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CD Feature/ Morton Feldman: "String Quartet"

img  Tobias
A friend of mine recently stated that “Feldman was like the Night”, but to me there is something incredibly optimistic about his “String Quartet”. One of the landmarks of his later period, which began with the probably shortest works still labelled “long form” and ended with the possibly longest works still labelled “listenable”, the piece has long surpassed its status as a practical exemplification of Feldman’s ideas on repetition and letting go and turned into a modern classic anyone can enjoy.

It is important to note that this is not meant as a mere bonmot. Of course, the composer still draws a fanatic, albeit sympathetically-so, kind of admiration and reverence from contemporary artists. In an interview conducted for this site, Kenneth Kirschner told me: “It’s the legacy of Feldman that I tend to focus on, almost monomaniacally.”

But despite their inspirational character for other composers, the long-form works have a mystical dimension to them, which transcendends what can still be described by a dry summary of the craftmanship which lead to their creation. When talking about the Quartet at the CalArts Festival in 1981, Feldman supposedly felt like adressing a “lynch mob”, but it seems likely that the general public is more likely to balk at the shere size of this single movement than at its musical content.

The reason is that there is nothing complicated or complex about it. The “String Quartet” is a modular piece, with thematic blocks being shuffled around within the space of its duration. More or less short passages of swelling chord schemes, rhythmic impulses, pluckings and stretches of unsteady, organically fluttering flageloets take turns, sometimes subtely repeated for ages, until they are just as quickly dropped in favour of a new element.

Is there evolution, transformation, development? The score reveals discreet changes, such as the handing of particular melodies (yes, they’re there!) from one instrument to the next, with Cello and Violin playing them in the same octave. But mostly, it is a mindgame resulting from Feldman juxtaposing his material with an unfettered creativity. Just like the work seems to emmanate from nowhere and ends without climax or absolute necessity, it conveys a feeling that it has never really started. It feels like a bizarrely agreable headache, changing our perception of the world around us by fixing one’s entire concentration on an object which is in a continous process of materialising.

On the other hand – and this is possibly what awards its a unique quality – it does eventually solidify over time. In its endless variations and self-challenging musical questionmarks, the String Quartet turns from a mere accumulation of sound waves into an autarkic force, which does not want to be categorised any more and instead makes passing the post of categorisation its sole purpose.

What lies beyond is beweildering, but deeply personal for each listener. “I don’t want to give things a name!” Feldman vehemently exclaimed at the said Festival. In the context of this work, that statement is not a sign of distrust in the capacities of language but an affirmation of music’s power to bring us back to ourselves without intellectual concepts.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Naxos Records

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