It’s a Short Six Hours …

FLUX Quartet

Tomorrow from 2-8 PM in Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, FLUX Quartet plays Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2. The concert is the last event in American Sublime, a two week long series that has spotlighted Feldman’s late music.

FLUX has been performing the piece since 1999, and their rendition runs around six hours. Feldman himself suggested that the piece could run anywhere from 3 1/2 to 5 hours. But one senses that FLUX’s more expansive time frame doesn’t contravene his intentions.

String Quartet No. 2, like many of Feldman’s late works, is about breaking past the boundaries of form and instead shaping music in terms of scale: as in, LARGE scale. Not only are these pieces long, they are often cast in a single, mammoth movement. They move slowly, often speaking quietly, unspooling fragments of subtly varied material at a gradual pace. But listening to them, and indeed playing them, is anything but a leisurely exercise.

String Quartet #2 is as demanding in its own way as a marathon. But, as I found out this week while listening to FLUX’s recording (available on the Mode imprint as either a single DVD or multiple CDs), it’s well worth the endurance test for both one’s attention and bladder to persevere.

The way that I listened to the piece changed over the course of its duration. At first, I found myself expecting the familiar signposts of formal arrival points; I became impatient with the gradualness of the proceedings. But, slowly, my vantage point shifted from one of expectation of arrival to one of acceptance of each passing moment in the work. It was as if Feldman was retuning my listening capabilities, extending my attention span, and urging me to revel in each detail rather than worry about how much time had passed.

When Feldman was crafting these late pieces, in the 1970s and 80s, people’s attention spans were already dwindling at an alarming rate. In the era of jet engines and color television, who had time to listen to a piece for six solid hours? By exhorting people to stop and listen, just by the very strength and captivating character of his music, Feldman dared to arrest our engagement with a world of ceaseless distractions. In short, he sought to change us.

In our current era, attention spans have dwindled exponentially further still. Multitasking, social media, cell phones, and all manner of other devices have distracted us seemingly to the limits our psyches can handle. Sometimes further, and with dangerous results – texting while driving anyone? Perhaps Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 is an even tougher exercise for post-millenial listeners. But it might just be more necessary than ever to let this work reset our listening patterns and demand our attention.

Mode's Feldman Vol. 6: FLUX plays SQ 2

Event Details:
FLUX Quartet plays Feldman String Quartet No. 2
Sun. June 11, 2-8 PM
FREE Admission
Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral
3723 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Marilyn Nonken talks about Feldman Festival

Pianist Marilyn Nonken is performing Triadic Memories on June 4 in Philadelphia as part of “American Sublime,” a festival devoted to the works of Morton Feldman. Marilyn was kind enough to tell us a bit about working on Feldman’s music, as well as some of her other upcoming projects.

-What were your early encounters with Feldman’s music like?

I can’t remember my first live Feldman experience as a listener. One of the first works I remember hearing was FOR SAMUEL BECKETT. My first experience playing Feldman was with Ensemble 21, when we performed VIOLIN VIOLA CELLO PIANO, which was just a transformative experience for me, as a chamber player. After that experience, I very much wanted to find a solo work of his to perform and possibly record.

Listening to Feldman is special because there is that great luxury of time. It can take, in TRIADIC MEMORIES for example, maybe a half-an-hour or forty-five minutes to get acclimated to the environment of the work, and to become familiar with the kinds of things that happen in that special environment. In each of his pieces, I think, there’s an extended period where the materials introduce themselves, so to say.It’s not dynamic in the sense of something happening right away, or a conflict being presented, or a big question being asked — and so I feel it’s best to not aggressively try and “figure out” what is happening.

- Which pieces by Feldman have you performed?


- What do you think Feldman meant by titling a piece Triadic Memories?

Feldman’s piano music is all about decay, what he would refer to as a kind of receding landscape …. For me, that sense of resonance and the dying of the sound is perhaps the most important part of the piece. His harmonies are gorgeous, very lush and evocative — but as beautiful as they are, more of the piece is spend listening to them fade.

- When did you record Triadic Memories for Mode? Has your performance of the work changed over time?

I believe this is 2004, recorded perhaps summer 2003. I’m sure my performance has changed — although not drastically. In terms of timing and rhythmic precision, I believe it’s very consistent with the recorded version. I’m still convinced by that “magic” (for me) tempo and the specificity of the rhythms, and the way I first conceived of articulating them. But I do feel that I’ve become more sensitive to the harmonic nuances of the work, as I’ve become more familiar with it over the years —  the way I voice things, and the way I anticipate the decay, I think, has become more personal.

- While they’re not often showy, Feldman’s pieces make significant demands of their own on performers. Can you tell us a bit about those, and how you prepare to perform Triadic Memories in concert?

I feel these works are very virtuosic, despite the fact that they’re not fast and full of passagework. There’s a moment-to-moment control that Feldman requires, in terms of dynamic and timbre and attack, which requires a tremendous amount of physical and mental preparation. To be that attuned to the smallest nuances, and physically in total control, for such a significant span w/o any real “recess” requires a special kind of concentration. For me, there is no substitute for playing the work — in real time, w/o interruption, — daily for at least a week or two before the concert. There is always detail-work to be done (specificity of rhythms, defining colors, making certain that the surface of the work is somehow “flawless” and w/o rupture — but doing everything sequentially, in tempo, is always a test.

- After Triadic Memories, what are some of your upcoming projects?

I’m very excited to be working again with the fabulous pianist Sarah Rothenberg on a four-hand Kurtag program, combining (as the composer himself has done) Kurtag’s JATEKOK with his Bach transcriptions, presented as a concert program on an upright piano. Sarah and I had a fantastic time working on Messiaen’s VISIONS DE L’AMEN, touring and recording it, and this is a very different and intimate kind of project —  I’m also preparing for a recording of American spectralist composer Joshua Fineberg’s complete solo piano music, which will appear on CD with Hugues Dufourt’s recent ERLKONIG — a follow-up to my complete Murail disc. It will feature a new work written for me by Joshua, amd I am very much looking forward to touring with that, as a complete program in itself. And just after this Festival, I’m recording Elizabeth Hoffman’s “organum let open,” a beautiful work she wrote for me last year, based on texts of theatre artist George Hunka. It’s wonderful to be doing such recent music, and inspiring to be working with such talented composers.

Feldman Festival in Philly

Morton Feldman. Photo credit: Barbara Monk Feldman.

Anyone who thinks that straightened circumstances of a still sluggish economy have dampened the ambitions of concert presenters need look no further than Philadelphia to see a sublime idea at work.

Bowerbird, a Philly-based non-profit, is mounting “American Sublime,” a seven concert festival devoted to the works of New York School composer Morton Feldman (1926-’87). The concerts run from June 4-12, with ticket prices ranging from free to $20.

Marilyn’s hands. Photo by Peter Schütte

Excerpt from Triadic Memories, performed by Marilyn Nonken on Mode 136
Courtesy Mode Records

A M E R I C A N   S U B L I M E   A T – A – G L A N C E

Saturday, June 4 (8 pm)

Triadic Memories (1981)
Marilyn Nonken, solo piano

Rodeph Shalom, 615 North Broad Street, Phila. | Tickets: $10 – $20
Presented with Congregation Rodeph Shalom. Reception by Café Olam to follow.

Sunday, June 5 (7 pm)

It Started on Eighth Street

JACK Quartet: John Pickford Richards, viola; Ari Streisfeld, violin
Christopher Otto, violin; Kevin McFarland, cello

John Cage, String Quartet in Four Parts
Anton Webern, Six Bagatelles, Op. 9
Earle Brown, String Quartet
Morton Feldman, Structures

ICEBox at CraneArts,1400 N American Street, Phila. | Tickets: $15 general admission
Presented with New Music at Crane Arts. Reception to follow.

Wednesday, June 8 (8 pm)

Palais de Mari (1987)
Gordon Beeferman, solo piano

plus readings of Samuel Beckett and Frank O’Hara texts

Biello Martin Studio,148 North 3rd Street, Phila.
Tickets: $20 general admission (includes food and drink)
Admission limited to only 30 people.

Friday, June 10 (5 pm – 8:45 pm)

(5:45 pm)  A tribute to Morton Feldman by Zs

(7:15 pm) Three Voices (1982)
Joan LaBarbara, voice

Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, Phila.

An “Art After 5” Event
Tickets: Free with Museum Admission  |  Adults: $16; Seniors (ages 65 & over): $14;
Students (with valid ID): $12; Children ages 13–18: $12; ages 12 & under: Free

Saturday, June 11

(3 pm)  Patterns in a Chromatic Field (1981)
Amy Williams, piano; Jonathan Golove, cello

(8pm)  Crippled Symmetry (1983)
Either/Or:  Richard Carrick, piano and celeste;
David Shively, percussion; Jane Rigler, flutes

Fleisher Art Memorial, 719 Catharine Street, Phila. | Tickets: $10 – $20

Sunday, June 12 (2pm)

String Quartet No. 2 (1983)
FLUX Quartet: Tom Chiu, violin; Conrad Harris, violin;
Max Mandel, viola; Felix Fan, cello

Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, 3723 Chestnut Street, Phila.
Free Admission; Audience may come and go

FLUX Quartet. Photo credit: Pauline Harris