Friday, April 29, 2016

'Between the cracks'

The New York Times’ Corrina da Fonseca-Wollheim explores the complex sound world of Ben Johnston, whose compositions, which call for the sounding of microtones that fall between the notes of the equal-temperament scale, are among the most challenging
in the musical literature. Johnston’s String Quartet No. 7, for example, requires producing more than 1,000 “microscopically distinct pitches.”

Such writing “between the cracks” creates “an open, infinite spiral, a kind of harmonic questing and adventuring that is based on natural phenomena and on pitches generated one from the next,” Sharan Leventhal, first violinist of the Kepler Quartet, which has recorded Johnston’s quartets, tells Fonseca-Wollheim.

The 90-year-old composer uses mathematical terms to describe his tuning system, which is “interrelated to the emotional meaning. But I don’t tell people what it is. It’s like abstract expressionist painting.”

Johnston’s father, also named Ben, was the boss of my father, also named Clarke, at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the 1940s and ’50s.

ADDENDUM (May 1): The composer, via Kepler Quartet violinist Eric Segnitz, recalls that he worked as a runner for the Times-Dispatch copy desk, and that on April 12, 1945, he handed my father the bulletin reporting the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.