The Kepler Quartet performs the music of Ben Johnston
Ben Johnston (1926-2019) produced a string quartet cycle that constitutes a milestone of the chamber music canon. The works are bold explorations of pitch and harmony, making use of “microtones,” the infinite pitches between the set notes in scales that have defined Western music. Yet they are rarely performed, and the cycle was only recently recorded in its entirety, because of the unprecedented challenges it presents to performers.
On October 14 and 15, 2020, Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center will host the Kepler Quartet, a group that spent fourteen years working closely with Johnston to learn and record his music, for a rare and highly anticipated performance of his String Quartet No. 5 Lonesome Valley. The Asheville concert will also include music by Stefano Scodanibbio, Henry Cowell and Harry Partch’s Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales arranged by Ben Johnston.
The Kepler Quartet was formed in 2002 by violinists Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violist Brek Renzelman and ‘cellist Karl Lavine, specifically to record Johnston’s complete microtonal string quartets. The ensemble was inspired to embark on this project following an overwhelmingly well-received world premiere performance of Johnston’s String Quartet No. 10. Johnston’s coaching had prepared them to present No. 10; his continued guidance led to the completion of the three-album 10-string quartet cycle recording project—full of technical complexity and expressive intensity, showing the confluence and influence of richly diverse musical traditions. They took to the stage at Harvard in March 2018 for the first time since completing the recording to play No. 5, but have yet to bring a live performance to the Southeast.
Johnston is widely recognized for generalizing and extending Harry Partch’s system of “just intonation” to traditional instruments, translating radical mid-century musical experimentation for a wider audience. He was a student of John Cage and helped Cage put together his influential Williams Mix, which creates a natural connection between Johnston’s work and the legacy of the experimental, interdisciplinary Black Mountain College. In keeping with Black Mountain College’s educational ethos, the Kepler Quartet will also lead a preconcert discussion on the music of Ben Johnston and just intonation. Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center will partner with area universities to bring students of music performance and music theory to this rare learning opportunity.
Johnston was born in Macon, Georgia and resided in North Carolina until his death this past year, lending extra significance to the Southeast as a site for performing his music. Bringing Johnston’s work to Asheville to be heard by new audiences will be a tremendous achievement. As the Kepler Quartet’s violinist Eric Segnitz put it after their recording, “An incredible oeuvre of music, once largely inaccessible, is now available to the world, an open secret.” A live performance will extend these efforts mightily, introducing newcomers to a world few have been privileged to experience in person.
Ben Johnston – “String Quartet No. 5” performed by the Kepler Quartet with Sharan Leventhal, Eric Segnitz, Brek Renzelman and Karl Lavine. Released on New World Records in 2011.
“String Quartet No. 5” (1979) is one of Johnston’s most impressive achievements, a composition of radical innovation that speaks an expressive and engaging language with a visionary intensity reminiscent of Ives. It is a single-movement variation form based on “Lonesome Valley”, an old Appalachian traditional gospel song of unknown authorship.
For 14 years, the Kepler Quartet—violinists Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violist Brek Renzelman, and cellist Karl Lavine—worked closely with maverick American composer Ben Johnston to learn and record his music. This is a short video about the recording of the complete Ben Johnston String Quartets produced by New Music USA and created by Ross Monagle.
Start and End Dates
10/14/2020 — 10/15/2020
Asheville, North Carolina