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Morton Feldman / FLUX Quartet  

It’s an unbroken, uninterrupted listen – if you’re up for it.
     With this six-hour and seven-minute performance of Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 on one audio DVD (it’s also available as a five-CD set), the ball is squarely in the listener’s court. It was an otherworldly afternoon-plus the day that this showed up at my front door; DVD technology hadn’t previously so sparked my imagination. It’s a strange but welcome fact fifteen years after Feldman’s death that his work – in which technology as such hardly figures -- continues to benefit from new recording technologies. Here’s an analogy. Older artworks are frequently dwarfed by the scale of new exhibition spaces like the Tate Modern or the Bilbao Guggenheim – today’s gargantuan containers. If the audio DVD is to music what the Tate Modern’s main hall or what one of Frank Gehry’s football field sized galleries is to visual art, String Quartet No. 2 is a rare triumph of both container and contained. With music this delicate, and in which silence plays a significant role, a stellar recording like this counts for much. By contrast – sadly -- a moderately beat-up Columbia Odyssey LP of Feldman’s similarly fragile early work, with excellent performances by David Tudor, is one of the few LPs I own in which vinyl surface noise fatally distracts. I know – it breaks my heart to say it.
     The monumentally scaled chamber works of Feldman’s late period begin with his 1979 String Quartet, whose first performance lasted approximately 100 minutes. String Quartet No. 2 dates from 1983, but it wasn’t given a full performance until 1999, when the youthful – athletic, even – FLUX Quartet became the first to finish this musical marathon. Previously, the Kronos Quartet had rehearsed it, but eventually came to regard physical barriers as insurmountable and never performed the work in its entirety. FLUX’s Tom Chiu likens the physical experience to “typing on a keyboard that is positioned about one foot higher than its normal placement, and doing that for six hours.” But even that doesn’t take into account the rigors of playing extremely quietly, and the final dynamic marking in String Quartet No. 2 is “ppppp” – which is the law of the land for the last 48 pages of the 124-page score.
     Now can we stop talking about the piece’s length? It is one of the paradoxes of Feldman’s late, long-duration chamber works (the first recording of For Philip Guston runs over four hours; For Christian Wolff is nearly three and a half hours) that the listener is simultaneously aware of an epic scale but also of moment-to-moment events in sections whose structural functions lend themselves poorly to explanation. Often description has to suffice. Feldman referred to String Quartet No. 2 as an “assemblage,” in which “there is no continuity of fitting the parts together as words in a sentence or paragraph.” In the same vein, Christian Wolff begins his liner notes with a conclusion: “There’s no final information to be conveyed.”
     With a tempo given as 63-66 beats per minute, much of the piece is pulsed just faster than the tick of a clock. Notes ascend like objects being perilously stacked, and an instrument’s iterations are often surrounded by silence. One instrument will finish another’s thought – or that of the other three -- but without particularly saying anything. The string quartet’s sonorities are less varied than many of Feldman’s other late works. Here’s one four-minute passage, taken nearly at random: A three-note chromatic ascending phrase is repeated nearly a dozen times (one loses count, counting seems less and less important); it slows and downshifts into a two-note phrase; it lurches, recast as a four-note chromatic ascending phrase. Shifting -- like the shifting of a car -- is a tempting but not especially apt metaphor, as the musical content rarely appears vectored forward.
     The durations can seem so difficult to fill. The listener needs to get used to being lost.

Morton Feldman / FLUX Quartet, String Quartet No. 2 (Mode 112 DVD)


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