One ofÂ the best things the Microtonal Weekend at Wright State University did for meÂ was initiate me into familiarity with Ben Johnston’s Seventh String Quartet.Â Written in 1984, the piece has never been played. It has a reputation as beingÂ the most difficult string quartet ever written. Timothy Ernest Johnson ofÂ Roosevelt U. gave a paper analyzing the third movement (his doctoralÂ dissertation is on the entire work and also Toby Twining’sÂ Chrysalid Requiem), and for the first time IÂ learned exactly wherein that difficulty consists.
If youÂ know much about Ben’s Third Quartet, you know it works its way measure byÂ measure through a 53-note microtonal scale. The finale of the Seventh is builtÂ on a similar plan, but the structural tone row consists of 176 pitches – allÂ different, 176 pitches within one octave, heard in the viola on each successiveÂ downbeat. Many other notes are heard in the other instruments whose harmonies link eachÂ note to the next, and Tim tells me that altogether there are more than 1200Â discrete pitches in the movement – more than one per cent, five times as manyÂ as most people can perceive. That does sound a little tricky to play. TimÂ demonstrated how the players are supposed to proceed from the opening C to theÂ subsequent D7bv-, a pitch ratio of 896/891. The violist is tasked to moveÂ upward from this C and come back down on a pitch 9.7 cents higher – just underÂ one tenth of a half-step – than she started on. At the downbeat of the nextÂ measure, the violist lands on Dbb–, pitch ratio 2048/2025 – another ten centsÂ higher. And so on for another 175 measures until the viola ends up traversingÂ the octave and ends at C again. A good half of Tim’s paper was spent talking usÂ through the performance challenges of the first two measures. Between the firstÂ and second downbeats (pictured below), the quartet is supposed to tune the F toÂ the C and the Bb- to the F, the Ab- and Eb- in the cello to the Bb- in the first violinÂ and the 7th harmonic G7b- above that, and find the 11thÂ subharmonic below G7b-, and, voilÃ , viola, you’re on D7bv-. It’s just 4/3 x 4/3Â x 2/3 x 2/3 x 7/4 x 8/11, and bob’s your uncle, there’s your 896/891. It can’tÂ be tooÂ much more difficult than four people traversing a 177-meter tightrope togetherÂ without holding hands, or manually flying four biplanes in parallel in and outÂ of the mountains through a dense fog. I mean, it’s not like they’re calculating allÂ this while playing an accelerating tempo canon, for god’s sake.
TheÂ tempo is slow and the rhythms relatively simple, though there are serializedÂ aspects to the rhythm and meter, correlated to pitch differences in the row.Â Ben recalled that his original proportional scheme would have made the pieceÂ last 48 years. Tim Johnson was applauded by others in the audience who hadÂ tried to untie this Gordion’s knot and failed; he’s been working on it for fiveÂ years, and developed a set of computer programs to help him process theÂ cascades of pitches and ratios. Best of all, he played a MIDI version of theÂ movement’s opening 30 measures. It was, indeed, breath-taking: consonances slidÂ into slightly new consonances in recurring patterns, but with no sense of aÂ background fixed pitch grid whatever. [UPDATE: Tim kindly sent me theÂ MIDI fileÂ to post, so listen for yourself. It’s done with piano sounds, so imagine a string quartet playing it.] I think I can truly claim that never, inÂ the history of the world’s music, has such deeply-layered complexity sounded soÂ translucent.
I haveÂ bowed low before many an unfathomable musical achievement, but before this one
I absolutely prostrate myself. Imagine Ben writing in pencil, in 1984, a stringÂ quartet that would later require multiple computer programs to unravel again!Â How can a mere MIDI-piano version of 30 measures of a yet-unperformed workÂ change your ideas of what music can achieve? Boulez and Stockhausen, you areÂ hereby blown out of the water, your musical understanding has been revealed asÂ merely rudimentary by thisÂ Burj KhalifaÂ of sonic conceptualization. The KeplerÂ Quartet, from whom violinist Eric Segnitz was present for the conference, isÂ expected to record the piece for their series of Ben’s complete quartets on NewÂ World. Good. Luck.
Thankfully,Â due to another analysis paper by Daniel Huey of U. Mass., we also got to hear Ben’s TenthÂ Quartet (1995), which I’d also never heard before. This is a considerablyÂ simpler piece, and in fact the final movement is a theme and variations on theÂ tune “Danny Boy,” which isn’t revealed until the very end. The harmonies areÂ tight, fluid, elegantly voice-led, and creamy. The Kepler’s next CD (SQs 1, 5,Â and 10) comes out in October, and I guarantee you’ll enjoy the 10th. ItsÂ simplicity-within-complexity and complexity-within-simplicity will gratifyÂ biases all across the spectrum, and with its resonantly pure yet exotic chords it just sounds great.
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InÂ other news drawn from the colloquium (which was astonishingly dense withÂ relevant news, considering it flew by in a mere 29 hours), the other honoreeÂ was the late piano tuner Owen Jorgensen, who wrote the massive book on theÂ history of keyboard tuning manuals in English, Tuning (I won’t take the time toÂ look up its voluminous subtitle). Momilani Ramstrum of Mesa College talkedÂ about Jorgensen’s life and said that he rather embarrassed Michigan State asÂ their staff piano tuner by becoming more of a celebrity than most of the faculty, soÂ they made him a full professor and let him teach piano tuning. On the otherÂ hand, registered piano technician Fred Sturm of UNM gave a polite butÂ exhaustive tirade against Jorgensen’s influence, charging that since he limitedÂ himself to British sources, and Britain was a few decades behind the ContinentÂ on tuning issues, he’s created a misleading picture of tuning history thatÂ others (myself included) are now quoting uncritically. This sounds perfectlyÂ plausible, and doesn’t interfere with the pleasure I get from Jorgensen’sÂ passionate speculations about the relation of composing to tuning. However, itÂ turns out there’s a new tome in English now by Patrizio Barbieri simply called Enharmonic which contains a moreÂ accurate and voluminous documentation of the history of tuning all acrossÂ Europe and across the centuries. You can obtain it, as I soon will, atÂ Barbieri’s web site, and I will expect you allÂ to have read it before I blog on the subject again. Frank Cox passed around aÂ copy, and it looks massively impressive.
MicrotonalÂ guitarist John Schneider, slapping an endless series of interchangeableÂ fretboards on his axe, started us out with a 100-minute introduction to theÂ history of tuning that hit every salient point, made every principle clear,Â demonstrated every nuance beautifully on the guitar, and was thoroughlyÂ delightful and entertaining. If you ever need a lecturer on this topic, he’sÂ your man. I couldn’t have done it. In five hours or 15 weeks I can make a lotÂ of good points about tuning, but he’s distilled it into a compact travelingÂ road show. And John Fonville led a group of students though a continuum ofÂ perfectly tuned tone clusters in Partchian otonalities and utonalities whoseÂ beauty we could all appreciate. He’s looking to take that to various schools asÂ well. If I can ever get these guys up to Bard, I will jump at the opportunity.
BenÂ Johnston offered some lovely reminiscences on his education and career, whichÂ microtonal composer Aaron Hunt quotes on hisÂ blog, so IÂ refer you there. Aaron gave his own colorful presentation on the microtonalÂ instruments he’s selling through his HÏ€ company, to whose web site http://www.h-pi.com/index.html I additionally direct you.Â Thanks to Franklin Cox and Wright State University for a colloquium thatÂ delivered more punch per presentation than just about any academic event I’ve
I’llÂ only add that, in addition to what Aaron quotes, Ben Johnston and I shared aÂ moment I’ll never forget. After my address in his honor, he hugged me and said,Â “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I replied, “Ohhhh, thank you.” And he looked me rightÂ in the eye with the old twinkle I remember from decades past, and growledÂ cheerfully: “You’re welcome!” False modesty on his part would have beenÂ devastating at such a moment. For him to acknowledge some small honor I could pay him was pleasant, but for him to acknowledge what he’d done for me -Â spinning my life off in a direction I hadn’t anticipated, yet one that expressedÂ perfectly what I needed to do – was ten thousand times more fulfilling. If decadesÂ hence any student ever thanks me for my impact on his or her life, I’llÂ remember how important the words “You’re welcome” can be.