Monday, May 2, 2016

The Unplayable Mr. Johnston

There's always someone who didn't get the memo, isn't there? You know, the guy who shows up at the meeting half an hour late because he missed the email moving the time up. Or the gal who still has Windows XP on her desktop because, hey, it still works. Or, the composer who, despite the fact that hyper-complex modernism with microtones peaked around, oh, I dunno, sometime between 1945 with Alois Hába's microtones and 1975 with Brian Fernyhough's New Complexity, still is trying to push that envelope.

That composer is Ben Johnston and there is a piece on him in the New York Times on the occasion of someone, the Kepler Quartet, actually, finally recording his hitherto unplayable String Quartet No. 7, composed in 1984. Here is an excerpt from the article:
According to experts, the most difficult string quartet ever written is Ben Johnston’s Quartet No. 7. It was composed in 1984 but went unperformed for decades. Musicians who knew the score, with the ingenious palindromic structure of one movement and variations teeming with over a thousand microscopically distinct pitches, considered it well-nigh unplayable.
If you follow the link, you will find a brief excerpt from the quartet that you can listen to. And here is his String Quartet No. 6, composed in 1980:



There are two problems with this music. It is not that he didn't get the memo saying, hey, enough with this hypercomplexity, let's rediscover pulse, that composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass began investigating in the early 1970s. The problem is not so much with the superficial sound or organization of the music, no, it is with the underlying ideology. Ben Johnston writes the kind of music he does because he is following the ideology of high modernism where the aesthetics of perception are overruled by the aesthetics of construction. This is what Richard Taruskin calls the Poietic Fallacy. Or, as Ben Johnston is quoted in the article:
In a Skype interview from his home, Mr. Johnston was reluctant to talk about his music in other than mathematical terms, even as he conceded that the system of multiplication and division that is at the base of his tuning system “doesn’t sound terribly exciting.” Still, he continued, “it opens the doors to new sounds. Because I think of mathematics as a means to an end. It’s not a means that a lot of people admire, because it seems too schoolish, so classroomish.”
Really, how, or even whether, you are able to hear the complexities of rhythm and pitch are pretty much irrelevant. As the title of an article by Milton Babbitt has it: "Who Cares If You Listen?" Admittedly, this is refreshingly contrary to the aesthetic of pop music, which seems oriented around a rather different kind of mathematics: sales, sales, sales!!!

The music of Ben Johnston and Milton Babbitt and others is not written to be expressive, moving, or touching in any way. Despite this, the New York Times tries to finesse this little issue by calling it
music of disarming charm, strange beauty and sometimes dreamlike familiarity. 
Well, yeah, you can get these strange impressions from this music, or John Cage, or from the energy emanations of distant stars--or, for that matter, from just watching the clothes-dryer go round and round. Aesthetically, it's a nullity.

When Reich and Glass and others came along, they did two things: they rejected the complexity ideology and the techniques it used AND they adopted a different ideology where the only thing that matters is what you can actually hear, no hidden complexity, and a new technique as well that uses both pulse and harmony.

Writing something unplayable, by the way, is laughably easy. I'm sure every composition student does it. The correct goal is not to write something difficult or complex, it is to write something WORTH LISTENING TO! I really can't stress that enough...


8 comments:

David said...

Bryan, well said. I think your last paragraph should be incorporated into the mission statement of all music school composition programs. In your quest for aesthetic value did you listen or try to listen to the extract from SQ#4? That is the one the author of the article calls "the most instantly lovable of Mr. Johnston’s works". My instant reaction was that I was hearing a first year violin student tackle the classic tune: something you sit through when you are related to the performer, but not something you voluntarily expose yourself to, or pay money for.

Johnson may be on to something though. SQ #7 with "over a thousand microscopically distinct pitches" is likely to appeal to the folks that devise the hearing tests you get at your annual medical.

Now back to Papa Haydn's Symphony 101, something that is WLT.

Marc Puckett said...

"Really, how, or even whether, you are able to hear the complexities of rhythm and pitch are pretty much irrelevant." I listened to String Quartet no 4, since the Times' writer said it was 'accessible'/uses 'Amazing Grace' & was pleasantly surprised: but my point is that the YouTube comments were all of the 'amazing', 'wonderful', 'excellent' variety (a sort I'm eminently familiar with, ahem)-- I mean, I doubt those listeners heard the 'complexities of r. & p.', either. But pleasant enough. Then the first three or four minutes of no 6, only to be interrupted at work (the gall of some people!) by work. And the Times' audio clip just now: while the technical agility of their playing is a marvel, the piece itself, eh. I put the Taruskin article on my JSTOR shelf.

David said...

Bryan, I just came across the video at this link. I thought your most recent post might be a good place to expose your readership:

http://www.musicaltoronto.org/2016/04/29/coffee-break-john-cage-death-metal/

Bryan Townsend said...

I have heard the String Quartet #4 which reminds me of Farewell to Stromness for some reason. Maybe it is because there is a hint of the bagpipe in both pieces. Johnston's quartet on Amazing Grace seems to be about the imperfections in the sound of the bagpipe and is quite nice, probably because it is about something other than the math!

I'm not sure it is necessary to listen to all of the Quartet 6 to get the idea.

David, thanks for that clip! It is going right into the Friday miscellanea!

Jeph said...

well, I have to say it was a relief that the No. 6 had something mellifluous about it. It doesn't sound as if it should be so hard to play, though. Must be all the microtones complicating the issue, occasionally they just sound like notes out of tune, and I noticed that the string players can't use any vibrato because that would probably have the effect of trilling in microtones! Beyond a quarter tone, who can even hear it? As usual, this sort of stuff holds my attention for about 4 minutes and then I start to check out.....

Bryan Townsend said...

Like David was saying, one unintended result of the microtones is that if often sounds like an amateur violinist who can't quite find the right pitch. I think that what started my modernist apostasy was the realization one day as I was trying to get the rhythmic relationship of 13 notes in the time of 5 down precisely, that no-one would know if I did or didn't. Also, I was listening to a recording of the piece and realized I wasn't sure if he got it right either! And then I thought, what the hell does it matter? Aesthetically?

My touchstone now is: can you tell if the performer is making a mistake? If you can't, it doesn't matter.

Jeph said...

I'll confess to making a few aesthetically harmless edits to Beethoven. I've played almost all the symphonies now (except #3) and there are always one or two spots where he's written something well nigh impossible (talking specifically about viola here) like a descending scale at a screaming fast tempo which ends on the downbeat, followed by an instantaneous leap to the top string and more sawing away. Folks, it's just not happening, so depending on what seems most important, ending the line or the next entrance, a note gets left out, just one, I promise. Aesthetically imperceptible, and preferable to the string-crossing crunch that would result from strict adherence to the ink.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh you bet! I must have made a thousand editorial changes in the guitar repertoire. Some things just don't work. And, like you say, these changes are not only aesthetically harmless, but aesthetically an improvement because they remove an awkwardness.

And hey, I don't care what anyone says, I think the viola is a perfectly respectable instrument.

8^)