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Morton FELDMAN (1926-1987)
String Quartet (1979) [78:35]
The Group for Contemporary Music: Benjamin Hudson (violin); Carol Zeavin (violin); Lois Martin (viola); Joshua Gordon (cello)
rec. Recital Hall, Music Division, State University, New York, Purchase, 11-12 Jan 1993
NAXOS 8.559190 [78:35]

Listeners unprepared for the Morton Feldman idiom almost invariably need to radically adjust their ideas about music. I was fortunate to have a somewhat gentle initiation with the atmospheric lyricism and relative brevity of ‘Rothko Chapel’, while already being acquainted with the paintings of Mark Rothko, who was a friend of Feldman. The 1979 String Quartet is a tougher nut to crack, but no less rewarding to those willing to allow its sinuous sound-world to insinuate the brain cells.

The String Quartet followed a period where the composer was occupied with works for orchestra, and as such forms a watershed after which his attention shifted to chamber music and ‘the long piece’. The first performance of this work by the Columbia Quartet on 4 May 1980 lasted well over one and a half hours, which led to the piece receiving the nick-name ‘100 minutes’. This extended duration is almost impossibly demanding of the musicians, beginning and end lose their relevance, the sound of the moment is the protagonist, the concept of ‘tempo’ is almost destroyed, the perception of metre and rhythm becomes practically impossible. The piece is almost entirely quiet in dynamic (the score calls for the use of mutes throughout), and the music exists almost solely to service the unfolding of sounds in total freedom – an instrument to order sound and silence in a flexible time structure. John Cage, in his book Silence said, "(It is useless to debate the question) is the music of Morton Feldman ‘good’ or ‘bad’, Feldman’s music is ..."

What Feldman’s music is not in this string quartet is dull or repetitious. Feldman, feeling the need to defend the extreme length of his String Quartet discussed his reluctance merely to repeat: "What’s repeatable material? You can’t just repeat ..." His own attitude was that it had to do with ‘feeling’: "I’m just watching how I feel." Just a few insights into the time into which the piece was born, and the composer’s ‘watching and letting go’ and there is no further need for intellectual nit-picking. You cannot put this music on as an ambient background. The beauty is in the detail, the delicacy of sonorities and nuances which are placed in an unhurried and elastic, context-less performing environment.

The performance and recording on this disc are exemplary. When I moved to The Netherlands to study composition in 1987 Feldman had just died, and was the flavour of the time – adopted by composers as an intellectual defence mechanism, a crutch to defend empty and meaningless music constructed over mathematical grids and given wordless, ‘graphic’ titles. I’m glad to hear that the old master’s pioneering spirit still sounds as challenging and inspirational as it did then. You couldn’t imitate him then any more than you should try to now, but if you let him, he will keep you on the edge of your seat for nearly 80 minutes.

Dominy Clements



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