By Cristina Schreil
And the cycle is complete. After 14 years and more than 1,999 takes in the recording studio, the Kepler Quartet has fulfilled its mission and honored the core driver of its existence: They’ve recorded all ten of revered American composer Ben Johnston’s string quartets. A new album containing String Quartets Nos. 6, 7, and 8 was released in April, about a month after Johnston’s 90th birthday. The seventh and eighth are world-premiere recordings.
It’s a multi-album effort. The first, released in 2006, contains Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 9; the second, released in 2011, presents Nos. 1, 5, and 10. All are under the New World Records label. Realized largely by collaborating with the composer himself, the albums are to function as historical documentation of his method and philosophy. The new album also contains a bonus track titled “Quietness,” featuring Johnston’s narration.
As many in the music world know, the feat of the Kepler Quartet—violinists Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violist Brek Renzelman, and cellist Karl Lavine—is not simply one of scope. Johnston’s unique microtonal music draws mainly from just intonation, founded upon organic ratios of the overtone series. Nine of the ten quartets use this tuning. It’s presented a herculean task to Kepler’s members, who spent years working with Johnston to plunge into his unconventional harmonic world of the string quartets, which were written between 1951 and 1995. The three-movement String Quartet No. 7, dubbed the “Mount Everest of String Quartets” by composer Kyle Gann, calls for more than 1,200 distinct pitches.
“In that sense it was the most challenging,” Segnitz says. “In another sense there was sort of a traditional logic to the music that we could grasp pretty quickly and so I wouldn’t actually say for myself it was the most difficult piece. Probably No. 6 was the most abstract for us. Every harmony leads into the next harmony, and it was just really challenging in almost every way.” He adds that the experience strengthened his understanding of the link between music and arithmetic. With a slight chuckle, he admits the feeling of reemerging is “a little postpartum.”
When asked what’s next, Segnitz—who also acted as producer—says some performance opportunities are coming Kepler’s way. But, they haven’t made any firm decisions. “It is unwieldy though because we live in different cities, the music takes a long time to rehearse, and quite frankly concert fees don’t support that,” he explains.
The Kepler Quartet has not completely moved on; Segnitz explained there’s an oral-history project conducted with Yale University to further document Johnston, whom Segnitz describes as having a funny, wise, guru-esque personality.
“He’s taught us a lot and I think it’s gone both ways,” Segnitz says of Johnston. “People think of him as this avant-garde composer but actually he’s using these techniques to go back to basics with the overtone series, and that’s sort of the way this relationship is, too. It’s a very basic human relationship and that’s been great.”
The project began with Segnitz’s discovery of Johnston’s String Quartet No. 10 in a music library. He reached out to Johnston for guidance and under the new music group Present Music, he and Leventhal, Renzelman, and Lavine premiered the quartet in a well-received concert in 2002. That performance led to a desire to record the work, and then to record all ten string quartets and spread Johnston’s legacy. He adds that Kepler has sensed an upswing of interest in Johnston’s work, particularly after the release of the second album.
In the years that followed, the thus-formed Kepler Quartet acted as what Segnitz calls a musical “stealth unit,” periodically stealing away from their lives and other projects to be near Johnston, near Madison, Wisconsin. “It was hard to line up schedules and it was also, I have to admit, a bit of a gearshift every time we’d get back together,” Segnitz says.
Segnitz reinforced a goal of the project was also to shed light on a musical system that feels foreign to today’s trained musician, but is more central to nature and the universe than many realize. He likened adherence to equal temperament to only using glasses that allow you to see primary colors. Leventhal recently described playing Johnston’s music as “a little bit like learning to listen through a kaleidoscope,” in a radio interview with Arts Alive.
“We’re actually hardwired to hear this way, so if you do give it a chance, it will happen and it will be incredibly rewarding,” Segnitz says.