A Remarkable Event: Morton Feldman’s String Quartet 2

[This should be read in tandem with Mike's tour of the Ives Ensemble set. W.M.]

Mike Silverton

[December 2002.]

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, who 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.

Morton FELDMAN: String Quartet 2. FLUX Quartet: Tom Chiu, Cornelius Dufallo, violins; Kenji Bunch, viola; Darrett Adkins, cello. Mode 112, Feldman Edition 6 (five CDs). Mode, PO Box 1262, New York NY 10009, USA, (http://www.mode.com/), email mode@mode.com.