I’m guessing that my title has its origins in the Benjamin Britten piece, “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”. That phrasing has been used by the likes of Phill Niblock and King Crimson to title retrospective compilation discs. While the disc under consideration here is not, strictly speaking, a retrospective it is a fine representation of the chamber music of the late great Ben Johnston (1926-2019).
Johnston, a former associate of Harry Partch (Johnston played in Partch’s ensemble) was a composer in his own right. His ten string quartets are a landmark of the genre. Two of those quartets are featured here played by the Lyris Quartet (Nos. 4 and 9) along with what is apparently his last composition, “Ashokan Farewell” (1999) scored for an octet in which the Lyris is augmented with flute, clarinet, bassoon, and double bass.
Like so many composers before him, Johnston was fond of incorporating folk tunes into his compositions. The composer’s fourth quartet (included here) from 1973, which incorporates “Amazing Grace”, is likely his best known work. Despite its incredible complexity (nicely summarized in Kyle Gann’s lucid liner notes) this set of variations keeps that familiar tune near the surface and effectively make for music that is friendly to the audience, easy on the ears. It’s single movement clocks in at just under 12 minutes, the piece ends long before listeners have time to worry about that complexity.
Not all of the quartets incorporate familiar tunes but they explore various aspects of just intonation tunings. The ninth quartet (1987) is about twice the length of the fourth and is set in the familiar four movements that characterize the majority of the classical string quartet literature. The use of the classical format along with Johnston’s masterful writing also make this slightly odd sounding work just familiar enough that few listeners will find unpleasant. In fact the work is a joy to experience though very difficult to play.
Listeners may want to seek out Mr. Gann’s very readable work on microtonal tuning systems, “The Arithmetic of Listening” available. Your humble reviewer is working through this text and finding it useful in understanding microtonality.
The final work (both the last on the disc and the last in the composer’s ouevre) is a delightful set of variations on a tune called “Ashokan Farewell”, a pretty folk like melody that pervades the Ken Burns Civil War documentary. I say “folk like” because the time was written by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. Johnston mistakenly believed it to be a folk song in the public domain and, seeing its possibilities for his compositional aspirations, simply used it. Like the fourth quartet it is a set of variations in a single movement of similar length. This is the world premiere recording.
Musicians include Alyssa Park, violin; Shalini Vijayan, violin; Luke Maurer, viola; Timothy Loo, cello; Sara Andon, flute; James Sullivan, clarinet; Scott Worthington, double bass.
In researching this review I discovered that the tune actually has lyrics (also under copyright) and they are presented below:
The sun is sinking low in the sky above Ashokan
The pines and the willows know soon we will part
There’s a whisper in the wind of promises unspoken
And a love that will always remain in my heart
My thoughts will return to the sound of your laughter
The magic of moving as one
And a time we’ll remember long ever after
The moonlight and music and dancing are done
Will we climb the hills once more?
Will we walk the woods together?
Will I feel you holding me close once again?
Will every song we’ve sung stay with us forever?
Will you dance in my dreams or my arms until then?
Under the moon the mountains lie sleeping
Over the lake the stars shine
They wonder if you and I will be keeping
The magic and music, or leave them behind.
Those lyrics make for a fond farewell to a true musical genius who gave us both magic and music. Grab this lovely disc and honor his memory.