Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

String Quartet No.2

by Morton Feldman
Performed by Flux Quartet
Mode Records, New York, 2002
Audio DVD or 5 CD set, 6 hrs. 7 mins. 7 secs.
Mode 112 / Feldman Edition 6, $19.99
$59.98 for 5-CD set, or $39.98 for DVD
Distributor’s website: http://www.moderecords.com/catalog/112feldman.html.

Reviewed by Eugene Thacker
School of Literature, Communication & Culture
Georgia Institute of Technology


To many, the idea of listening to a six-hour string quartet would not only be implausible, but also impractical. Trips to the restroom are needed. And food. Perhaps something to read, a book or magazine. Even the most rudimentary set-up would still retain elements of the world that would interrupt the listening. Interruptions abound. Nowhere is this more evident than when one meditates. But there is nothing mystical in this. People meditate, in the most general sense, all the time. On yoga mats, in temples, or in churches, yes, but also on the train, the plane, waiting in line, waiting for someone.

Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 was composed in the early 1980s. It forms part of the later Feldman’s oeuvre, in which single works with minimal instrumentation would last for extended periods of time (the piece "Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello" might also be mentioned here). At just over six hours, the String Quartet No. 2 (hereafter SQ2) stands out among even the later Feldman’s works. Its duration alone raises a number of questions: Am I supposed to listen to this in one sitting? If not, then how do I listen to it? Is it necessary to listen to the first hour in order to appreciate the sixth hour? And how are the performers able to play this piece?

For a long time, a recording of the SQ2 has not been available, until Mode released this version, part of their collection of Feldman’s works. Performed by the Flux Quartet, the Mode edition of the SQ2 is played with remarkable delicacy and consistency. I half-expected the performers to become fatigued by the fifth hour, but even the most ethereal and dissipative chords are played by Flux with the same attention to detail in the last hour as the first. Mode has made the SQ2 available in two formats: a 5-CD set or a single audio DVD. For convenience, track markers are included, and refer to page numbers in Feldman’s composition (over 120 pages, using Feldman’s grid technique).

Tom Chiu, violinist for the Flux Quartet, points out in the liner notes that the quartet had to undertake a sort of training for this performance that was analogous to a marathon runner. It would make sense, then, that the same apply to the listener. And at this point many would balk. We are used to our music being on-demand, instantly downloadable, and capable of being shuffled on our iPods or played ambiently in the background as we work. So there is a commitment involved. Although, whereas the Flux Quartet performs the entire six-hour piece, we as listeners can, of course, choose from several listening options — an hour at a time, bits here and there, etc. I couldn’t help it, though. I kept wondering, what would it be like to listen to the entire piece, in one sitting, as a whole?

So, I followed the Flux Quartet’s cue and developed a simple listening protocol. I would casually listen to different parts of the piece to become familiar with the basic "sound" that Feldman explores. Then I chose a weekend day and blocked out enough time. My cell phone was turned off. I forbade myself to use the computer, read a book, or busy myself with chores. Now, the ideal listening situation would be to simply sit down, put on headphones, press play, and stare at the wall for six hours. That’s the ideal. But, of course there will be bathroom breaks, a snack, coffee or tea, stretching. Despite all this, the biggest obstacle is not these pragmatic concerns, but rather impatience, boredom.

The SQ2 is not a conventional string quartet. It doesn’t develop linearly in time. Instead, it is composed of a series of modules, each of which is itself composed of combinations of repeating and varying elements: chords, short quasi-melodic lines, variations in the notes played, loudness or softness, stretched out or compressed, and so on. These are the atoms of the piece. They may repeat several times almost exactly, or they may suddenly vary. These atomic units of repetition and variation form the larger blocks or modules, that may themselves be repeated — two or three hours later. But admittedly this is a simplification, for many of the modules are blurry and bleed into each other. Feldman’s work has never simply been structuralist, let alone serialist. So the listener is confronted with an interesting challenge: the piece is a whole, and the parts are intentionally composed so as to make a whole, and yet the piece does not develop in time, linearly — and yet, one cannot but listen to the piece in time, sequentially.

Overall the SQ2 is quiet, delicate; but it is also marked by more abrasive moments. And this is the fascinating paradox of the piece. While it is relatively quiet, lulling the listener into a kind of meditative state, it is also formally hyper-active and complex, constantly innovating, varying, differing from itself. It is a "quiet complexity."

What results is a humbling experience. It’s not as if I’ve never meditated before. But I spent the first hour constantly thinking about how much time is left to go (particularly grueling when only fifteen minutes have passed). The second hour passed quickly, as I was more immersed in the music. But this led to false confidence when the halfway point wasn’t yet reached and I was battling the overwhelming urge to nap. The fourth and fifth hours were rather blurry, oscillating between periods of focus and periods of daydreaming. As much as I tried not to look at the clock, the last hour was fraught with tensions — the end of the piece bearing down on me, but at the same time finding myself engrossed in the hushed permutations that the piece continued to pour out.

Time is a long-standing interest of Feldman’s. Silence, pauses, and subtlety are hallmarks of his work — precisely those elements that, in fact, negate sound. But this subtractive music is not simply about abstraction or minimalism; the function of silence and quietness serves to draw out or to compress musical time, to render time elastic (one thinks of the murmur and rumbling of "The Viola In My Life"). This interest with elasticity is combined with another obsession of Feldman’s: pattern. His well-known interest in the complex patterns of antique Turkish carpets, for instance, is temporally expressed in works such as "Patterns in a Chromatic Field," where sound shifts with the all the subtlety and density of a prism. Both these interest are explored in the SQ2, but on a different scale. Feldman’s SQ2 is nearly the inverse of Webern’s two-minute symphonies; in many respects, however, they share identical concerns.

Of course, the key to the SQ2 is not just its literal length of six hours; it is the experience of listening to the piece itself. The sheer length of the piece is more than just a gimmick, and more than a conceptual piece (this is, arguably, where Feldman parts ways with Cage). It’s long enough and short enough to evoke curiosity, experiment — "What would it be like to listen to this all the way through?" Or better, "How long have I been listening to this?" This differential is felt by us on a daily basis (e.g. How long have I been waiting in line? How long will this lecture last? How much time do I have left to sleep?). In other words, the SQ2 pushes the tension between these two kinds of time — the external "clock time" of the digital readout, and the internal experiential time of listening to the music.

The philosopher Henri Bergson meditated at length on this differential. In his early works such as Time and Free Will he noted this relationship between external and internal time, referring to the latter as "duration": "Pure duration is the form which the succession of our conscious states assumes…when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states." The exemplary case of duration for Bergson was our own consciousness. Though we distinguish the past from present, we rarely number our thoughts as such (e.g. "I had 4 thoughts today").

The other example Bergson uses is musical: when we listen to a bell tolling, or the notes of a melody, our discrete counting of the bell tolls or the notes exists alongside our continuous experience of sound, as the fading sound of one note melts into the emergence of another. The upshot of this is that, for Bergson, our notion of time is bifurcated between a homogenous, discrete, spatialised quantity (clock-time, counting the notes), and a heterogeneous, continuous, dynamic quality (psychic states, the whole melody). Thus "pure duration might well be nothing but a succession of qualitative changes, which melt into and permeate one another, without precise outlines, without any tendency to externalise themselves in relation to one another, without any affiliation with number...."

But music is, of course, a game of numbers — or at least of counting (counting time, counting beats, counting measures). The process of listening to the SQ2 is a kind of game between checking the clock and, in effect, losing one’s sense of time (or losing one sense of time). But something else happens, for this notion of duration is not simply in our heads. Bergson, near the end of his life, recognized this. In his controversial engagement with modern physics and relativity, Bergson began to explore a notion of duration that was not simply subjective or internal, but actually a property of the world as such. This thought requires us to think of duration outside of the thinking subject — of duration as a nonhuman process — a preoccupation of early Greek philosophers like Heraclitus or Democritus.

Perhaps, then, another way of thinking about the SQ2 is not only that it expresses duration in Bergson’s sense of the term, but that it also evokes endurance. Not just physical endurance (though it is that too). We as listeners not only endure the work (and hopefully it is a "good" or rewarding endurance), but, more importantly, the work endures as a set of sounds that at once demarcate time and render it as continuous. Feldman does this through the pairs difference-repetition.

Musically speaking, the SQ2 is a complex work, to be sure. Within it Feldman performs experiments with time signatures, chord changes, and composition. But we can add another layer to this. The SQ2 is not just about listening to sound and silence in time; its duration, or endurance, its "enduration," is also about listening to time itself, or better, listening to duration.



Updated 1st December 2007

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2007 ISAST