The Kepler Quartet Completes Recording the Ben Johnston String Quartets

Video by Ross Monagle

For the past 14 years, the Kepler Quartet—violinists Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violist Brek Renzelman, and cellist Karl Lavine—have been working closely with maverick American composer Ben Johnston to learn and record his music. This past month, shortly before Johnston’s 90th birthday, the Quartet has finally completed their third and final installment of the world premiere recordings of Johnston’s entire oeuvre for string quartet on New World Records. Though Johnston’s ten string quartets are thoroughly idiomatic and often extremely beautiful, his music offers some unprecedented challenges to would-be interpreters. For more than half a century, Johnston has eschewed today’s common practice tuning of equal temperament in his music and has instead explored just intonation (intervals tuned to precise numerical ratios) which derives from the overtone series. Most of the quartets use intervals as complex as those derived from the 13th harmonic in the overtone series, but one quartet goes as high as the 31st harmonic. Another quartet, the Seventh—christened “the Mount Everest of String Quartets” by Kyle Gann and a work which has never been previously performed let alone recorded—contains more than 1200 distinct pitches. This is a hundred times the amount of tones that most string players are ever asked to play. This film features some highlights from the final recording sessions. To read more about the process, read Eric Segnitz’s essay on NewMusicBox: