Rare sounds (and sighting) of the Kepler Quartet
It seems absurd that someone who has attended only the last eight years of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival would suggest that the concert of August29 was the epitome of what the Festival is at its best—and yet such a case could be made.
Festival founders John and Rose Mary Harbison (pictured above, courtesy Token Creek Festival), joined the audience and let the Kepler Quartet hold sway for “A Recital with Demonstration and Discussion.” The mere fact that the Kepler Quartet would be heard live was noteworthy in itself: the ensemble was formed in 2002 for the express purpose of recording the staggeringly difficult works of Ben Johnston—a project that ultimately took fourteen years.
The principal difficulty in Johnston’s music is his use of microtones, and in the bigger picture his allegiance to “just intonation.” Similar issues provided thorny problems in the composers that shared the first half of the program: Harry Partch, Henry Cowell and Stefano Scodanibbio. Before playing a note though, violinist Sharon Leventhal and cellist Karl Lavine demonstrated the essential differences between what most players and listeners in Western civilization have been locked into all their lives (namely “even temperament,” the tuning system Bach helped codify with his Well-Tempered Clavier), and the various natural ways of approaching pitch, overtones and harmony.
The brief opening piece was “Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales” from 1946 by Partch (1901-1974), arranged by Johnston in 1997. To give you a simplistic idea of what Partch’s music represents, where standard practice divides the scale into twelve tones, Partch’s is divided into 43. In a span of just minutes the encouragingly large audience at “The Barn” was transported into an entirely unique and evocative soundscape.
The work presented by Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was even more to the point: in under three minutes his “Quartet Euphometric” delivers something described as “rhythm-harmony.”
The “Canzoniere messicano: Besame mucho” of Stefano Scodanibbio (1956-2012) is based on the folk song named in the title. Along with violinist Eric Segnitz and violist Brek Renzelman, Leventhal and Lavine produced a beautifully layered reading, in which the just-tuned harmonics suddenly erupted like fireflies, glowing for a moment, then reappearing again without warning.
The second half was devoted to String Quartet No. 5 (“Lonesome Valley”) of Johnston. Born in 1926, and still living in Wisconsin, Johnston’s 1979 work is at least as fascinating as his most famous work, String Quartet No. 4, “Amazing Grace.” Members of the Kepler ensemble recall Johnston singing the “Lonesome Valley” song to them (and they played a recorded clip for us); that alone was unforgettable. The 17-minute work might strike the uninitiated listener as simply “out of tune,” but for those who had had their crash course in just intonation via the Kepler players, it soon evolves into the kind of sonic dreamscape that reminded yours truly of some my first experiences hearing some of Charles Ives’ music. The comparison is made strictly from a place of emotional memory; Ives experimented with dissonance polytonality, but did not employ just intonation. The end of the Johnston quartet was an incredibly slow, extended and quiet ending…which made one think of what makes all great music great: it’s almost impossible to describe in words. Thankfully the Kepler Quartet planted some seeds last month that might just bear fruit in the guise of newly adventurous listeners exploring more of Johnston’s music on the Kepler Quartet’s recordings. If nothing else, we’ll always have one of the most vivid memories of TCCMF in many years.