finally, Jon Roy has maintained a fascinating blog about Ben Johnston called A New Dissonance which documents the preparation, rehearsal, and recording of these string quartets and also collects other online Johnston resources.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

9 thoughts on “Stay Tuned: Celebrating Ben Johnston’s 90th Birthday with his 10 String Quartets

  1. Kyle Gann

    Thanks for the mention, but the two sets of liner notes provided are both by the late Bob Gilmore. It was only because of his untimely and widely grieved passing that I was called on to write the most recent set that’s coming out soon. Thanks for this article about a great man and an amazing body of music.

    Thanks Kyle. It is now fixed with a link to your notes for the third disc.-FJO

  2. Michael Robinson

    After perusing this, I went to listen to Ben Johnston’s music on YouTube, finding the Blues movement of his Suite for Microtonal Piano. I was much taken by the entrancing nature of the tuning and perhaps will look into composing some music using it. It is apparent that the theme of this movement is closely linked to the song Exodus by Ernest Gold, who was born in Austria. In addition to this possible influence, I detected an awareness of Chick Corea in the music. (My feeling is that Corea is the major jazz innovator following John Coltrane chronologically.) Does someone know whether or not these influences are acknowledged? A cursory search found no mention of either. Regardless, I’m delighted to be introduced to the music of this fascinating composer and look forward to exploring it more. Happy Birthday, Ben!

  3. Paul Rapoport

    I first met Ben in 1970 and had the good fortune to be in a couple of his classes and on a major arts festival committee with him. I thank the Quartet for inviting me to two rehearsals, of parts of the 8th and 7th quartets.

    I cannot praise these performers enough. Their superhuman ability and dedication cannot be described, overstated, or perhaps even understood.

    This is the most amazing recording project in my lifetime, and Eric, this is a magnificent article.

  4. Thomas Siwe

    Happy Birthday Ben! and thank you for your contribution to the percussion literature of the twentieth-century (Knocking Piece). It continues to challenge players, even today.
    I send greetings from your friends in Champaign-Urbana and kudos on the completion of your string quartet project.

  5. Mark Nowakowski

    This is the most fascinating and inspiring article – Catholic saint quotes and all – that I’ve read in a long time – thank you! It has set me off to listening and researching in multiple directions. I look forward to exploring these recordings, and am grateful for your hard work!

  6. Adam Silverman

    I’m glad you wrote this history of the project and congratulate you on an important job well done! These recordings are really stunning, and I can’t wait to hear the final installment. Even as a person in direct contact with Ben, it was difficult to get even scratchy tapes of these pieces in the past, and they almost never showed the attention to detail and nuance that you have given to this music. What a gift these are! You deserve a well-earned rest!

  7. manfred stahnke

    I love to hear that very soon, in mid-april, the third volume will be released by your fascinating quartet! In my teaching in Hamburg Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Ben’s music and especially the quartets are an immense treasure for learning the NEXT step of thinking in harmony. I am still struggling with his notational system, which I consider impractical though clear in the meaning of the pitches. I just read in your notes that you calculated and notated the scores in cents values! THAT IS IT… It is so wonderful to see the positively working context between Ben (the philosopher) and you four (the auditioneers – I know this word does not exist in English…).

  8. Pingback: The Three Bs: Bach, Beethoven, and... Ben Johnston? | Communities Digital News

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