Monday, February 16, 2015

Morton Feldman: String Quartet (1979)

This rerelease by Naxos, as part of its American Classics series, of an early 1990s recording for Koch Records by The Group for Contemporary Music of Morton Feldman's first string quartet from 1979, is a revelation in terms of how modern string quarter music plays within a plasticity of time.

In other words, Feldman's very deliberate slow evolution of sound over nearly eighty minutes without interruption is a reordering of the sense of time.  Repetition, generally thought of as a hallmark of much "modern" classical music, is definitely a key component of the piece, but the playing is so muted and quiet for the most part that the repeated sounds don't really seem that repetitive, given that so much time can elapse in between and that the harmonics are recalibrated.

There is also a strong chromatic element to Feldman's use of harmony in the quartet and Douglas Cohen's liner notes explain how the composer's use of three pitch classes means that, "with each return the material is altered; sometimes this is subtle (such as a cello figure subsequently played by the violin — in the same octave)."

Clearly, this is music to be played at a very slow tempo, scored for 63 to 66 to the quarter note, though some performances have been even slower.  This was true of the premiere in New York in May 1980 in which the Columbia Quartet performed the piece in 100 minutes, twenty-two longer than this recording.  As Cohen noted, "his tempo marks became, as it were, a maximum limit for interpretation."

With very soft dynamics, very gradual evolution of concepts, and the significant use of muting, Feldman's orchestration makes the most of what Cohen meant by observing that "his interest was in creating a gradually unfolding piece where the perception of time becomes distorted."

Given this, it can be readily understood why the music could be very challenging to listen to, given its contrast to most string quartet music, where virtuosic playing, strong dynamism, emphatic rhythms, pronounced melodic statements and other elements are standard fare.

For this listener, it came to mind that listening to a good deal of ambient music from the late 1980s onward, mainly in British electronic music (particularly recordings by Richard H. Kirk, Bill Laswell, and, especially, Mick Harris's Lull project) may have proved to be an unintended transition to something like Feldman's first string quartet.

Then again, testing the limits of time became an ultimate expression with the second string quartet, from 1984, which is generally performed at a staggering six hours.  So far, this has been listened to on a DVD which contains its entirety on a single disc (rather than 5 CDs) and has proven to be easier done during an eight-hour workday, albeit with some interruptions.

In any case, this is, for those who can give the attention of nearly 1 1/2 hours, a remarkable music experience with respect to that "gradually unfolding" nature Cohen's helpful notes pinpoint.  It is a sound world unique to this fascinating composer, who is not as well known or performed as other major figures of the postwar period, but whose ideas are remarkable.  Kudos also to The Group for Contemporary Music's Benjamin Hudson, Carol Zeavin, Lois Martin and Joshua Gordon, whose work on a Bridge Records release of Elliott Carter music was covered here about a year ago, for their excellent work on this recording.

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