4th String Quartet: Amazing Grace
Ben Johnston is an American composer known for his work in microtonality. Having studied with John Cage, Harry Partch, and Darius Milhaud, Johnston benefited from the American music education system in place during the mid-20th century. His works span the second half of the 20th century. Written in various just tuning systems, 4th String Quartet (Amazing Grace), written in 1973, is perhaps Johnston’s most famous piece.
One could say that Harry Partch was the prime influence on
Johnston seeks to create a more pure sound (describe what you mean by “pure soundd”) based on mathematical ratios of pitches developed by early thinkers such as Pythagoras. Although the idea is hardly new, Johnston does not merely employ these ancient tuning systems, he combines them at different points throughout the work to achieve perfect consonances and grinding dissonances of less than a half-step. The overtone series figures heavily into Johnston’s procedures, as he places special emphasis on the 2:1 ratio of the octave, 3:2 ratio of the fifth, 5:4 ratio of the major third, and the 9:5 ratio of the minor seventh. Johnston utilizes certain combinations of these constant ratios to create a unique pitch system to fit the requirements of his music. The sound is different from what we are used to hearing in the equal temperament system, as all half steps are not equal. An example of this occurs during the first statement of the tune, which includes a violin playing the melody using Pythagorean tuning, which is based on perfect fifths. Different tuning schemes are used throughout, including
The 4th String Quartet is a set of Theme and Variations on the tune “Amazing Grace.” The piece itself can be appreciated on a superficial level for its ability to set this tune in such a manner that the melody, when stated, lies in the forefront while the harmonic and rhythmic undercurrents create a whirlwind of motion underneath. On a more involved level, one may notice the intense complexity of the seemingly unrelated rhythmic motifs.
The work itself begins with a seemingly straight-ahead string quartet setting of the tune. This first statement strongly suggests the harmonies that could be heard during the early colonial times of
At this point in time, it seems as if
This piece should belong in the Canon. Although it has been composed in the last 50 years, the magnitude of this almost 12 minute work is quite large.
I enjoyed this work because it contained a melody I already knew. This aspect makes an enormous difference when I am trying to follow along and connect with a song. Johnson’s variations are fresh and ridiculously dense. His harmonies are likewise quite modern and hip. I think that a modern work such as this will need to be re-examined after a span of time so that it can be seen with older eyes. Because it is so modern, it is difficult to know if this string quartet will stand the test of time. I hope that it will and audiences will be able to enjoy this work for many years to come.
Shinn, Randall. “Ben Johnston’s Fourth String Quartet.” Perspectives of New Music 15, no. 2 (Spring-Summer 1977): 145-173.
I used this article to view a copy of the score and obtain more detailed and esoteric insights into the tuning ratios and metric derivations that could not possibly have been determined by just listening to the piece. And on a personal note, I am not related to this author
Cat O’ Nine Tails
To say that John Zorn is an eclectic musician and composer would be a crass understatement. Known in the jazz world for his incredible alto saxophone talents, his music styles span almost every genre imaginable. He has been affiliated with jazz, free jazz, metal, klezmer, avant-garde, contemporary, improvised, punk, and many other styles of music. Cat O’ Nine Tales (1988) is a string quartet composed in the contemporary classical vein. This is one of Zorn’s first instances writing for a classical ensemble. Bearing this in mind, one can begin to identify the extreme experimental nature with which he has approached this work.
Much like its composer, Cat O’ Nine Tails brings together an assorted combination of musical ideas. As a listener, it is extremely difficult, if not entirely impossible, to distinguish any type of musical form. Zorn shifts textures so rapidly and at a seemingly random rate that it is tricky to follow along. If one were to describe a generic pattern, however, it seems as if Zorn tries to switch back and forth between serene, lulling textures to disjunctive, chaotic sections that go beyond description.
Before discussing the work in more detail, it is important to describe some of the unconventional sounds that Zorn employs to achieve his composition. On many occasions, the string players are scratching along their strings to create a sliding, scrapin noise. Zorn also has the lower string players slap the strings against the neck of the instrument. Zorn frequently uses glissandos and also adds a section where the four strings combine together to create the sound of a squeaky door hinge.
A work such as Cat O’ Nine Tails is difficult to describe It lacks a clearly defined form and its musical ideas are eccentric. The piece begins in a frenetic cacophony. After a few seconds, a calm section is played followed by this alternating formula for basically the entire duration of the piece. Most of the hectic sections are extremely virtuosic and seemingly lacking in clear tonality. Zorn creates a world of sound in which it seems as almost anything is possible. Each small episode is so different from the others that it seems they are unrelated. This is refreshing and exciting for the listener because what comes next is always something unexpected.
Among these episodes, Zorn weaves in passages of tonality. He plays at least two snippets of a hoedown and also quotes “Tea for Two” in one of these episodes, showing his background in jazz music. He also briefly plays what sounds like a sounding-off at the end of a cartoon show. Zorn had already composed lots of film music for documentaries and cartoons, so this little Looney Tunes-esque segment again highlights Zorn’s eclectic musical involvement.
Bearing in mind Zorn’s previous involvement with writing music for cartoons, one can begin to see how this influence pervades Cat O’ Nine Tails. This string quartet could almost be seen as program music. It seems to be conveying a cartoon-like story and would fit perfectly with a screened adaptation. Various effects, including the squeaky door hinge already mentioned, are communicated throughout the duration of this piece. Images of explosions, cartoon animals running around, and moping characters are conjured in the mind of the listener throughout the piece.
For all the energy and tenacity expressed within the piece, it ends in a relatively feeble manner. During the last minute of the piece, Zorn chooses to sustain chords and ends without a true resolution. Similar to the
Having reviewed two string quartets written within 15 years of each other, a general comparison would help define each work in respect to other contemporary works in a similar genre. The organizational concepts of each composer varied greatly. While Johnston’s string quartet maintained a theme which the audience could easily follow, Zorn’s composition is random but keeps the listener engaged by continually coming up with fresh ideas that seem to come out of nowhere. Whereas
As for the inclusion of Cat O’ Nine Tails in the Canon, I would have to say not at this point in time. The piece is simply too modern to be able to tell if a place in the Canon is warranted. If the inclusion in the Canon would be based on creativity alone, then this work would rightfully deserve a place. But since it lacks a clearly identifiable form, the difficulty of trying to follow the piece aurally supersedes its creative merits.
I enjoyed Cat O’ Nine Tails because it kept me in a constant state of suspense. The stunning virtuosity was impressive, although not too entirely necessary at times. In general, certain passages were simply too confusing and difficult for the listener to clearly follow along. All in all, Zorn is an incredible visionary who never seems to run out of musical ideas. I would recommend this piece to anyone who wants a fresh take on music.