Ben Johnston: String Quartet #5

Spanning five decades and scales ranging from familiar 12-tone equal temperament to an extended just intonation pitch continuum that has more than 1200 discreet pitches per octave, the ten Ben Johnston string quartets are one of the pinnacles of the American chamber music canon, but few have attempted to explore them.

By the time the Fifth Quartet was composed, in 1979, Johnston had mastered an entirely new compositional language involving a completely new world of harmony based on just intonation relationships extended up to the 13th harmonic of the overtone series. It is a set of variations, based on the Appalachian gospel hymn “Lonesome Valley.” If there’s any precedent for the kinds of compositional juxtapositions and transformations Johnston achieves here it is Charles Ives. (There are no real precedents for his particular approach to microtonality.)
—Frank Oteri for