Category Archives: Ben Johnston

To Boldly Go…

This blog has been dormant for so long, I almost forgot it existed. Now seemed an excellent time to weigh in, as I have been thinking a lot about Ben Johnston and his explorations in extended just tuning, having recently written about him for the American String Teachers’ Association publication. Also, Kepler is deep into SQ No. 6. With yesterday’s recording session, we passed the half way mark on the third and final disc of the quartet cycle.

Some experiences change us. I know that the 11 years I spent playing in Marimolin transformed my understanding of rhythm. The same is true after 12 years of playing Ben’s music. I am certainly a different person and a different musician than I was before.

Playing Johnston has been like traveling to a new universe. It may seem distant, but it is tightly coiled inside the one we know – as close as a breath – or a couple of cents, which will open a door into new, undreamt of dimensions.

Talking to Ben about his life in music, one gets the sense that ultimately, his quest has been spiritual in nature. His work is an attempt to infuse meaning into life through the composition and practice of music. I ended my article with the following quote from Ben,

There are two approaches to life. One is linear and melodic – the hero’s journey. But there is another – the vertical, harmonic way – concerned with perfect relationships. I have grown to find this a much richer experience. It is the same in music. I don’t mean to say that I am a better person than others, and therefore this is better music. But I do believe that working with this music has the potential to make me a better person. This is true for anybody who deals with it. If it is used right, it has that sort of potential. It’s not just a question of what the composer has put down on paper and how accurately it is realized. It’s a matter of finding meaning, and what actions this meaning might invoke.”


Going to the Source

On January 14, Gramercy Trio will premiere a new trio by Gunther Schuller*. It is a fantastic piece, and we are keenly aware of our good fortune, although in commissioning Gunther we knew we would get a winner.

We were thrilled when Gunther came to a rehearsal. He put us through the wringer for 4 hours.

It is fascinating for me to work closely again with Gunther after intervening years of working with Ben Johnston. The beauty of Ben’s notation is that everything depends on function. Gunther, on the other hand, uses a row. … the same one since 1976. It has produced an amazing body of work.

Working directly with the composer can be crucial. It is a direct path into their thoughts and intentions. For example, at one point the violin has a C# against a E flat chord. Thinking from the angle of ‘spelling denotes function’, it did not occur to me that my C# is intended to function as a dominant seventh. But, lo-and-behold, it does. With Gunther there to clarify, I lowered the pitch to his satisfaction.

*This commission has been made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund.

+ – 7 L ^ ……?

Whenever I speak with someone about Ben Johnston’s music, his notation inevitably comprises part of the conversation.

When I began performing Ben’s music, the scores seemed unnecessarily complicated. So many accidentals (or chromas)…. each raising or lowering the pitch by different amounts – 22 cents for a syntonic comma, 49 cents for the septimal chroma, 53 cents for the 11th partial and so on. Sometimes there are as many as 4 chromas in front of a given note. Some might raise the pitch while others would lower it. Just figuring out WHAT to play, required a lot of math.

Over time this orthography has grown on me. It lets you know on sight the function of the note – and therefore, what it should sound like, even without figuring the exact deviation in cents. Nothing like a little understanding….

Orthography: I really like that word – but I can’t help thinking of birds whenever I hear it. Well, sometimes the notes do fly off the page.

Other Realities…

I recently returned from another trip to Wisconsin – working on the final Johnston disc. There we were, once again, rehearsing in the middle of nowhere, with yet another Canadian (music critic and Prof. Paul Rapoport) looking on.

This project really does take on Field of Dreams overtones (so to speak)….. play it and they will come.

Rapoport wrote the following words in the April 2012 issue of Tempo

“In uniting acoustics and intuition, Johnston has likely composed the most astounding harmonic spectra in Western music. Sometimes American, sometimes obsessive, often beautiful, and always rewarding, his music in pure tunings is inspiring in many ways. It raises a fundamental question to which we now know not just the answer but the solution: Where has this music been all these centuries? We have been listening through a glass, darkly; but now face to face.”


Voting for BBC Music Magazine’s annual awards closes February 29th. Kepler Quartet’s second Ben Johnston CD is up for best in the chamber music category. Ben is one of only two living composers represented across all the categories! Please vote today, and show your support for this remarkable musical mind. VOTE NOW

Crop Circles

This week I am in the middle of a corn field, immersed in the world of Ben Johnston‘s extended just tuning. Kepler is rehearsing in a church in rural Wisconsin.

Two other people arrived during our first session yesterday, a young film maker from Georgia, and a wood worker/experimental instrument builder from Vancouver.

I got the oddest sensation that this project is like a loadstone – a pinpoint center of some alternate universe… If we stayed here long enough, the entire church would fill with a congregation of seekers, past and present…. can’t quite shake the feeling.

First Encounters…

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”.