Morton Feldman Edition, Vol. 6 : String Quartet No.2

Feldman's String Quartet No.2 by Christian Wolff


The point of course is to listen. There's no final information to be conveyed. These notes offer some information but strictly speaking itís not really relevant to the experience of hearing the music. Listening to this music is like looking at a star-filled night sky, anything else is material for an astronomy lesson.

Because this is a recording, how you listen can be various - all six hours at one go or subdivisions over varying times. The experience will be different of course from attending a live performance. It's somewhat more like looking at a painting, which recalls Feldman's well-known involvement with the visual arts. One might keep in mind how utterly exceptional the experience of an unbroken six hour live performance would be.

John Cage once murmured after a perfor mance of Feldman's Crippled Symmetry, lasting over an hour and a half, why does it have to be so long? Once in response to this question, Feldman told about the sculptor Henry Moore who, being asked why he had turned to making such large sculptures, answered that having had some financial success he could now afford to make bigger pieces.1 This typically somewhat sidesteps the question, but does show that Feldman was well aware of the connections of art and social and economic matters, though strongly insisting on art as the final point of reference.

The making of very long pieces started with String Quartet No.1 in 1979. About this piece I overheard Feldman say in the course of a heated discussion, “it's a fucking masterpiece”. That was his intent, to make, within the most venerated classic chamber music genre, a demonstration of compositional mastery (thereís a long tradition of this in Western art). And this called for large scale, and a move into new territory. Feldman, like all really good composers, is an experimentalist. The greatly expanded scale or length is the experiment, a new notion of what can make musical form. Working on such a scale is also an exceptional compositional challenge: how do you keep the music going? How to maintain musical focus at every single moment over such a long time?

One source for Feldman's aesthetic was the early music of Webern - very short, intensely focused pieces. It's one of the paradoxes of Feldman's music to have taken that concentration in a small space, also characteristic of much of his own early work, and to have it transformed it without losing its particularity, over very long durations. The main formal procedure is repetition, usually with slight variation (one could say a demonstration of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus's saying that you can never step into the same river twice: you can never hear the same sound in just the same way; the French poet René Char said, “an act is virgin, even repeated”). For this to work repetition has to happen in such a way that it's not predictable; the listener can't find herself thinking, “look, there's a pattern of repetition.” You can't be thinking about compositional procedure because when you do you're not really listening anymore. The music is about sound, not about how the sound got to be the way it is. (That's not to say that how it got to be the way it is is not interesting. We're always wondering: how does he do it?)

The extreme durations of Feldman's late pieces are also a provocation, directed at musical institutions. Though the music's length can be accommodated more or less on recordings, recording was, as far as I know, of no interest to Feldman. Written for live performance these pieces are impossible for any conventional concert situation. They challenge it and by extension the social world it represents. There are paradoxes here too. The music represents denial, abnegation and isolation, but Feldman himself was most sociable and gregarious. The music is aggressively provocative, but its sound is completely without aggression, in fact it is exquisitely beautiful, seductive. It's both politically oppositional and aesthetically altogether pure. The aesthetic purity is balanced by how we must experience it. Another paradox: the sensuous beauty requires of the listener a concentration of listening that cannot possibly be sustained unbroken over its extreme durations. You could say, that inevitable break of attention is what makes the beautifulness of the music acceptable or endurable. Our capacities for real attention are being tested, and may experience transformation.2

Feldman did not compose with a predetermined plan except for the, to him crucial, initial instrumental choice of the string quartet and the extended length of the piece. (That this was a second quartet must also have determined him to go beyond the first.) The extended length would determine the kind of material to be used and the pacing of its use. The longer the piece, he used to say, the less material you start with. The less you give yourself to work with, the more you can focus and find the varieties of its use. And this focus staves off the distractions of vague emotion and the grander compositional ideas. You try to have the music write itself. Of course you know what you're doing, but you work as close as possible to the experience of hearing the music for the first time.

In the 1970s Feldman took up the study and collecting of antique Turkish rugs, a highly evolved and exquisite folk art. The rugs are intricately patterned, symmetrical in basic design but with constant variation and displacement in the detailed execution of that design, and strikingly and subtly colored, including fine variegations of principal colors resulting from the dyeing process. Analogies are clear to Feldman's music as it takes up large-scale patterning, partly working with his familiar subtle gradations of rhythm and instrumental color and ostinati, loops or extended repetitions of a sound or sound configuration, partly - and especially in this second string quartet - continually finding new and surprising qualities of color (there are a number of sounds in this piece unlike anything one has heard from a string quartet).

As with all of Feldman's later work the score of String Quartet 2 is written on a fixed grid: 124 pages, each page having always the same three systems of nine bars each (so always 27 bars to a page). Much of the time the musical material fits those spaces, of one page or one or two systems on the page. A few times material extends over a number of pages, occasionally it takes up only part of a system. This grid, as fixed as the structure of a weaving loom, is defined by just one tempo, slightly variable: one quarter-note equal to slightly less than one second (that is, 63-66 beats per minute), as such a slow tempo. But the grid is used altogether fluidly because Feldman idiosyncratically sets the bars, though all of exactly equal length in space, in almost continually changing meters, continually reshaping the rhythm. The shortest metrical space in the piece, 1/8 or half the length of the tempo beat, takes up the same visual space as the longest, 11/4 or 11 beats, twenty-two times the duration of the shortest. One page of the score, then, may last as little as about half a minute or as much as nearly seven minutes. The visual, spatial layout of the score is transformed by the movement of the sounds, and Feldman is in effect not writing in a tempo or various tempos but composing the tempos as he goes along.

As for the overall, general form of the piece, Feldman has said that it's not syntactical, there's no directional logic as in a sentence or story line. The music is an “assemblage,” a collection of parts, accumulated and arranged by an intuitive process (the exact final number of pages was certainly not foreseen). There are affinities here to Satie and Stravinsky. And though there is no linear or even global grammar here, there is certainly an unmistakably distinctive language.

To analyze this music can only be provisional, pretty much a process of description. It depends on how you see the categories of the music's material, the kinds of things that happen. The piece starts with just four repeated pitches each a semitone apart from the next, that's one kind of pattern; at the same time dynamics are varying with every sound, another distinctive pattern (there are just six dynamics specified throughout the whole piece, apart from occasional crescendo or decrescendo markings: fff, f, mf, mp, ppp, ppppp; the quietest of these, as in all of Feldman's music, by far predominate). Other patterns that come early:

a) A “broken” chord, individual entrances of each of the four instruments and then a sustaining of the four sounds together.

b) A three-one pattern, three instruments the listener, but thus representing always an active the structure). The scale of the piece and the unmaking a chord and a fourth (often the cello, playing pizzicato) coming after with a single sound. This happens on at least 15 pages, including in the latter part of the piece, in continuous runs up to four pages lasting between 10 and 12 minutes each.

c) Chords played by all four instruments together, like a chorale, on over 20 pages, including a sequence of seven pages (pages 90-96), almost 38 minutes of music, followed by 5 more pages (between pages 110 and 119), the latter sequence with occasional changes on the surface of an all but unvarying movement (unvarying in general feeling but actually continually varied very slightly in pitch and sound lengths). One such change, an almost distinctive marker, is a quick four note rising figure played twice, pizzicato, the first violin. This happens once on each of six pages (between 93 and 119). Another such marker, with somewhat more presence, is a rising four note figure in close intervals followed by a falling four note figure in the open interval of a fourth, three times over the nine bar system, and through a continuously sustained cello harmonic (the longest single sound in the piece). This happens seven times, the first five distributed, after the first 21 minutes of the piece, over its next hour, then 50 minutes later it comes back, and then one last time after 30 more minutes, about halfway through the piece's six hours. The material is very slightly varied at each repetition, not really noticeably for the listener, but thus always representing an active focus first in the composing and then the playing. The repetition is never automatic, and the pacing and shifting contexts of the material's reappearances continually alter how we hear it.

Another pattern has the cello oscillating between two notes a whole tone apart, in harmonics and in high register, while the other three instruments together play a repeated chord (which changes once), mostly under the cello. A full page of this occurs first 17 minutes into the piece then twice more within the next hour, in tthe first of these recurrences the cello slows down in the last system and plays only the first of its two notes; after about another hour, again, only the cello plays its two notes a half step lower and the viola joins at the octave below; this again, an hour later for one system and with a different accompanying chord; finally, some two and three-quarter hours later, on the last page of the score, for the sixth time, the pattern reappears in its original form (heard first over five hours earlier) , for three systems, but in the third and last system of the entire piece the cello slows down and plays in three two bar phrases each followed by a measure of silence, five beats long, then six, then, the last bar of the piece, seven.

The marked patterns, of which there are various others, can be distinctive enough to stir the memory when they reappear (this is not at all like repetitions in a standard, say, ABA structure where you hear the recurrence of A as fulfilling the structure). The scale of the piece and the unpredictable spacing of (near) repetition causes the marked patterns to be like memory traces. When you sense or perceive them the effect is close to what Proust regards as the true working of memory, which is not what is willfully recalled but a spontaneous reemergence of moments triggered contingently in the immediacy of the present of the later phases of an ongoing life.

Overall the music tends towards increasingly extended equilibrium and stillness, a kind of simplification. Just about all the music's material, its ideas, come in about the first hour, after which they reverberate and shift about. Changes of dynamic, for instance, are indicated for the last time on page 76. The last dynamic specified there, for the entire rest of the piece, is the quietest, ppppp - except for decrescendo markings. The music gradually breathes its last, it expires, like the end of Satie's Socrate. The structural procedure of assemblage is after all finally caught up in the suggestion of a story.


On the duration of the performance

The title page of the score of String Quartet 2 gives the piece's duration as 31/2 to 51/2 hours, presumably Feldman's rough estimate before he had experienced a performance. A recording by the the Ives Ensemble runs just under five hours. This recording by the FLUX Quartet (who have also, played the piece in concert) is a bit over six hours. Feldman's estimate appears to be casual and subjective. I don't think he ever imagined a performance with cuts. If the piece is played at the slower tempo option (the tempo is given as a quarter note = 63-66) it would be about 15 minutes longer than at the fastest option. Listening to some of the five hour version and then the six hour one I cannot really hear any difference in the feeling of the time. The clock time that could be calculated from the score is inevitably transformed into an experience, or succession of experiences, of time, concretely embodied in the performance and, differently, in the listening. The timing of the performance is determined at least in large part by the kind of attention the players want to give to the making of the sound, especially, at the very low dynamic levels, to the causing of the sounds to speak clearly. As for any piece of music there is no definitive fixed clock time duration (not even for John Cages 4'33” which, in the hearing at least, seems to some to pass in a moment, to others to last an eternity).



1. References to Feldman's remarks about String Quartet 2 come from a program note reprinted in Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman, edited by B.H. Friedman, published by Exact Change, Cambridge, Mass., 2000, and Morton Feldman Essays, edited by Walter Zimmermann, Beginners Press, Kerpen (Germany), 1985. The latter includes a transcript of an extended talk by Feldman at the Darmstadt Summer New Music courses on the occasion of a performance of the quartet. The note and the talk are good examples of Feldman dealing with a mix of feeling that the music's sense cannot be verbalized and his evident pleasure in talking, sometimes at length. There are also a number of incidental comments on the quartet in the section called “The Future of Local Music” in Give My Regards to Eighth Street.

2. In the essay “After Modernism” in Give My Regards to Eighth Street Feldman says: “a certain sensation begins to emerge: a sensation that we are not looking at the painting, but the painting is looking at us.” This recalls Rilke's poem “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which says of the statue that it would “break beyond all its edges/ Like a star: for there is no place/ That does not see you. You must change your life.”

- ©2002 Christian Wolff


In late July 1999, a little more than two months prior to the premiere, we received the music to Morton Feldman's monumental String Quartet No. 2 - four thick, over-sized scores. We first had to establish a practical way to read and play the piece for six continuous hours. In part due to the absence of individual parts, we decided to all play from score, with a carefully devised plan of page-turning and page-sliding to ensure a seamless performance.

After establishing a strategy for executing SQ 2, we proceeded to learning it, which was not so different from learning other types of music. What is different is its glacial scale and scope. For instance, unlike the neatly packaged four-bar phrases in both old and new music, SQ 2's melodic cells can repeat as much as thirteen imes, and some sections can last fifteen minutes or more before moving onto something new. That the piece has clearly defined sections, which are not unlike what you might find in sonata form or pop song structure, certainly helped us conceptualize its architecture. But the sheer size of SQ2 throws the musical memory for a loop. In a pop song, the chorus might come back within a minute, and in sonata form the first theme usually recurs within the first 10 minutes; but with SQ2, recapped sections might not recur for 60 minutes or more.

From the perspective of string technique, playing SQ2 requires incredible physical stamina as well as a little bit of technical ingenuity. The length is a huge hurdle in itself – let's face it, string players (in fact, any musician) are not trained to play 6 hours without a break. Another big challenge, perhaps less obvious, is the act of playing very quietly – it actually takes much more physical energy to do less than more. Playing a virtuoso concerto that requires great technical agility is actually less physically demanding then playing softly. We are accustomed to be in motion, not to be still. Downshifting both the speed and the pressure of the bow goes against many years of training. Furhermore, the suspension of the right arm in mid-air, working against the gravitational pull of the arm's natural weight, is rather unnatural. Imagine yourself typing on a keyboard that is positioned about one foot higher than its normal placement, and doing that for six hours. That's what playing this piece is like for a violinist. To deal with this, we individually experimented with alternative bow groups that were more conducive to minimizing motion and conserving energy.

In addition to length and stillness, there are other specific music elements that further add to the technical challenge. The seventh and ninth intervals, typical of Feldman's harmonic language, persist throughout SQ2. These intervals require our left hands to be in an extended position. Also requiring full extension in our left hands are artificial harmonics, fittingly rampant in Feldman's coloristic sound world. These are not uncommon techniques, but they are never done for six hours; by the end of SQ2, the cumulative effects of the technical demands can certainly be felt.

After learning the piece by rehearsing small segments in great detail, we worked on larger sections to build up our concentration and endurance. At one point or another, everyone in the quartet has compared the preparation of SQ2 to training for a marathon. No marathon runner runs 26 miles the week of the race, and similarly, we thought it would be unwise to do a complete run-through prior to the premiere. We strategically increased the lengths of our excerpts as we approached the concert. A triumphant run-through occurred four nights before the premiere. Kenneth Goldsmith, of pioneer free-form radio station WFMU, invited us as live guests for his entire three hour show. Thus, on October 5, 1999, on Saturday Night Toe Jamz, with Kenny G, we discovered what it was like to play for three hours continuously.

As we approached the premiere, we focused more and more of our attention to the biological challenges of the performance. Much was made about this pre-concert, including an announcement in the Village Voice that humorously alludes to the use of a catheter. But this feat was not only about not being able to go to the bathroom for six hours; it was also about fending off dehydration and the depletion of energy. Essentially, we needed to maximize physical energy while minimizing our depository urges. So after having a rather large lunch shortly after noon, about six hours before the concert, we made sure there were plenty of toilet breaks during the afternoon. In the end, I am happy to report that a catheter was not necessary on stage. What did accompany us to the stage, after much machismo objection, were two watter botles. I remember clearly that on page 86 (out of 124), I was the first to finally reach down for water during a short ten-second break. By that point, my need for hydration far outweighed my anxieties about bladder control.

As for the performance itself, it was truly sublime. We were definitely in a zone. The fourth, fifth, and sixth hours were brand new terrain – not musically but physically. We were feeling new aches and pains, hearing increased lushness in Feldman's harmonies, experiencing new emotions in this meditative state. In the end, we truly felt that a lifetime had passed us by. The premier performance of SQ2 lasted six hours and fifteen minutes, and it was six hours and fifteen minutes of pure bliss.

In closing, we want to express our gratitude to Howard Stokar, Director and Curator of CooperArts at Cooper Union, for bringing the project to our attention. We had heard of the piece and the mystique surrounding the piece, and we were thrilled when the opportunity arose. Stokar helped to obtain the music for it, to schedule the premiere in his CooperArts Seriesí inaugural season, and also to bring us together with Mode Records. Thank you, Howard.

- Tom Chiu


“A very exciting quartet composed of four “young men...who have lots of ideas and clearly enjoy making music together,î (Anthony Tommasini, NY Times), the FLUX Quartet has performed to rave reviews at many music centers around the world. It has recently appeared at the Ojai Festival (2000), the Oslo Chamber Festival (2000), the Library of Congress (2000), the Great Day in New York Festival at Lincoln Center (2001), and the New Chamber Festival in Baltimore (2002). Its radio credits include NPR's All Things Considered, WNYC's Around New York and New Sounds, and WFMU's Saturday
Night Toe Jamz with Kenny G
. In the current season, FLUX is once again resident artists of When Morty Met John, a three-year series at Carnegie's Weill Hall celebrating the musical friendship between Morton Feldman and John Cage.

The FLUX Quartet's repertoire consists of notable pioneers as well as visionaries of tomorrow. From “classics” by Conlon Nancarrow, György Ligeti, and John Cage, to new works by Renaud Gagneux (France), John Zorn (USA) and the Slave Pianos, a group of Australian conceptual artists devoted to uncovering sound works by underground visual artists, FLUX brings to all of its performances a boundless, uninhibited energy. The quartet also premiers works by its own members, and has cultivated collaborative relationships with artists such as Ornette Coleman, Oliver Lake, and tenor balloonist Judy Dunaway. To support emerging composers, FLUX actively pursues commissions, including recent grants from the American Composers Forum, the Koussevitzky Foundation, and the Aaron Copland Fund.

Partly as an homage to the 60's Fluxus art movement, violinist Tom Chiu founded the FLUX Quartet in 1996 with a quest similar to that of some of the original Fluxus artists: a search for a living art for all people with an embracing “anything-goes” spirit. To that end, FLUX has always been committed to projects of unique vision that defy aesthetic categorizations. One such project is Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 2. Lasting more than six continuous hours, it is “a disorienting, transfixing experience that repeatedly approached and touched the sublime.” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker).