Kepler Quartet’s CD3 | completing the 10-quartet Ben Johnston cycle
The Latest Update
Ben passed away, Sunday
Both his family and the quartet were prepared for this eventuality, of course, as Ben had been in poor health for many years.
The quartet is grateful for the time shared with him, personally and professionally. We had hoped to have him with us at least once more in public when we performed his SQ#5 at the Token Creek Festival on the evening of Wednesday, August 29th, 2018. But if he had been present, that night, Ben’s dementia would have created a calamitous distraction for the rest of the audience–he was singing all the time!
Ben’s innovative use of Just Intonation in his compositions has greatly expanded the sound palette with which musicians may reach listeners. The world is a richer place because Ben shared his unique artistic vision with us all.
May he rest in peace–while the rest of us carry on with honouring his legacy.
Today, CD3 is officially released!
Go to New World Records’ album page to hear audio samples galore, including String Quartet No. 7 movement I in its entirety.
CD3 is available for purchase as disc ($15.99) or lossless download ($9.99).
Ben celebrated his 90th birthday on Tuesday, the 15th of March.
“Many happy returns of the day, Ben!”
NewMusicBox celebrated the occasion with coverage of the project.
Yay! We made it…or rather our Kickstarter BACKERS made it for us.
Last night, we reached our main goal at our crowdfunding campaign and are now shooting for a stretch goal in order to include Ben’s performance of Quietness on the CD.
Written for string quartet and featuring speaker/baritone–with text by the Sufi mystic poet Rumi–this setting was composed by Ben in 1996 in memory of his University of Illinois colleague Sal Martirano.
Kepler Quartet recorded it with Ben on his 84th birthday, nearly six years ago, and we’d like to be able to bring this poignant little gem to our listeners.
To our New Music USA followers
If you’ve been thinking of supporting our Kickstarter campaign to complete the 3-CD recording project, now is the time.
Our crowd-funding effort ends Thu, Dec 31 2015 at 5:59 pm Central Time, the last date on the calendar. That’s less than five days from now.
Don’t miss this chance to have your gift MATCHED 2 to 1 in bringing our 14-year-long creative endeavor to fruition, delivering the finished results to the composer!
Your tax-deductible donation will be matched 2 to 1, until 5:59 pm, December 31st, and up to the amount advertised at our Kickstarter page.
Double your impact today to help bring String Quartets Nos. 6, 7, 8 to the listening public! Your contribution counts!
Spreading the word
Many thanks to Kyle Gann for his recent blog post, “Bringing the World’s Most Difficult Quartet to Life,” in support of our Kickstarter fund-raising campaign.
The blog title refers to Mr. Johnston’s famously ‘unplayable’ String Quartet No. 7. Mr. Gann goes on to write that our three CDs represent “possibly the most ambitious string quartet project in history.”
Kyle, who is a composer, teacher, author and former new-music critic for the Village Voice, will be writing the liner notes for our CD3. (Musicologist Bob Gilmore, who wrote the liner notes for our CDs 1 & 2, unfortunately passed away in early 2015.) Kyle is the one who coined the phrase ‘Mountain Everest’ in describing String Quartet No. 7.
There are only 8 days left in the campaign! Please put in a plug for our project. And consider pledging, if you haven’t already!
Our Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign has launched:
Two local Milwaukee donors have graciously stepped forward with a $15,000, dollar-for-dollar matching grant to help Kepler Quartet complete the ten-quartet recording series. These funds will cover a little less than half of remaining CD3 costs—String Quartets Nos. 6, 7, 8, currently in production. We must match the pledge with funds raised elsewhere, and our newly launched Kickstarter campaign will make the final push possible.
Ben’s health is failing, and time is running out. The composer’s collaboration is crucial as we rush to complete this project. For a planned April 2016 CD3 release, we must meet the February 15, 2016 deadline for submitting our master to the record label.
Interest in Ben’s music has blossomed following the release of Kepler Quartet’s first two CDs. But at nearly 90 years of age, Ben has yet to see his quartets gain the true level of currency they deserve within the performance repertoire. Kepler Quartet would like to see this change.
Nothing would give the ensemble or the record label more satisfaction than seeing this 14-year-long project through to completion while the composer is able to enjoy the results. Now is the time to secure the legacy of this great American composer!
calm before the storm
On May 28, we recorded the final segment of #6, the retrograde first violin solo, having already finished at our March 16 session, the “backwards” cello.
Above is a screen grab from our recording engineer’s Facebook post on May 28, commemorating the occasion. (We hadn’t arrived yet when the photo of mike setup was taken, but believe us…we were there, that day!)
Next up was rehearsing and recording the first movement of String Quartet No. 7, which throws every pitch known to humankind (and then some) into the mix.
We recorded #7 mvt I on August 29 and 30 at a different venue, a recording studio instead of a hall, because ambient noise is more controllable.
We start rehearsing #7 mvt III on November 18. The surge of microtonal activity begins!
Yes, we’re still hard at work!
Over the past 6 months we have continued rehearsing and recording SQ#6. On Dec. 19, we recorded the “backwards” versions of the violin II and viola solo sections. In January, we rehearsed the cello solo section intensively, but a family emergency forced us to move the recording date to March. After that, all that will remain of #6 is the retrograde first violin solo.
The “forward” and “backwards” violin II solos were virtually identical in character—both rather placid and serene, which seems appropriate as these solos bookend the raucous middle chordal section. Providing more of a front-to-back contrast, the “forward” viola solo had been bizarrely athletic and dance-y, while “backwards” was like rhythmic accented speech. Whereas cello “forward” had given the impression of a fairly conventional Romantic lyricism, “backwards” cello has a harder edge to its delivery. The tempos marked in the score are increasing with each of these solo sections, from the midpoint of the piece onward. Retrograde first violin promises to be a more caffeinated version.
During the summer months, we also spent a significant amount of time delving into quartet #7 with Ben. This is the veritable ‘Mount Everest’ in his cycle when it comes to the pitch set. There are over 1,200 discrete pitches in this monumental work (Sharan is calling the last movement ‘Syntonic Verses…’).
Tim Johnson, our audio programmer, joined us for a few of these #7 sessions. As with #6, we are finding many copyist’s errors. Fully corrected #6 and #7 scores that we could eventually furnish through the publisher’s catalog may be another welcome byproduct of this project. We would like to do the same for Ben’s other quartets.
An Introduction to the String Quartets of Ben Johnston
As Chamber Music Editor of ASTA’s national publication, American String Teacher, Sharan Leventhal, Kepler Quartet’s first violinist, wrote this article for the August 2014 issue. It provides readers with practical advice for approaching Johnston’s extraordinary cycle of string quartets.
progress with SQ#6
Since applying for the NewMusicUSA grant (the application was due April 1, 2014), we have continued steadfastly working on String Quartet No. 6.
This piece is written in palindrome form, meaning there are two halves which are at least nominally mirror images. (The ‘reflection’ half happens to be faster than the opening of the piece.) The first half is a stream-of-consciousness succession of four accompanied instrumental solos, in which violin I, cello, viola, violin II each takes a turn in the spotlight. There are no cadences, just endlessly spun out melody over constantly shape-shifting harmonies. The middle section, a series of restless chords, marks the turning point, and the middle of bar #298—which we call the continental divide—is the precise point at which these chords begin their descent towards the ‘backwards’ (retrograde) version of the solos: violin II, viola, cello, violin I.
On May 30th, picking up where we had left off at our January recording session, we tackled the next 88 bars—the ‘forward’-version of the cello solo. But there was a problem. A hum from a transformer adjacent to the hall was registering through the microphones, and eliminating this disruptive sound delayed our start. We ended 8 bars shy of the full cello section that day and had to come back to it at our June 12th recording session, at which we also recorded the middle chordal passage—the restless, lurching pivot point of Ben’s forward-backwards palindrome.
Next up were the viola and violin II ‘forward’ solo sections, which we recorded at a session on July 3rd. This also happened to be one day after NewMusicUSA’s awards announcement. The good news helped buoy our spirits through what was a productive but grueling six-hour session.
Now we have slightly more than half of #6 in the can. This is a milestone for a work that had never before been played or recorded as it was conceived by the composer.
Ben Johnston’s innovative use of extended ‘Just Intonation’ (JI) tips the scale of difficulty for the performer. Instead of the standard 12 tones of Equal Temperament (which is the tuning norm in everything from Pop to Classical), Ben composes with upwards of 150 pitches per octave.
Ben’s JI scores rendered faithfully by the performers reveal striking and beguiling harmonies. When we play as he has meticulously notated, we discover new terrains of musical possibility and appreciation.
Musicians always shade their musical utterances to match feeling and states of mind. Ben does the same with his subtly gradated, sometimes shockingly dramatic harmonies, dictating more precisely to the quartet performers how they should sound. The results can be phenomenal. But only after investing hundreds of hours of preparation, individually and as a quartet, internalizing his unusual harmonies, learning the odd pitch combinations, understanding his new notation system, translating the pitch values to tempered “numbers” and penciling in one of these numbers above each pitch in the score so that we can use standard electronic tuners as reference guides in rehearsal.
Kepler Quartet have followed this protocol in rehearsing and recording the repertoire for our CD3, having done so for CD1 (Ben Johnston String Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 4 & 9; Cat. No. 80637) and CD2 (Ben Johnston String Quartets Nos. 1, 5, 10; Cat. No. 80693). The latter was nominated for Chamber Disc of 2012 by BBC Music Magazine.
Our recording label for CDs 1 & 2—New World Records—will distribute CD3 as part of its catalogue, with a minimum pressing of 1,000 units for initial retail and subscriber distribution, more produced as demand warrants. New World continues to service libraries directly and makes sound files available via its online subscription service, DRAM, for colleges and universities—allowing students, faculty and scholars affiliated with a subscribing university to access the Database from their library, home or any other location as frequently as they wish without charge to the individual.
Our CD1 was completed and released in 2006; CD2 in 2011. The response to these recordings has been encouraging. Young professional and student quartets have demonstrated strong interest in Ben’s work, since their release, and will likely respond similarly to CD3.
But in the current market, sales of this kind of recording do not pay the bills. We have been doing most of this work for free since 2002 with the start of our CD1 production. Thanks to generous grants from the Copland Fund, the Fromm Foundation and the Goelet Charitable Trust, as well as a magnanimous gesture from a private Canadian donor, Kepler Quartet have been able to keep the lights on and continue production of the Johnston recording project.
At the time we submitted our New Music USA grant application, Kepler Quartet had recorded String Quartet No. 8’s four movements for CD3, as follows: on December 19-20, 2011; July 16-17, 2012: June 23-24, 2013; and July 29, 2013. The first 88 measures of the one-movement work String Quartet No. 6 were recorded on January 11, 2014.
Funds granted by New Music USA in July 2014 were used to continue CD3 production.
We reached the finish line in early 2016 thanks to our Kickstarter backers.
Jon Roy, videographer, filmed and edited this promo video.
The soundtrack includes samples of Ben Johnston String Quartets Nos. 1 & 10 (from New World Records Cat. #80693), as recorded by Kepler Quartet and released in 2011. Video images of the musicians (with live audio removed) were taken during actual Kepler rehearsals, including: a vital early stage of the learning process when the players practiced at slow tempo for pitch (SQ#8); and a later stage, ‘at tempo,’ while coaching with the composer just prior to performance/recording (SQ#10).
Timothy Johnson creates computer audio realizations of Ben’s written music for Kepler Quartet’s rehearsal purposes. As a supplement to the extremely close score reading that Kepler Quartet and the composer are already engaged in during routine rehearsals and coachings, he also helps with score proofreading (there can be numerous copyist’s errors!) and offers analysis (if there were ever a question about harmonic interpretation not already answered by Ben).
Start and End Dates
06/23/2013 — 04/15/2016