- Departing Landscapes:Morton Feldman's String Quartet II and Triadic Memories
"I know that when I write a piece [of music], sometimes I'm telling people 'We're not gonna be here very long'."— Morton Feldman
I. String Quartet II
In the summer of 1996, the Kronos Quartet was scheduled to present Morton Feldman's String Quartet II (1983) at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York. The performance was being promoted as the centerpiece of a much larger Feldman tribute and retrospective that was to go on for several days. Feldman's legendary quartet had never before been given in its entirety, which, if faithfully done would last, uninterrupted, around six hours. Shorter versions had been performed in the 1980s—in Toronto, in Darmstadt—abridged by Feldman himself to fit specific programs, or to accommodate the pleas of musicians, but the composition in all its intended dimension had not been heard. Like a well-concealed object, the complete string quartet's non-performance seemed only to heighten the anticipation and the uniqueness of the upcoming event, the silence surrounding this monumental piece contributing to its growing aura. No one had heard it, and yet much had been heard about it.
More than any other contemporary composer, Feldman over the years had become known for the length of so many of his pieces, their extreme duration seen as both a compositional strategy and a recognizable signature statement of his late work. Asked about it, he would sometimes cryptically justify the unusual length of his music as his way of adding "a little drama" to the work, or that he was "tired of the bourgeois audience" and their conventional expectations, or, more seriously perhaps, he would quote Varèse's comment that people "don't understand how long it takes for a sound to speak" (Give My Regards 44). And though much of Feldman's music of the late 1970s and 1980s ranged from one hour to four (breaking what he saw as the stale durational mold of [End Page 17] contemporary classical music or, as he sarcastically explained it, "What the world doesn't need is another twenty-five minute composition" [Smith]), the String Quartet II was undoubtedly the longest and most demanding of them all. With no breaks for the musicians (or the audience), and with the musical instruments almost constantly engaged from the beginning of the piece to its end, Feldman himself once described the quartet as if it were a kind of bad dream, an extended exercise in "disintegration" (166). However, in spite of the string quartet's extraordinary challenges—reflected not only in its unusual length but also in its prolonged use of subtle and slow repetitions, modular chromatic patternings, and a sustained stillness that carries throughout most of the piece—the Kronos Quartet had bravely agreed to try to perform the composition for the festival, to finally realize that which had always before been deemed virtually impossible to complete, unperformable in its lengthy duration. As David Harrington, Kronos's artistic director and violinist, described it, "The piece was larger than anyone's imagination" (qtd. in Low).
Prior to the performance, the four musicians prepared themselves well ahead of time for the upcoming ordeal, approaching it more like an extreme athletic event or perhaps a kind of formidable religious ritual. For what would be required to perform and finish Feldman's piece would involve not only instrumental virtuosity (of which the Kronos Quartet was already renowned), but a physical and mental stamina far beyond what was normally expected of musicians. Playing the instruments for so long, remaining focused upon the 125-page score, and simply staying seated upon the stage, would demand sufficient strength and tenacity (not to mention some degree of faith in the redeeming purpose and value of what they were to undergo; otherwise, why would one bother to try, willingly inflicting this on oneself?). Again, Harrington, in an interview conducted just days before the performance was to take place, described the quartet's extraordinary challenges and the musicians' preparation in the following manner:
The Second Quartet is physically so demanding that there are points—I think marathon runners must go...