Ben Johnston String Quartets Nos. 6, 7, & 8

Do we always know when, exposed to something that will influence us for the rest of our lives, we are in transformation?

I did not realize such when I first played some David Berger Ellington transcriptions back in college, although I did enjoy them very much. I did realize such the first time I heard a recording of Terry Riley’s The Harp Of New Albion. In either case, I could never predict how I would grow in relationship to that music. I am in such a state of realization now regarding this last recording of Ben Johnston’s string quartets by the Kepler Quartet, completing this set of recordings.

I have the other two Kepler Quartet recordings as well; I am the proud owner of the complete set, and this last one came with the small scrawl of the composer’s signature on the inside cover. Due credit must be given not just to Johnston but to Karl Lavine, Sharan Leventhal, Brek Renzelman, and Eric Swegnitz, the musicians in the Quartet, and the rest of the production team for realizing this recording. Due credit, because, in particular, string quartets nos. 6 and 7 are, to put it mildly, a bit of work. Have yourself a laugh and check out The Mount Everest of String Quartets.

I’ve listened to this album many times since I bought it earlier this year, and it’s definitely my favorite of the year so far. I may have listened to this album more than any other I ever have. Under such a lens, what can I say about the music itself? I can’t, except that I have an inkling the String Quartet No. 7 may be one of the finest compositions of the 20th century, and this one of the finest recordings of the 21st . . . but such statements are for people en masse to figure out, and this album hasn’t had time to percolate into the public consciousness yet. It certainly is one of my favorite compositions of the 20th century and one of my favorite recordings of the 21st, and I think that I will grow in those opinions as I grow with the music. If you readers hear this music, you may disagree and not understand what I cannot say about the music, or you may agree and then you definitely will understand.

I think the latter more likely.

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