BEN JOHNSTON (b.1926): String Quartets Nos. 6, 7 and 8, Quietness for Voice and String Quartet (Ben Johnston [voice]).
Catalogue Number: 01S036
Label: New World
Description: The third volume in this invaluable series of the quartets of the composer who has arguably explored the potential of micro-intervals more completely and systematically than any other. The composer's mechanisms are among the most complex ever formulated; just as an example, the theme of the 'variations' finale of the Seventh Quartet consists of a note-row of - wait for it - 176 pitches, each divided from its neighbor by a few hundredths of a semitone. The Sixth Quartet uses dodecaphonic techniques, but with the row based on precise harmonics rather than the only available pitches of the equal-temperament scale. What is fascinating in terms of the actual sound of the music is the perceptual effects achieved by these minutely graduated variations in pitch. Depending on one's experience and training in discerning sub-semitone pitches, the ear tends to 'resolve' microtones to the nearest eighth- or quarter- or semi-tone, or in any case something larger than Johnston's scales in cents. The fact that Johnston also writes listener-friendly -yes, really - genres of music rather than complexicist acrobatics - the movements of the 7th, for instance are an assertive prelude, a scurrying, 'eerie' scherzo, and variations with a clear self-referential structure - the effect is of an uncanny floating effect to the harmony, sometimes perceived as phasing in and out of 'tune-ness' - like listening to a just-tempered organ in the keys it was designed to play in, and then, disorientingly, hearing a modern piano. The harmony is always crystal clear, and produces the unique timbres and pitch structures of these fascinating, and amazingly accessible, works. Kepler String Quartet.