With the Kepler Quartet hard at work on this final disc of the Johnston string quartet cycle, I thought it would be a good time to re-visit one of the pieces they are working on: String Quartet no. 6, where endless melody folds into a structure based on the Fibonacci series. While we wait for the Kepler’s version, you can listen to the original recording below.

You can purchase a digitized version of the original CRI album direct from New World Records (digital via iTunes or CD-R).

Original liner notes reproduced below (download the PDF here):

From CRI SD 497:

Ben Johnston String Quartet No. 6 (1980), New World String Quartet (Curtis J. Macomber and William Patterson, violins; Robert Dan, viola; Ross T. Harbaugh, cello)

Ben Johnston (b. 1926, Macon, Georgia) is best known for his work in microtonal music, particularly in the use of the ancient “just” intonation. He received his high school education in Richmond, Virginia and his advanced education at the College of William and Mary, the United States Navy School of Music, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, University of California at Berkeley, Mills College, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He holds degrees from William and Mary, Cincinnati Conservatory and Mills. His principal teachers of composition were Harry Partch, Darius Milhaud, Burrill Phillips, Robert Palmer, and John Cage. Since 1951 he has been on the faculty of the University of Illinois where in 1983 he became Professor Emeritus of Musical Composition.

Johnston has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a grant from the National Council on the Arts and the Humanities, and Associate Membership in the University Center for Advanced Study. He has received commissions from the Paul Fromm Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, the Fine Arts Foundation of Chicago, the Polish Radio in Warsaw, and the one from the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation that made this recording possible.

The concept of microtonal complexity achieved through the most consonant and mathematically the most uncomplicated tuning procedures has underlain most of Johnston’s works since 1961. The extension of tuning based on the first six partials of the overtone series (like common practice in early music, avoiding the compromise of temperament) occupied him until 1970, when he undertook an extension of tuning based on higher partials. Johnston’s music is not written for electronic or other instruments of novel design to make possible the new microtonal resources. Instead, he has studied and altered the performance of familiar instruments. He writes:

“In String Quartet No. 6, I undertook the problem of endless melody so fascinating to late nineteenth century composers. Since it seemed to me that this concept never really met successfully the tests to which it was subjected, I was especially anxious to make it succeed in a non-dramatic, non-programmatic context. The melodic phrases are completely elided, avoiding al! cadences. The punctuation, the rise and fall, and the climax placement of these lines and accompaniments are controlled by an elaborate application of proportions from the Fibonacci series. The length of the solos and their tempos are strictly proportional and result in a gradual increase of activity up to double the initial tempo.

“With this work, too, I returned to a problem that has interested me from many angles: the integration of twelve-tone technique with the pitch procedures of extended just intonation. As in one earlier work (Two Sonnets of Shakespeare), I composed a background against which solo melody could be placed. In the quartet I used a 2,3, 5, 7,11 system in which hexads like Harry Partch’s comprising the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 9th and 11th partials of an otonality (overtone aggregate) or of its inversion, an utonality (under-tone aggregate), are paired, as hexachords in a semi-combinatorial twelve-tone row which has one representative tone from each of the twelve pitch regions of the octave. All forty- eight transpositions of the row are used more than once in a giant palindrome which presents each quartet member in turn as soloist. The solos are freely composed using the tones of the harmonic content of the hexachords.

“The composition of this work was more difficult than any piece I can remember, probably because its moment-to-moment timing evokes for me the ordinary events of daily life rather than its exceptional moments.”

The New World String Quartet, with a repertoire ranging from the standard quartet literature to premieres of contemporary American works, has been acclaimed as one of America’s most prominent young ensembles. Formed in 1977,the quartet has appeared at major halls in major cities and universities. It is currently Quartet-in- Residence at Harvard University.

This recording was made possible by grants from the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation. String Quartet-Smith Publ, Baltimore (ASCAP): 21′40″ Recorded by David Hancock, New York City, April 1983. Produced by Carter Harman and Eve Beglarian.

The music on this record was commissioned by the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation specifically for performers who had won Naumburg Performers’ Awards. The New World String Quartet won the Chamber Music Award in 1979.

CRI’s Board of Trustees wishes to express its gratitude to the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation and the Norman and Rosita Winston Foundation for support during 1982-83.