Learning to Play Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 10

By Benjamin Kreith

[Editor’s Note: American composer Ben Johnston, 90, was a student of Harry Partch, Darius Milhaud, and John Cage. He composes in an eclectic, microtonal style. Strings recently interviewed violinist Benjamin Kreith of the Del Sol String Quartet about Johnston’s String Quartet No. 10. Enjoy Kreith’s description of the work, and the process of learning to play it. The Kepler Quartet also just finished recording the entire cycle of Johnston’s quartet works.]

The player Violinist Benjamin Kreith recently joined the Del Sol String Quartet. For several years he was a member of the Cascade Quartet and concertmaster of the Great Falls Symphony. Outside the concert hall, Kreith has rafted through the Grand Canyon, paddling and performing string quartets in the side canyons, caverns, and beaches along the Colorado River. A founding member of the Ensemble CGAC in Santiago de Compostela, Kreith currently participates in the Bay Area collective sfSound.

The composition Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 10


The edition Smith Publications, 1999

Composer Ben Johnston is radically inventive but also deeply immersed in American vernacular. So his piece, String Quartet No. 10, really grooves and sings while also exploring the far reaches of the overtone spectrum.

The intervals in Johnston’s music are derived from the ratios of the naturally occurring harmonic series, rather than the equally spaced half steps of the chromatic scale. It’s very exciting to be forced to take a fresh view of so many musical assumptions, yet also have the results sound so natural and rooted in musical traditions. It’s real fiddle music, too—my violin loves playing those super-resonant chords. During the third movement, the first-violin part is almost like a Dvorak-Kreisler “Slavonic Dance,” but in constantly shifting microtones and surrounded by a swirl of overlapping polyrhythmic pizzicatos.


Despite the complex notation, it’s important to let it sing and dance. Everyone in the Del Sol String Quartet has contributed some angle for approaching Johnston’s just-intonation system.

Playing quartets, we’re always working on tuning harmonies, often simply through intuition. Even tuning the open strings in a string quartet is problematic! Johnston’s just-intonation vocabulary helps us re-examine these challenges. It can be useful for rehearsing Debussy or Beethoven. Also, a lot of the music we play comes from non-Western or folk traditions, which aren’t so tied to the Well-Tempered Keyboard.

And, of course, there’s a rich tradition of American composers who explored alternative tuning systems: Harry Patch, Lou Harrison, James Tenney, and Larry Polansky, just to name a few.

Kathryn Bates, our cellist, made a very useful tuning CD using the natural harmonics high on the cello strings; this allows us to practice scales and train our ears to recognize those “out-of-tune harmonics” as “in-tune Johnston notes.” Violinist Rick Shinozaki wrote some helpful études to develop fingering patterns. And Charlton Lee, our violist, has a background in applied math and physics, so when I get confused he can actually explain why this all works.

It’s my first time playing any of Johnston’s music. We performed it first at the Bear Valley Music Festival [in August 2015] and next year we’ll play it at the Library of Congress, together with music by Ruth Crawford Seeger and Frederic Rzewski. At the Library of Congress we get to play on the resident instrument collection—I’ve already asked for dibs on the “Kreisler” del Gesù since he’s my number one violin hero.