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natewooley on 04/13/2011 at 03:38PM

Ben Johnston: The Baddest Composer You Probably Don't Know

The Great Ben Johnston

I always find it refreshing in this age, when even the most embattled, embittered, and reclusive of artists still have a very active facebook page and some sort of aggressive"web presence", to find a truly incredible composer or performer that I've never heard of.  Part of me enjoys the hipster cadre of saying "Stuart Saunders Smith...oh, you haven't heard of him..oh, yeah, I'm a big fan", or "I was just listening to this early Walter Marchetti recording...wait, you don't know Marchetti?!".  Then I put on my bright pink sunglasses and ride my fixed gear bike to get a case of pbr. 

Okay, Okay, enough stereotyping, and on to the point. Which is Ben Johnsont.

Ben Johnston was introduced to me through his new release on New World Records, in which the Kepler Quartet perform his String Quartets 1,5, and 10.  I listen to every New World release, in hopes there is some kind of promotion I can do, even if it is just word of mouth.  I don't like them all, but that's what makes listening to music great, right? 

Johnston was a revelation, though.  As I've said in previous posts, I'm fascinated by that thin line between concept and raw music making.  Johnston's use of just intonation and serialism is so natural and integrated with his use of folk and gospel song and western tonal harmony that the microtonality just becomes a very intense emotional coloring for the listener. If you don't know Ben Johnston, I suggest you take a listen to the two tracks I've listed here, as well as the new release on New World.  Then bring up his name at parties......a lot.

These two tracks are movements from larger works off of Johnston's first string quartet recording on New World Records (again performed by the Kepler Quartet). 

The first work is actually the finale of his early Second String Quartet, and is marked "Extremely Minute and Intense, Not Fast".  In this early work you hear more of his work with serial processes, the tonality not yet veering back toward common practice.

The second is the opening movement of his Ninth String Quartet, this time marked "Strong, Calm, Slow".  Here, the tonality is colored more by the just intonation then the use of serial processes. 

Every string quartet of Johnston's is a gem.  I can't post any of the works off of the new cd, so I seriously suggest you buying it and giving a close listen. It will reward you.

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Sharan Leventhal on 01/28/12 at 04:56PM
We (Kepler) are certainly doing our best to make sure people hear of Ben. I even taught a chamber music class using Quartet #9 last semester. What a revelation - both for the students encountering this amazing universe for the first time, and for me as tour guide. It is good to know there are others out there who share our passion for his music. Thanks.
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