Morton Feldman - Feldman Edition 6: String Quartet No. 2
String Quartet No. 2 (1983)
Tom Chiu, violin
Cornelius Duffalo, violin
Kenji Bunch, viola
Darrett Adkins, cello
Feldman's monumental String Quartet No.2 is in one unbroken movement. The FLUX Quartet performance is complete, lasting a total of 6 hours 7 minutes and 7 seconds.
Available in 2 Editions: a 5-CD set OR complete and uninterrupted on 1-DVD!
This 5-CD set is available now for $59.98, and the DVD for $39.98.
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Special limited-edition of 500 DVDs numbered and signed by the members of FLUX Quartet:
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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; 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 sounds, 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.
Lasting more than six continuous hours, it is "a disorienting, transfixing experience that repeatedly approached and touched the sublime." - Alex Ross, in his review of the FLUX Quartet's New York City performance in The New Yorker.
String Quartet 2's score is 124 pages, at one tempo marking of 63-66 beats per minute - as such, a slow tempo. Feldman idiosyncratically sets the bars, so one page may last as little as about half a minute or as much as nearly seven minutes.
"A very exciting quartet composed of four young men...who have lots of ideas and clearly enjoy making music together," - Anthony Tommasini, NY Times, the FLUX Quartet has performed to rave reviews at many music centers around the world. FLUX have performed Quartet 2 in concert numerous times and know the score intimately. The FLUX Quartet's repertoire consists of notable pioneers as well as visionaries of tomorrow - from "classics" by Nancarrow, Ligeti, and Cage, to works by John Zorn, Ornette Coleman, Oliver Lake, and tenor balloonist Judy Dunaway.
This deluxe set features liner notes by Feldman's colleague Christian Wolff, mixing personal experiences and recollections with analysis; and by FLUX founder Tom Chiu who writes of the "experience" of performing such a large-scale work.
One can experience the work uninterrupted - complete, with no need to change discs - on the DVD Edition; along with the thrilling realism of uncompressed 24-bit PCM sound. This audio-only DVD can be played on any DVD player (note: there are no visuals).
For ease of navigation, both the DVD and CD versions have many track points (approximately every 5-6 pages of the score) which allow you to navigate through the disc(s) and the piece. The tracks are identical for both the DVD and CD.
String Quartet No. 2 (1983)
This Feldmaniac tried but failed. I don't have the endurance for a recording of String Quartet No. 2. I attempted the quintuplet CD set, sampling several CDs per day for two weeks, and then later started and stopped the single DVD-A over a week. The FLUX Quartet's performance seems to me faultless, and the music offers many attractive passages. I nevertheless had trouble comprehending this sprawling, six-hour seven-minute seven-second monster. I was perpetually distracted: e-mail, the telephone, eating, all of life's vicissitudes.
I know this isn't meant to be easy. Feldman intentionally pushes performers and listeners to the limit. Even so, SQ2 borders on dehydration and kidney failure. My attention span is good and I understand Feldman's scale. The 112-minute Triadic Memories (Louis Goldstein on Offseason Productions OP226) is more my pace. The 265-minute, multi-disc For Philip Guston (hat ART 61041/4) is an easier go. I've heard Goldstein confront Triadic Memories live, and that was a treat, but then again, I've also snoozed through Die Walküre at the Vienna Opera. Late in life Feldman was always thinking about his beloved Turkish carpets. As SQ2 progresses, you will perhaps notice how sunlight plays upon the mind's rug.
The string quartet's homogeneity may be part of the attention problem. Feldman's quartet writing is generally very quiet, rich with harmonics and ethereal gestures. There's no Paganini-like passagework, nothing resembling filigree. The quartet sounds more like a muffled harmonica, and the FLUX folks exquisitely portray these reedy, smoky hues. SQ2 is calm like other large-scale late works, but bleaker. Many motives feature a slowly rocking semitone, like a moored boat gently bumping a dock. I routinely pictured Venetian gondolas, or better yet, Charon's ferry waiting to cross the Styx.
There was a day when the oscillating semitones ushered an altogether different kind of minimalism: One of Philip Glass' rudimentary chord progressions ran around in my head after tackling a few SQ2 CDs. I also made connections with Nono's Fragmente-Stille, An Diotima with its slow pace, awkward intervals, barely audible dynamic shifts and close-spaced harmonics. Feldman's delicate answer / response passages likewise suggest Andriessen's hocketing. This is not wallpaper. When you can concentrate, Feldman really does draw you in. You start to hear patterns, to make predictions based on something heard hours before, and marvel at the FLUXers' control.
Other reviewers have leaped out of their chairs (rolled out of their cots?) in praise of this and another recording (the Ives Ensemble on hat[now]ART 4-144). A comparison is beyond me. How many have really been drawn into Feldman's heart of darkness? Others enumerate survival strategies, all of which suggest that one is not really expected to listen to all five CDs in one sitting. If so, what's the point? Does one claim to have seen Mount Rushmore after glancing at a postcard? Who travels to South Dakota only to inspect Lincoln's beard? Would you view Washington's nose from the road or from the sculptor's scaffold?
I recall a movie projectionist's anecdote. She showed a dry-as-dust, multi-reel film of one of Shakespeare's history plays. No intermission. The credits finally arrived. However, the reels had been mishandled. One was still in the can. The house lights came on, the audience departed, with nobody having remarked the gap. I suspect that people will listen to a portion of this quartet or perhaps even the first CD twice and fail to notice that they missed anything. What would Feldman have made of that?
--- Grant Chu Covell, La Folia online review, January 2005
String Quartet No. 2
BUCKLEY: Ten classical discs to play again and again
Contemporary classical music gets the short end of the stick when it comes to year-end wrap-ups. This year has seen the release of a broad range of contemporary fare, and here are the 10 discs that spent the most time under the laser at my house.
#2. "The Flux Quartet plays Morton Feldman: String Quartet No. 2" (Mode): Speaking of guts, Mode had the courage this year to record what may well be the longest string quartet ever written, six hours, seven minutes-plus, played without pause (if you choose the single DVD version. It's also available on five CDs). The 1982 work is about exploration, and like many Feldman pieces, is more frequently than not about soft sounds, sequence and the different psychological impacts different notes have when presented in various patterns. It's a bit like gazing at a painting for six hours, but you come away with a different appreciation for the composer's art.
--- Daniel Buckley, Tucson Citizen, Thursday, November 27, 2003
String Quartet No. 2
Negotiating Speakers' Corner
On the other hand Mode has done something not dissimilar, if a little less extreme, with the Flux Quartet's recording of Morton Feldman's Second Quartet - all six hours of it on a single DVD instead of five CDs, achieved by producing an audio-only DVD-Video, mixed in 5.1 Dolby Digital. It's mesmerising as the sounds seem to float in a semi-circle around you. When you think about what else you could squeeze on to a silver disc like this, you hear in the rear speakers the sound of a whole new can of worms being opened.
--- Andrew McGregor, BBC Music Magazine, August 2003
String Quartet No. 2 (1983)
Mode 112 (5 CDs or 1 DVD)
This is one of the monuments of modern music, both in ambition and in sheer length. Written for the Kronos Quartet in 1983, it stretches every possible parameter of the string quartet. Both of Feldman's string quartets are enormous. The first lasted 100 minutes at the premiere (the recording drops about 30 minutes off that, possibly simply by playing at Feldman's stated tempo - I have never compared the score to the recording). Presumably feeling he needed to top himself in what is the most exalted medium of Western music, Feldman's second string quartet is his largest work. Taken at the slower of the tempo range given in the score, it runs just under five hours. Taking it at the faster option reduces the overall playing time about 15 minutes. The most obvious difference in this, the work's second recording, with the first by the Ives Ensemble on hat[now] ART is that the Flux Quartet take about an hour and ten minutes more over the music, dropping the tempo down to about quartet note = 50 from Feldman's specified 63-66. As it turns out this is perhaps the least significant aspect of the performance, one that is quite different from that given by the Ives Ensemble. As Christian Wolff points out in his notes to the present recording, the perception of passing time is virtually identical between the two. There is also not much of a price differential since the Ives set of four CDs retails for the same $40 as the Flux Quartet's five (or single DVD which allows the listener to hear the performance uninterrupted as in a concert situation).
For those unfamiliar with Feldman's late style and his music for string in particular, the work is perhaps paradoxically derived from the concentrated early music of Anton Webern. Modules are presented, varied, discarded to be taken up again, perhaps an hour later, in a continuing mosaic of sound that recalls the experience of examining Feldman's beloved oriental rugs at a close range. His ability to glue this together to make a genuinely continuous whole is one of the many remarkable things about the late music and there is no music I know of that explores more thoroughly the process of memory. String Quartet No. 2 and the almost equally enormous For Philip Guston that followed in 1984 form the climax of what might be called the late music with the very late music effectively beginning with For Bunita Marcus in 1985. With that work Feldman pared his materials down to the absolute minimum, something that is presaged in the second string quartet's extended second half which is almost entirely chordal, without dynamic changes beyond occasional decrescendos.
For all that Feldman notated all his late works quite precisely, his spoken and published statements offer obvious contradictions to the notation, particularly in works such as the pieces for instruments that involve potentially flexible tuning. To a pianist, Gbb is identical to F. To a string player (or brass player or a singer) there is a tradition of shading the notes so that the two notes are slightly different. James Fulkerson has gone into print a number of times with his belief that in Feldman the two notes should be the same, if for no other reason than that Feldman composed at the piano, which of course does not offer any tuning options whatsoever, but Feldman suggested otherwise in his published writings. He also only used the elaborate system of double sharps and flats in instruments that were capable of playing them, which suggests he wanted them heard as well as seen. Similarly Aki Takahashi has commented that Feldman's famously finicky rhythms were intended to indicate a kind of continuous rubato, so that patterns were never repeated exactly, rather than intended to be followed precisely, something she is in fact does not do in her own performances which are as exact as anyone's. Finally, there is the question of string vibrato. In his writings, Feldman seemed to express a preference for string playing without vibrato but in the performances he himself conducted, most notably the gorgeous Viol in My Life I-III, Karen Philips plays with the same vibrato that she would use in any other music. So there you have it.
The Ives Ensemble plays consistently without vibrato and, if anything, emphasizes the tiny gradation of tuning. The Flux Quartet offers a much more conventional string quartet sound, including vibrato selectively applied, which makes the tiny shifts away from even-tempered tuning much more discrete. The result adds a degree of sensuous beauty to the music that is deeply seductive. How they do in live performance is anyone's guess, but in the relatively easier confines of the recording studio, the Flux Quartet players maintain their level of tone production and their rhythmic control throughout, which again goes a long way towards making their slower tempo not seem slow. They are aided in this by the recorded sound, which is more distant than the Ives ensemble receives from hat[now] ART. Not only does this increase the glamour, if you will, of the quartet's basic sound, but it also makes the dynamic changes, which range in the score from ppppp to ff, easier to register in playback.
The flip side to this is that the Ives Ensemble makes the music sound newer, stranger, much less connected to the long tradition of Western music for string quartet. Feldman wrote about the quartet as dialectic between opposites. This utterly gorgeous performance and recording sets up its own dialectic with the Ives Ensemble's approach. In an ideal world own should own both performances, the Ives Ensemble for their modernist fervor, the Flux Quartet for making the link to the long tradition of Western music, which Feldman so emphatically felt himself to be a part of it, explicit.
Obviously, the highest recommendation.
--- John Story, Fanfare, July/August 2003
String Quartet No. 2
Until the Ives Ensemble released its own recording of Morton Feldman's Second String Quartet (1983) on HatART in 2001, the work had a status similar to Stanley Kubrick's hastily withdrawn A Clockwork Orange - it was an unavailable and notorious masterpiece that left a gnawing gap in our appreciation of a great artist. A few months later and here's a second recording of Feldman's Quartet, this time by an American group that takes its name and rationale from the Fluxus 'anti-art' movement. As composer and Feldman colleague Christian Wolff points out in his scintillating sleeve note, the tremendous length (six hours) and 'denial, abnegation, isolation' of Feldman's late pieces were a direct provocation against the conventional concert experience and the social world in represents. Yet Wolff identifies a fascinating dichotomy - Feldman may well be provocative, but he provokes with sounds that are 'exquisitely beautiful' and 'seductive'.
The Flux Quartet takes this paradox and runs with it gleefully. It delivers a more determined and deliberate performance than the Ives Ensemble and its slower tempo unearths a greater spectrum of detail from inside the fabric of Feldman's score. The difference is audible right from the start, as pizzicato stabs punch above their weight as they cut through the diaphanous sul ponticello see-sawing of the upper strings, to sound genuinely shocking. Tremulous, dissonant outbursts rub furiously against the prevailing delicacy and the Flux's achievement in realising these inner structure tensions over such an immense span exemplary. The sound of the group is also often unreally beautiful. Extremes of scurrying harmonies sound more like human breath than instrumental timbre and there's a telling moment on disc four as Feldman's patterns coincide as though they're about to quote Schubert. The Fluxs don't overplay this moment - they just let it be. Feldman would have been a very happy man.
--- Philip Clark, The Strad, May 2003
String Quartet No. 2
One String Quartet, Six Hours
A six-hour string quartet played through with no breaks. Sounds absurd, right? But if played as intended, without cuts and with all the repeats, Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 2, from 1983, lasts just about that long.
That's the way the adventurous young musicians of the Flux Quartet, known for their advocacy of all varieties of contemporary music, played the work in 1999 at Cooper Union in Greenwich Village. This was the first performance of the complete version of the quartet. The New Yorker critic Alex Ross described it as "a disorienting, transfixing experience that repeatedly approached and touched the sublime."
The Mode label has just released a recording of the work made in 2001 by the Flux Quartet: Tom Chiu and Cornelius Dufallo, violinists; Kenji Bunch, violist; and Darrett Adkins, cellist. Mercifully for the musicians, the taping was done traditionally, in segments. With its warm, clear sound, the recording is available in two formats: as a single 24-bit audio DVD or a set of five standard CD's.
The music is indeed transfixing. Curiously, Feldman, an American maverick, was profoundly inspired by Anton Webern, whose personal aesthetic led him to compose radically short works in which thematic elements and developmental passages were reduced to fleeting, compact gestures. Feldman's mostly ruminative, subdued and intense quartet can be heard as an endless series of Webernesque gestures: broken chords sounded one note at a time by the four players, then sustained; mini passages in which three players articulate a pungently quiet harmony as the fourth, often the cellist, plays a plucked counterrhythm; quizzical bits of melody; squiggling figurations; and more.
But the gestures are repeated. And repeated. And repeated. In the score, a musical idea lasting a measure or so is typically bracketed under a printed instruction to "repeat 9 X's," "repeat 11X's" and so on. But Feldman understood that some performers, with his blessing, would opt to perform with fewer repetitions. Indeed, the Kronos Quartet gave the premiere in 1983 in a version that lasted about four hours, which was all those players felt they had the endurance for.
Feldman sought to induce a sense of meditative stillness in which, over time, listeners would perceive that variations and even starkly different events were occurring. If the whole idea of this work seems indulgent and silly, just lie down on your living room couch and listen. See if you don't get drawn into Feldman's mystical musical world.
The Flux players will perform the quartet again in concert, complete and without breaks, at Carnegie Hall's new Zanker hall on Oct. 25. Once again they will bravely grapple with the issue that supersedes even the work's intense challenges to a performer's mental and technical stamina: bladder control.
--- Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, Sunday, April 20, 2003
String Quartet No. 2
Artistic Quality: 9
Sound Quality: 9
First, let me address the two most obvious issues.
Question: Did you listen to all six hours of the bloody thing?
Question: Did you do it all at one sitting?
Answer: Are you out of your mind?
Believe it or not, this is the second recording available of the Holy Grail of Feldmaniacs, the Second String Quartet. The Ives Ensemble's version on HAT(now)ART is shorter by more than an hour, as if that matters particularly, but this performance by the FLUX Quartet certainly doesn't sound slower, most likely because the trance-inducing qualities of the music itself simply obliterate the listener's general sense of time passing.
It would be wrong, though, to call this piece a perverse monstrosity, as it bids fair to be viewed as the most richly varied of all Feldman's late works. There are strikingly tonal passages alternating with more chromatic ones. Dense vertical agglomerations of tone yield to more linear, quasi-melodic material. There are strong contrasts of loud and soft, and even of fast and slow, both highly unusual for this composer. In short, Feldman does everything he can within his stylistic parameters to make the music interesting and reward sustained attention over the long haul, and that makes this largest of all his works paradoxically easier to listen to than many of his smaller, shorter ones.
That said, I feel no particular necessity to listen to the whole thing. Indeed, I prefer Mode's 5-CD format to the single-disc DVD that's also available for the simple reason that I enjoy selecting a disc at random and listening to just that hour or so of music. Yes, this may be heresy to the true believers, but music such as this, devoid of any feeling of forward movement, works very well in discrete chunks even if this necessarily means sacrificing the opportunity to recognize elements of recapitulation when (and if) they occur hours later. As with the patterns of rugs and mosaics that the composer so admired, you can stand back and survey the whole thing, or just as satisfyingly focus on one section at a time and admire the detailed workmanship.
Suffice it to say that the FLUX Quartet does a fine job, playing with a wide variety of timbres if not always uniformly polished tone quality, and for just getting through the piece these musicians certainly deserve a high rating. They are also beautifully recorded, which you can best appreciate if, as with all of Feldman's late works, you keep the volume level comparatively low. This recording must be accounted a major event, even if its principal appeal will be to a limited few listeners. I happily number myself among them.
--- David Hurwitz, www.classicstoday.com
FELDMAN String Quartet No.2
Mode 112 (5-CDs)
Morton Feldman's Second String Quartet, now 20 years old, is one for the record books. The FLUX Quartet's new performance plays for over six hours, taking up all of five CDs, though it's also available for uninterrupted listening-and more cheaply-on a single Audio DVD. Feldman, an earthy New Yorker who conceived some of the most delicate music ever written, composed mostly short, quiet pieces in the 1950s, and mostly long, quiet ones towards the end of his life (he died in 1987, aged 61).
The music of the Second Quartet is repetitive, though not in a perfectly imitative way. The gestures mutate, with a minuteness and unpredictability that are both fascinating and challenging. The sounds are hauntingly spare, often tinged with microtonal inflections and note combinations to produce results that can seem utterly un-string quartet like.
In many ways the piece is unrealistic. It's length challenges performers-try holding a bow aloft for six hours-as well as listeners, who have no real point of reference for a single, uninterrupted, instrumental movement of that duration. "Listening to this music," says fellow composer Christian Wolff, "is like looking at a star-filled night sky; anything else is material for an astronomy lesson." If you can tune in to it, there's a fair chance it will take your breath away, as the stars do. The FLUX Quartet's patient performance is unruffled in its breathing, and the players' often velvet-textured tone has been caught with delicate-hued radiance by the recording engineers. A landmark, whatever way you look at it.
--- Michael Dervan, The Irish Times, February 13, 2003
FELDMAN String Quartet No.2
Mode 112 (367:07)
(both 5CD and single stereo DVD PCM versions)
Clocked at more than six hours, this has to be the longest work of chamber music ever written. You don't listen to it as much as inhabit it. I've been playing the DVD-Audio version for a few days now. It is produced on a single DVD while the CDs are in a set of five. This string quartet contains many of Feldman's trademark techniques: three or four note motives played over and over until he gets distracted and begins another of roughly equal emotional range; dynamics ranging from pianississimo to pianissimo, rarely attaining piano; rare and jarring moments of terror; languid moods that splash your toes like waves on a small lake. This is more performance art than chamber music, and sometimes it approaches the level of a masterly stunt. The fact that Feldman pulls it off and maintains interest for six hours is more remarkable than the work's musical scope, which is not really that wide.
If you decide to get the DVD-A version, I don't recommend playing it on a standard DVD player. I played mine on a
two-year old Sanyo and neither the pause nor tracking buttons worked. I had better luck on my computer's DVD-ROM
player, whose software is smart enough to remember the last note played even if I remove the disc. This is an excellent piece to savor in your office as the day winds down. Listen to Feldman's call and response between violins and the cello's pizzicato, hypnotic and relentless for about twenty minutes. Watch it reappear in altered form a few hours later. His legatos are eerie and remotely mournful. This is true Gebrauchsmusik. Use it the way you want: as background music, music to travel across like an arctic tundra, music to make love to. You can even leave the room for a while and come back without missing much. Quirky and persistent, perhaps it is best described by Feldman: "It's a fucking masterpiece."
[Ed.: This is not really a DVD-A but a video DVD with two-channel PCM audio and no images. To quote what the
notes actually say: One can experience the work uninterrupted - complete, with no need to change discs - on the DVD Edition; along with the thrilling realism of uncompressed 24-bit PCM sound. This audio-only DVD can be played on any DVD player (note: there are no visuals).]
--- Peter Bates, Audiphile Audition (online www.audaud.com), February
FELDMAN String Quartet No.2 (Feldman Edition 6)
Mode 112 (367:07)
'It's a fucking masterpiece'. Thus spoke Morton Feldman. Noted by Christian Wolff in the text accompanying the above release, this was the Feldman's bashful summary of his first String Quartet (1979) and it brings us firmly back to his fascination with the manners and modes of the European tradition. Pivoting and playing on the weighty history of the String Quartet, you might say that a tradition is being stretched across the Atlantic in String Quartet 2 (1983). Certainly, you could almost get from Paris to New York in the time it takes to listen to it. Clocking in at just over 6 hours, Mode 112 is a monster; and whether you prefer the 5-CD set or a single audio DVD, the FLUX Quartet's recording is going to take up a sizeable amount of your time.¹ It really is the sort of work to get you into trouble. The dishes will go undone. The cat will not be fed. Pillows and cushions may well be fired in your direction by loved ones, but what's for sure is that afternoons and evenings will disappear under its spell. And as you probably know from experience, that is the material dialectics of Feldman on the hi-fi.
Of course we don't need John Cage to tell us that 'the masterpiece' is a questionable concept. Similarly, when Feldman suggests in Give My Regards to Eighth Street (Exact Change 2000) that String Quartet 2 is 'a dialectic of sorts' (196), one wonders if he runs the risk of trapping himself within it. After all, dialectic is a classically European mode of thought, hardly treated positively elsewhere in his writings (cf. 30, 100-101). Arguably it is exactly what the New York School composers were trying to out-think in their 'battle' with European serialism, which makes me wonder about String Quartet 2 and the success of its conversation with history. Perhaps Feldman gives away a little too much ground in String Quartet 2, speaking a little too much in a language not his own. His outflanking trick may indeed be to insist upon the 'assemblage' and to make the dialectic visible only as outcome, but even here his references are Schoenberg and Picasso, not Varése and Rothko (196). For me, it is in this struggle with dialectic that the piece's undoubted fascination rests. At first glance it has more in common with Triadic Memories (1981) than Piano and String Quartet (1985), but if memory remains an arching concern, it is intertwined more fully with the history of aesthetics here than in the earlier piano piece. History is no longer limited to content and the decomposition of the triad, but is more clearly manifested in the work's form. The scope of the work is widened so that history is no longer conceived of as interior to the subjective memory, but enters a new, and dialectical, relationship with it. I am not convinced that Feldman makes this move without losing something central to his aesthetic. By the time of Piano and String Quartet, a form has been found that allows for an empirical negotiation between history and memory in the stillness and absence of movement, whereas here the struggle for that form is still very much in evidence. Am I wrong to hear history screaming in String Quartet 2?
Coming approximately one year after the Ives Ensemble's accomplished rendition of the work on Hat Hut, this recording is a worthy competitor. The Mode edition is the slower of the two, which in the larger scheme of things means that it's about an hour longer than the 4-CD Ives Ensemble's recording. Neither, I think, is obviously more successful and much depends on your preferences and/or mood. Although the FLUX Quartet may lose a little of the tension that penetrates the Hat Hut version, the work does appear more philosophical here, unfolding with a ruminating air all its own. A limited but perhaps useful comparison between the recordings may be Roland Kluttig's For Samuel Beckett on CPO (999 647-2) and Sylvain Cambreling's on Kairos (0012012KAI). What the second loses in sorority, it makes up for in ambient chill. Likewise, what the FLUX version loses in dynamism it compensates for in contemplation. To my mind, it more obviously prefigures the later works, although not in an overt anachronistic sense. Feldman might have commented negatively that Schoenberg was a historical axis for most to move backwards and forwards, but just as he references him in his programme notes to String Quartet II, it too suggests itself as a piece from which to circumnavigate the middle to late music.
Although I remain loath to recommend one over the other then (should you be intent on purchasing just one), the FLUX recording carries a number of albeit minor advantages. First, there is the possibility of hearing the work uninterrupted, should your audio equipment accommodate. Second, despite its author's warning that 'the point of course is to listen', Wolff's accompanying notes are extremely good. Not only are they contextually sensitive to the placing of String Quartet 2 in the Feldman oeuvre, his analytical sketches of several patterns are particularly helpful for beginning to get to grips with the slippery nature of the work. Furthermore, Tom Chiu - the quartet's founder - supplements Wolff's text by providing an interesting commentary on the experience of performing the piece live. Third, and especially welcome to musicologists I imagine, the index markers on the edition correspond to pages in the score, allowing for quick and easy navigation. Finally, and as you'd expect from Mode, the packaging is wonderful. Housed in a sturdy cardboard case, each of the five CDs comes in a paper wallet, their colours getting progressively (and tantalisingly) darker as you move through CD 1 to CD 5. Minor points these may be, but when faced with two equally impressive recordings, they may also make a difference.
As one would expect given that it is recorded at a higher definition, the Mode sound is slightly more satisfactory and better able to present the tactility of the piece's textures, but as one list member pointed out, your audio equipment needs to be capable of projecting this difference. That said, this release is the passport for an armchair journey like no other. Don't be put off by the daunting length or the possibility of those incoming cushions. Just pick your time carefully and make sure that the phone is off the hook before you press 'play'.
(1) This review is based on the 5-CD set. For opinions on the DVD edition see the Archive and the November strand: 'String Quartet No.2'.
--- Alan Nicholson, Why Patterns? online, 4 December 2002
A Remarkable Event: Morton Feldman's
String Quartet 2 on Mode
Mode 112 (367:07)
In my review for The Absolute Sound of hat[now]ART 4-144/1/2/3/4, I had to correct a prediction as a just-in-time postscript: the unlikelihood of another recording of Morton Feldman's Second String Quartet. Wonder of wonders! Mode was planning its own SQ2. It's here in the Editorial Aerie. I'd sooner part with a kidney.
The FLUX Quartet has a solid, perhaps even unique claim on the music. These four hale madmen performed it as Feldman intended: live, without breaks. I don't often check into the Guinness Book of Records, but this may well be there in the High-Class Culture chapter. Feldman, like his friend John Cage, had little use for recording, which is the only way most of us will ever make this wildly improbable music's acquaintance. To remain with the live setting, the booklet relates a quip about catheters. First violinist Tom Chiu comments rather on the hazards of dehydration and the challenge to one's musculature. That all CD inserts were this good! I would not have wanted to miss Christian Wolff's contribution, despite his P.C. employment of the feminine for the genderless third-person: "...the listener can't find herself thinking, 'look, there's a pattern...'" And then we've the "beautifulness of the music"? Who retired beauty? Enough carping. Wolff's essay is just the thing: delightful insights and anecdotes, along with a description of how this horizon-to-horizon serpent articulates.
The reader is probably aware that Wolff is grouped with Cage, Feldman and Earle Brown as the New York School, along with painters in whose work Feldman took an interest. No surprise. Listening to Feldman is an adventure in synaesthesia -- in the present example, a day's worth. (Question: Have any of the New York School composers set lines by any of the New York School poets? They're not what you'd call kindred spirits, the school umbrella notwithstanding. Eccentric frivolities, dandyisms, if you will, inform a good deal of the poetry. In the music, not; no Le Boeuf sur le toit. I doubt that Koch, Ashbery, Schuyler or O'Hara found much of interest in John Cage's verbal cordilleras. Or vice versa. A penpal in Germany, whom I hope will become a contributor, reminds me that Feldman set some of Frank O'Hara's poetry. I've a few recordings of For Frank O'Hara, which as an instrumental work disqualifies itself from this aside.)
The hatART set is four CDs long; at six hours, seven minutes and seven seconds, Mode's FLUXers occupy five CDs (the format I requested) or one DVD, which already recommends the latter to those with the hardware. I cannot imagine the DVD sounding any less good than the CDs, nor can I imagine it sounding much better, though I'm informed by Mode's Brian Brandt that it does: "...more sense of air and space, longer, nicely detailed reverb trails and, overall, slightly better fidelity. This can be chalked up to those eight extra bits. They make a difference. The original 24-bit recording has to be dithered down to 16-bit for CD. While the CD still retains the benefits of the original 24-bit sound, it does lose some detail in the loss of the eight bits. However, one has to have a decently set-up DVD playback to realize the difference." I don't doubt Brian's assessment. Suffice that on my system the CDs sound remarkably right.
Congratulations, then, to Producers David Walters, Brandt and Tom Chiu, and recording Engineer David Walters. I've heard too many good chamber music performances damaged by the rather foolish notion that intimate ensembles need to resonate within a large space as proof of the music's importance. Congratulations too on the packaging. Brandt, a graphic designer, has been in on his label's look from the start. (Mode's logo, about which I'd been meaning to ask, is an inkblot. I see a crocodile's jaws poised to snap. Paging Dr. Rorschach...) Here, with Alice Hom, Brandt excels in attractive economies, including CD envelopes sorted sequentially in deepening shades of gray. The booklet's cover consists of a photo of a Turkish folk carpet that would have profited from a color reproduction.
As to the cover's relevance, I doubt I'll raise brows in stating that Feldman's interest in Turkish carpet patterns operates as a convenient key: repeating modules with subtle irregularities. In the listening, these differences do anything but leap out at you, except when they do, as changes of direction or pace. The pictured carpet features stylized botanical patterns grouped in sectors: a double perimeter around familial motifs. Small deviations notwithstanding, a six-hour string quartet in execution of a single motif would play on the ear rather as a water torture's drips fall on one's face. I can see the bumper sticker: This Vehicle Survived a Six-Hour String Quartet. The T-shirt: My Parents Went to Hell and All They Brought Me Is a Six-Hour String Quartet.
Beauty is such a dodgy business! What may sound to you like cruel and unusual punishment sounds to me beautiful. This is not to say I'm capable of sitting attentively through these five fully packed CDs. That really would require a catheter. Thus -- irony alert! -- one's preference for recording over live performance, about which, with regard to FLUX's stint, one might reasonably suspect that these young men are extraterrestrials or androids. Actually, they sound to me especially human, and therein lies the performance's success: its soft edges. I can think of little else in the literature that imparts a greater sense of bowing's to-and-fro. The unavoidable analogue to breathing leaves one at a considerable remove from "pure music." Inhalation, exhalation, inhalation... I hear the FLUX's relaxed rather than robotic phrasing as an endearment. People at work. Machines need not apply. Wolff mentions comparing the hour-shorter hatART reading with Mode's and coming away with no clear sense of a difference of pace. As to which of these releases you must run out and buy, it's a difficult call. The FLUX performance sounds to me closer to live, which is not in any way to denigrate how the four Ives Ensemble players go about their task. If I've managed to pique your interest, you've two remarkable sets to consider -- or, better yet, that solo DVD.
--- Mike Silverton, La Folia online, December 2002
Excerpts from this recording can be heard in the soundtrack to Bryan
Wizeman's film "Losing Ground", available through Netflix:
"Losing Ground" on Netflix
String Quartet No.1; Structures; Three Pieces – FLUX Quartet (mode 269/70)
FLUX Quartet profile