This past semester I taught a chamber music class at The Boston Conservatory in Ben Johnston‘s string quartets for the very first time. It was a revelation, for the students and for me. Exploring music with others – be they colleagues, the next generation of performers, or general audiences, is always a joy. But this class was particularly dramatic.
At our first meeting, each quartet member was hooked up to their own chromatic tuner. We began by tuning a dominant 7th chord. The root and 5th were simple (being very close to Equal Temperament). It was also easy for everyone to agree that the major 3rd sounded excellent about 14 cents lower than ET. The 7th was a different story.
A pure dominant 7th is extremely low compared to ET – almost ¼ tone. The players – each in turn, watching the meter on their tuner – approached the 7th with extreme caution, slowly creeping lower. They could not believe, using their eyes, that they were headed in the right direction. Once there, after balancing the chord, we just listened to it for a minute.
Next, I asked them to take the 7th back up to ET. This was a moment I will never forget. First eyes widened in disbelief, followed by pained expressions as the grim reality of the ET dominant 7th sank in. They could not reconcile their eyes and ears and how absolutely dreadful the chord sounded with the 7th raised.
I chose quartet #9 as the portal into Johnston’s world of Extended Just Tuning. The first movement begins by introducing the just tuned C Major scale with a syntonic comma thrown in for good measure. The third is a simple hymn-like song which modulates down two syntonic commas and back up, all within the first phrase (this affects me physically every time I hear it – like digging a hole and jumping in, then climbing back out as the sun comes from behind a cloud….).
The journey was easier for the students than it was for Kepler, simply because I was there as tour guide – but it was not an easy ride by any means. One coaching session they informed me that they had covered only three chords in a two hour rehearsal. By the end of the semester, the quartet had covered about 50 measures of music, and only half that really thoroughly. But they really owned those first 30 measures. It was thrilling.
The adventure gave them a whole new understanding of pitch, how it can be manipulated, the importance of a pitch’s role in a given harmony, how voicing affects perception of being ‘in tune’ and so on.
As one of the students said at the end of the semester, “Nothing will ever be the same again”.