Morton Feldman’s 1983 String Quartet No. 2
is the culmination of his artistic practice. Peeling away from the aleatoric musical notation which defined his early 1950s work and opting for the conventional performing forces of the string quartet, Feldman manages nonetheless to liberate sound from structure, from dramatic expectation, from instruments and space. One has the feeling, while listening through the Quartet
, of peering directly into the souls of the notes themselves—chords and melody are rendered down to their ontological foundations and we are made to live with them. This kind of aural hyperreality is, certainly, a function in part of the piece’s famous length: six hours all told, each second brilliantly performed here by the Flux Quartet. Six hours is an exceptionally long time, and one imagines that, say, a six-hour Ariana Grande album would achieve much the same effect: draining, thrilling, and eventually a part of the structure of your life whether you like it or not.
But String Quartet No. 2
is also a work of unspeakable—maybe, at certain intervals, even inaudible—beauty on its own terms. Its extraordinary length is part and parcel of its otherworldly effects on the listener, but its local structure, too, betrays an approach to hearing and feeling that belongs to Feldman alone. To wit: the Quartet
is composed of discrete melodic “cells” that often repeat once or twice before moving on to a wholly different cell—maybe you’ll recognize the original cell that as it reappears an hour or two down the line, maybe not. Borrowing from the New York School from which Feldman emerged in the mid-20th century, one might call the relationship between these cells “indeterminate”. Whereas a piece of music, even an experimental one, is generally thought to evince some sort of consistent knowledge of itself, the Quartet
seems to flow endlessly without regard for some greater structure. (This is an especially disorienting effect given the conventional nature of the performing forces, the way in which Feldman approximates the timbre of a late Beethoven string quartet without adhering to its spirit.) The little slices of sound which make up the piece, further, tend to withhold moment-to-moment pleasure for the listener: two soft high-pitched chords or a quick arpeggio, perhaps a flurry of discordant strings or a quizzically bent pizzicato. String Quartet No. 2
is some tough ***, for sure: forever waiting for the piece to attest to its own logic or to follow some greater narrative or to refract your state of mind, a curious listener might find themselves nudged into aural oblivion by the piece’s ceaseless drift.
This means you have to focus—slowly losing sight of any cogent explanation for the piece’s structure, one is forced to make do with the sounds themselves. Thus does String Quartet No. 2
force your involvement in a brilliant, astonishing, nearly imperceptible way: as in the great films of Chantal Akerman, one is forced to “re-look” at an “image” whose contents we thought we had already comprehended and digested. You start to hear and see through sound, under it—most importantly, with
it. And then the music becomes inseparable from the time which it marks, and you start to hear the utter gorgeousness of how these phrases relate or don’t relate to each other. String Quartet No. 2
seems impenetrable at some points, like an intelligence whose language we cannot speak even as we witness its surface expressions. Yet Feldman’s ear is so perfectly attuned to confounding tonal relationships that one is sucked into his vortex again and again, thrown about the waves of timbre and inflection until briefly we hear a glimmer of hope…
I remember a beautiful quotation by John Cage—was it?—in which he stated that music is typically thought of as music because it speaks to you
, because it seems to originate as a communication from a human being to another one. Whereas the types of sounds Cage was interested in, like the buzz of the city or a drop of water or the ticking of a clock, were beautiful to him because they were not speaking to him. The sounds didn’t need him to be there.
When I think of String Quartet No. 2
I think of death. Quiet as all hell for most of its runtime, the Quartet
seems pitched toward nothingness itself. Often a chord will issue out from the structural murk and it will sound like someone’s dying breath, an utterance that for its quietude and solemnity seems like something final, something after which there is nothing. Where music often carps for eternity, Feldman has performed the ultimate coup: a six-hour piece of music that seems perched on the point of suicide. Soon the world and the music imperceptibly slide into each other, and I ask questions, questions posed to the nothing that the piece is and the piece that the world is. Where can I find hope in this world? I begin finally to hear my own name in the waves. Alex
, they call to me. Alex
. And I’m listening. And I’m listening. And I’m listening. Do you need me to be here?
I ask. I need you in order to exist—could it be that you need me too?
I ask. And I’m waiting. And I’m waiting. And then I wake up and there you are.