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...