The ten string quartets of Ben Johnston, written between 1951 and 1995, constitute no less than an attempt to revolutionize the medium. Only the first limits itself to conventional tuning. The others, climaxing in the astonishing Seventh Quartet of 1984, add in further microtones from the harmonic series to the point that the music seems to float in a free pitch space, unmoored from the grid of the common twelve-pitch scale. In a way, this is a return to an older conception of string quartet practice, since players used to (and often still do) intuitively adjust their tuning for maximum sonority while listening to each other's intonation.
The completion of the cycle, supervised throughout by the composer himself, is a historic achievement that will undoubtedly stand as the definitive document of these works, among the most important achievements in American music. The Seventh and Eighth Quartets are receiving their world-premiere recordings. The former has a reputation as the most difficult quartet ever written and has heretofore remained unperformed. The Kepler Quartet has met the challenge with enviable aplomb, as they have throughout the cycle, affording listeners a chance to finally hear these difficult but highly rewarding works. Johnston's brief, poignant Rumi setting, Quietness, with the composer himself as vocalist, rounds out the recording, a fitting denouement to this magnificent accomplishment.