Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ben Johnston's String Quartet No. 4 Amazing Grace

Ben Johnston

String Quartet No. 4 Amazing Grace

Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4 is a one-movement work based on the hymn Amazing Grace. The ten-minute work includes a wide range of textures and styles. Although often overlook in his field, Johnston has firm command over the compositional techniques used in this piece. Unfortunately, the composer’s lack of prominence and the piece’s difficulty have kept this work from being included in the canon.

Born in 1926, Johnston’s was recognized at an early age for having a keen ear and grew up studying piano and composing (Von Gunden 3). He has become known for his work with composer Harry Partch. As Partch’s apprentice, for six months, he helped with the construction of instruments and the performance of Partch’s music (Gann 85). In his own work, Johnston focused on just intonation and the use of other non-standard tuning on regular instruments. Aside from Partch, other composers such as John Cage and Darius Milhaud also influenced Johnston.

As a composer, Johnston has a small but concentrated output. His compositions are generally written for small groups of instruments or singers and encompass a wide range of twentieth century compositional techniques. Amazing Grace is the fourth of ten string quartets. The piece can be performed alone or as the final movement of a larger programmatic work, entitled “Crossings.” “Crossings” includes three movements, Verging (String Quartet No. 3), The Silence (actual silence), and The Ascent (String Quartet No. 4). Quartet No. 3 is serial and Quartet No. 4 is tonal; Johnston uses the series to represent his abandonment of serialism for tonality (Von Gunden 138). This change in Johnston’s compositional style is largely a reflection of the depression and mental health issues he was experiencing at the time (Von Gunden 139).

Although the quartet is written in one large movement, it is divided into sections each containing different sounds and textures. As it progresses, the work becomes increasingly complex in rhythm and number of pitches used (Gann 88). The piece begins with the melody to Amazing Grace based on a Pythagorean pentatonic scale in Johnston’s key of G minus (Gann 87). This initial statement of the melody is folk-like and reminiscent of fiddle playing particularly in the use of ornaments. In the next section, the rhythmic complexity begins to grow as several players provide a pizzicato rhythmic underpinning while others share a variation on the main melody. A short transitional section follows, hinting at influences of jazz. During this portion all members of the quartet return to bowed playing and continue to bend the original melody. The next variation is extremely complex with a 36/35 rhythmic ratio between the cello and viola (Von Gunden 142). The playing in the upper strings in spirited and virtuosic, incorporating double stops and combating parts. The next variation provides a stark contrast by featuring a somber version of the melody inverted and played by the viola. It has an Asian or eastern sound, alluding to another type of folk music. This is followed by a short section of interplay among parts. The variation that follows is frenzied and minimalist in nature, featuring the melody played in harmonics. The next section is fast, virtuosic, and improvisatory, eventually making its way to the final variation, a completely transformed version of the melody.

Aside from the decidedly avant-garde aspects of the piece, Johnston experiments heavily with folk music. I was drawn to this work because its folk-like qualities reminded me of several things I’ve heard before. The first was Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Johnston created a similar type of composition by taking a folksong and manipulating in to create variations on the original. It also contains many aspects of “American” sounding music, for which Copland is famous, such as open spacing of sonorities and syncopated rhythms. The quartet, especially the beginning, also reminded me of the Appalachian and American fiddle music crossover projects that musicians like violinist Mark O’Connor and string bassist Edgar Meyer have been involved with more recently. Like Johnston, O’Connor and Meyer combine American folk music tradition with newer compositional techniques. In this way Ben Johnston is tied to the use of folk music in the classical genre both before and after his composition of this piece.

In the case of Johnston’s 4th String Quartet both the piece and composer have their merits. Johnston is typically only recognized as an extension of other composers; however, he does have innovations of his own. With this quartet he has managed to create an unusual phenomenon, a work that is musically fulfilling to a general audience despite its exceptional complexity. As Johnston says in a published interview, “… [the] piece is one of my most accessible. It really is art concealing art, because listeners have no idea how complex it is” (Keislar, et al. 183). This still creates a large problem. Who is going to play it? Even with the some of the most talented players of our time, this piece has remained almost untouched. In order to gain prestige it will have to make its way on to the concert stage. Perhaps future generations will embrace its difficulty, but until then it must remain outside the canon.

Gann, Kyle. American Music in the Twentieth Century. New York, NY: Schirmer Books, 1997.

Keislar, Douglas, Easly Blackwood, John Eaton, Lou Harrison, Ben Johnston, Joel Mandelbaum, and William Schottstaedt. “Six American Composers on Nonstandard Tunings.” Perspectives of New Music 29, no. 1 (Winter 1991): 176-211.

Von Gunden, Heidi. The Music of Ben Johnston. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press,


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