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
17 thoughts on “It’s a Short Six Hours”
  1. As a side note, it’s kinda interesting that, if in a small circle way, the phrase “It’s a short [six] hours” has landed nicely into the vernacular, in the same way as “This goes to eleven” (from This is Spinal Tap) and “Three people who have never been in my kitchen” (uttered by Cliff in the Jeopardy epidose of “Cheers”).

  2. This is from Feldman’s spoken introduction to “For Philip Guston” on 4/21/85:

    “As I say, the piece is long. Don’t feel that you’re a captive audience, and don’t be embarrassed if you have to leave. A lot of good friends might have to pick up a daughter from a birthday party. Other friends who are here have to pick up someone from the airport…so it’s perfectly OK.”

  3. I second the notion that Feldman’s late music was never meant to be Muzak. It calls for active listening. Others have certainly written long works (Einstein, The Well-Tuned Piano, Vingt Regards pour l’enfant Jesus, etc). But none of those involved music that is so quiet, so often delicate and where every nuance is exposed. It’s not a gimmick. FSQ2 cut down would not work. Same with For Philip Guston, For Christian Wolff and everything else Feldman wrote that lasts more than an hour. What’s strange, though, is that FSQ2 has overshadowed the shorter and also great String Quartet #1. BTW, I think that was the piece about which Feldman used the words “It’s a fucking masterpiece,” not FSQ2. This was, I think, because the first quartet was poorly received and somewhat ironically, considered “too long.” In some ways, the fact that Feldman went on to write several much longer works has always struck me as a big “fuck you” to those critics of his first quartet.

  4. Thanks everyone. Give My Regards to Eighth Street is a life changing book, so thank you for referring back to it Zeno, Christian and Casey.

  5. I recall Phillip Glass not expecting audiences to concentrate uninterruptedly on Einstein on the Beach in 1976. For his part in the project, he expected MET audience members to come and go “at will”, attending to stretches of the work but not necessarily the full work as an integrated whole. He expected attendees would take drink, snack, and toilet breaks at any time desired. I recall attending the later, nine-hour, all-night Peter Brook’s Mahabarata, in Brooklyn, featuring set intermissions and meal breaks — unlike the Einstein.

    One of the reasons that I didn’t attend Wagner’s Götterdämmerung the afternoon of June 5th of this year was that the sun was shining briefly between rainy spells, and the performance was in the afternoon starting at 1 PM. I prefer late afternoon or evening start-times for very long works of formalistic performance art. (Hence, it was fine that Anna Halpern’s outdoor’s “Planetary Dance” began last Sunday at 11 AM on Mount Tamalpais.)

    Again, I think often of Feldman’s Western (and Judaic) art ambition as expressed in chapters of his ‘Give My Regards to Eighth Street” mentioned above.

  6. P.S. I totally know what you mean though Chris, but I think much of what you bring up (open-endedness, ongoing process) is more of a Cageian attitude then Feldman. Even a huge canvas still has borders.

  7. Well said^^
    I think the answer Chris is yes and no. Feldman knew that the length challenges the typical concert hall experience but that’s only part of the point. I think bits of it can certainly be enjoyed for what they are and Feldman probably wouldn’t mind that, but to feel its full effect the piece really needs to be heard in its entirety. Though people can move around the concert space, he certainly didn’t mean it as ambient music (ie. something to listen to while you do something else). Rather it demands deep attention to work its magic on the listener. Personally, I found it very easy to pay close attention and my mind rarely felt distracted. I yawned far less that I would during a long Mahler or Beethoven piece.

    Also, I don’t think the analogy to starring at a Rothko is quite right. Feldman equated length in music to scale in art. So a better analogy is that listening to bits of SQ 2 vs. hearing the whole thing is the difference between seeing a postcard of a Rothko vs. an original huge canvas.

  8. Hi Chris.

    I tend to think that if Feldman called something a “masterpiece,” which he did when defending the SQ#2, he must in some way be thinking of it as a work with some sort of timeline or trajectory. Perhaps I’m being too literal-minded, but I tend to think that we ought to be able to evaluate a masterpiece as a work in its entirety.

    Moreover, his comment about a “short five hours,” which I’ve adapted above to indicate FLUX’s performance timing, seems to indicate that he was aware that he was asking audiences to undergo an endurance test. In a pre-concert lecture reprinted in ‘Give My Regards to Eighth Street,” Feldman jocularly mentions to the audience that, although they are being asked to listen for a long time, they should remember that he has to sit through these long pieces over and over.

    Now, anecdotes aside, whether he really expected for SQ #2 to be listened to as a traditional piece of concert hall literature is debatable. After all, lots of performances of his music are in non-traditional venues which do allow for a great deal of coming and going. My sense is that the ideal experience probably involves listening closely, but that Feldman realized that it might not be possible or even desirable for the entire audience to listen to the work in this fashion without pause.

    By the way, I have a friend who is a Rothko buffs who does indeed spend hours in front of a single painting.


  9. Very interesting comments. To be clear, because Feldman’s works cross over into mediums other than music – most notably painting which is art form he wrote about quite a bit in his lifetime, I just wondered if Feldman was as uninterested in our traditional concert hall ritual as he was with traditional timelines prescribed to compositions (“I’m not a clockmaker…” is something he said more than once). Everyone here could just as easily be describing a night at the opera or a Tangerine Dream/Vangelis double bill.

    Did he really expect or even desire people to listen to his music for these great lengths? Did he even think of his later works as having a beginning or and ending?

  10. Sorry, let’s try that first paragraph again.

    I wrote this blurb five years ago when I saw a performance of SQ2 in LA. It was a fine, fine experience, and I hope somebody will get to do it here in San Francisco so I don’t have to plan all that airfare.

  11. I wrote this blurb five years ago when I saw a performance of SQ2 in LA. I was a fine, fine experience, and I hope somebodie will get to do it here in SanFrancisco so I don’t have to plan all that airfare.

    “So I was going to write a long, painstakingly detailed account on the recent performance of the Morton Feldman Second String Quartet at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, including some tales of the occasions I had tried to see it performed but failed, and some personal insights on how I prepared for such an endeavor. Needless to say I have abandoned all that stuff. I will say this though: A few years ago I reported to the “Why Patterns?” list about how I can sit concentrated at live baseball games (average duration: two and a half hours; I added a side note inquiring if Feldman was ever a baseball fan), without ever getting up once, except for the required seventh inning stretch. Given that amount of attention, I could likely make it through a performance of SQ2 with no trouble at all. I am proud to say that it was the shortest six hours that I had ever experienced. And to feel I was part of the performance I brought along a copy of the score (copied years ago when I was in grad school), which I followed from start to finish. (By the way, we went to see the Giants host the New York Mets at PacBell (or whatever they are calling it this week (I know it’s AT&T, so what?)) Park Monday night in San Francisco and sure enough, after getting our food and settling down in the first inning, we did not get up until the usual seventh inning stretch, and did not leave until after the final pitch. Barry Bonds was intentionally walked twice and Moises Alou followed each time with a big hit for the Giants; SF pitcher Matt Cain had a perfect game through five innings. The Giants won, 6-2. Time of game: 2:25.)

    The performance took place in a room at the museum, with the quartet in a circle more or less in the middle and the audience chairs surrounding them. On the walls were some Clyfford Still and Frank Stella canvases (it’s a shame that this didn’t take in the room behind us as there were some Jackson Pollocks, Jasper Johnses, Franz Klines, an early Philip Guston and a Marc Rothko). At the start there were about 75 folks; there were about 60 or so at the end. People were encouraged to flitter about (as long as they were quiet about it). My wife and I stayed for the entire duration (although she did duck out about an hour and a half into it for a cup of coffee; I was equipped with a quart of Snapple). Eventually I found myself “breathing” along with the music (think of, say, the start of the third disc of the Ives recording (page 72); resting on the first note, breathing in on the second note, exhaling on the third note). The group was used to this sort of thing of course. The violist had a way of the long haul in fact by playing in a sort of leaned manner with his left elbow practically resting on his side. He was also holding his bow almost halfway (rather than at the frog) for better balance. The violinists weren’t as fortunate in their playing posture but they did manage something similar. And each player would get up every so often to turn pages for the others. When the final page was completed (and that last empty measure was honored) the group got up, took the applause, we stood up, let an enormous sigh of completion, and thanked God for “nature’s call waiting” (a definite case of mind over matter).”

    By the way, here is an excellent essay on the subject, from Sir Chris Villars’s Feldman site: http://www.cnvill.net/mfolsen_english.pdf

  12. I totally agree with David. I think there is a tendency to be a bit skeptical of a work like this as if the extreme length is some kind of gimmick, but Feldman really makes it feel like all 6 hours are completely necessary. I must admit I arrived late, but sat in complete stillness enjoying every second of the last 3 1/2 hours. In fact it made me wish I had arrived at the start because it didn’t seem like enough. I was struck all week by how quickly and painlessly the long works went by. Feldman creates such beauty and room to breath in the music that it really is a pleasure and not a challenge to sit through. My body ran up and down with chills several times during SQ 2; it felt almost gluttonous to consume such aural beauty over such an extended period of time. The only drawback is now I feel totally inadequate as a composer!

  13. Hi Chris. If you check out the Mode CD of SQ#2, there are essays about the scale of the work and performance challenges, by Christian Wolff and violinist Tom Chiu.

  14. Hi Chris. In most concerts of Feldman’s really extended pieces (like For Phillip Guston and FSQ2), people typically come and go. Many people did just that yesterday in Philly, although many also stayed from start to finish. I agree that music should not be a marathon. But that said, while performing FSQ2 may be extremely taxing (like climbing Everest or, even harder, summiting K2), listening to it is a pleasure. Feldman’s really long pieces (as opposed to works like Patterns or Triadic Memories, which clock in around 90 minutes and are short in comparison) are meant to be experienced. Because they are largely very quiet, you are forced to keep very silent and concentrate. And then you also notice the little things, like the sounds of page turns and bowing, that you wouldn’t otherwise notice. And the whole scale of the music, by four hours, seems to have not taken quite that long. So for my daughter, who dutifully spent nearly six hours yesterday in a corner doing her homework with her iPod in one ear, it probably was an endurance test. For people who have known this work for many years through either or both of the excellent recordings out there, it was sheer bliss. My wife thinks I’m nuts, and I probably am. But I’d rather be nuts in this way than a violent psychopath, I guess.

  15. Excellent preview. The longest Feldman pieces I’ve heard live is Patterns in a Chromatic Field. There’s a fine recording of that work on Tzadik. I’ve love to hear more from Flux about the practicalities of rehearsing and performing this work.

    And I wonder if Feldman actually expected people to sit still for six hours and just listen? I wonder if we aren’t sort of grafting on the notion of music as an endurance test onto work that wasn’t necessarily designed to function in the concert hall tradition?

    How long are you supposed to look at a Rothko painting for instance? Is there a timeline to that experience?

  16. I’ll be there. With my daughter. A friend of mine and his wife went to the concert of Patterns in a Chromatic Field. He loved it. She fell asleep. But she didn’t hate it as much as he felt she would. I prefer the FLUX recording to that of the Ives Ensemble but both are amazing. FLUX is longer and I think slower is better here. I’ve heard the work dozens of times but this will be my first time live. Bout time Feldman’s late works were done here in Philly.

Comments are closed.