Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the FLUX Quartet’s Park Avenue Armory performance of Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2. For those unfamiliar with the work, its most striking feature is its length: six hours. I’d heard the piece only once before on FLUX’s own recording of the work. That was back in the winter of 2010. I’d locked myself in a room, set up some pillows and blankets on the carpeted floor, and with only a pitcher of water for sustenance, listened to the piece in its entirety through a set of incredible headphones, all while lying nearly motionless on the ground. That experience was particularly (and peculiarly) immersive and not something I’m likely to do again. Last night’s performance found me and the rest of the audience in a very different arrangement, and I’d like to share my observations and experiences with you.
The notable difference from my first listening adventure was that I was seated in a much larger space, the Board of Officers Room at the Armory. It was not originally designed as a concert space, but as a part of the Armory’s 200-million dollar renovation, the Board of Officer’s Room has been outfitted with some stage lighting and a refurbished interior. For the concert, seating was arranged in the round. There were comfortable leather chairs facing inward on all sides of the room as well as floor chairs in the front rows for those wanting a more intimate kind of arrangement. It should be said, however, that no seat in the room was more than 25-30 feet from the performers (I’m estimating, of course). (For a picture of the space, head over to the NYT.) Myself, I sat about 10 feet from the quartet in the first row of leather chairs. (You’ll spot me in the NYT picture: front row, facing the camera, just to the right of the central microphone.) In the end, this proved to be more comfortable than I imagine lying on the ground would have been, and made the listening experience quite enjoyable.
The other striking difference was that I was listening with other people. Not just listening, but watching with other people, and watching those other people listen and watch. The room was not sold out; it was, at the beginning, about two-thirds full, perhaps 40 people. Throughout the performance, people came and went as they decided they needed to stretch, use the bathroom, get some water. I tend to be more extreme about listening to music, especially pieces of very long durations, so I’d vowed not to get up—not to change seats, not even to stretch—for the entirety of the work. This meant that I actually began preparing myself for the concert the night before. I’d gone to bed at a relatively early time (1AM) and made sure I was thoroughly hydrated. The morning of the concert, I’d eaten only a bowl of cereal and an apple with Nutella at 12:30. I’d timed my eating so that I could use the bathroom just before I left the apartment at 2PM (the concert began at 3:00). I’d eaten foods that would not give me gas or make me feel too full, and I’d eaten just enough. These preparations worked well, as only 2 or 3 times during the performance did I have bursts of hunger. These quickly passed and weren’t at all a distraction. But back to the rest of the audience. As people were trickling in before the performance began, it was immediately obvious who would make it, who would last this marathon concert and who would not. The ages of the audience members were varied: college students, middle-aged adults, and the elderly. Those who didn’t last were not confined to any specific age, and I was surprised by how many of the older audience members remained seated for the entire concert. One particular group of people, however, caught my attention from the moment they walked in: two twenty-somethings (a couple) and one of their mothers. They were either from Spain or South America, not that that makes a difference, but it’s possible they were in New York City on vacation, and decided to attend a recital. (It should be mentioned that this concert was part of the Armory’s “Recital Series,” and thus, one might have been mislead about the nature of the performance; the fact that the piece is six hours could be easily overlooked on the website. I knew that as soon as the piece began, there would be no turning back, and was only waiting for those I’d singled out and potential walkers-out to get up and go. But I did not expect the reactions that came from the twenty somethings. The couple was seated on the floor and the mother was seated in a chair several rows away. The piece began and no more than 60 seconds in, I looked to my left at the pair who were reading their programs, most likely the note written by the first violinist about how a group began to tackle the work, and saw the man’s mouth drop. This isn’t an exaggeration, his mouth was wide open: disbelief, shock, panic! The girl looked over at the program, to the spot on which the man had his finger pointed, and she covered her mouth and began to silently laugh. They weren’t making any audible expressions, but their eyes said it all: What are we gonna do?. I smiled to myself, knowing I’d been right about them all along, but also hoping that they’d leave sooner rather than later. If you’re not in it for the long haul, I think, then you shouldn’t come at all. And that was my feeling about several audience members last night. There were those who fell asleep. There were those using their phones—texting, taking video. There were those who got up and left numerous times throughout the performance. I can’t fault anyone for needing to stand up and stretch, wanting to move seats to get a different perspective (the players were seated in a square, facing the center, around a single microphone; the performance was being streamed online by WQXR), and this was all explicitly permitted by the Armory, that people could come and go as needed. But aside from the occasional shift in seating or stretch, or perhaps a single bathroom break, I can’t understand why anyone would want to come to a six-hour string quartet performance if they couldn’t be bothered to hear the piece in its entirety. Yet, I can theorize why, though I can’t understand it: It’s because people want spectacle. People like the idea of telling their friends they went to a 6-hour concert, leaving out, of course, that they couldn’t be bothered to actually sit and enjoy the whole piece. People like the idea of Feldman’s second string quartet, but don’t actually like the piece itself. They like what it represents for them, and what it might say about themselves if they attend its performance; it’s about feeling important, feeling cultured. But it shows a lack of respect for the work and for Feldman himself. (This isn’t only true for works of long durations, but for all music, particularly music of the 20th century and later, where audiences like the idea of the music more than the music itself.) Needless to say, these three people left around an hour into the performance. They turned up again about 4 hours later, with less than an hour to go, only further proving my point; they’d showed up to give applause they had no right to give, applause which was was really for themselves, self-congratulatory, for having attended in the first place. I’d hoped they wouldn’t return at all. Others who’d left returned less frequently than some of Feldman’s motifs. (That’s a bad joke, I’m sorry.) Some folks showed up later than one hour into the concert, and many of them left well before the work’s end. And not to single out any group of people in particular, but most of those who couldn’t be bothered to show up on time or stay long were hipsters. I’ve long held contempt for the Hipster, whose raison d’être is to present himself as more cultured than he actually is while treating the culture he supposedly likes as passé, never really showing any reverence, because to be reverent would undermine his own supposed über-knowledge, thereby revealing he may not know as much as he says he does, which would take away his ability to co-opt and possess that culture. But hipsters came and hipsters went; hipsters fell asleep and hipsters woke up; hipsters texted and hipsters took video. If there was a single thing which distracted me the most, it was the hipsters who, again, couldn’t be bothered to simply enjoy the experience. Nevertheless, there were a few people who I enjoyed watching. There was a man around my age who was clearly familiar with Feldman’s work, evidenced by his silent counting-off of sections, head nods at crucial structural moments, and smiles when thematic material returned several hours after the original iterations. We were doing many of the same things, and we exchanged glances many times throughout the night, as if to say: Are you hearing this? There was also an older woman, perhaps in her sixties, who, like me, remained seated in the same chair for the entire performance, fully engaged throughout, and who silently chided a man sitting near us who kept reaching into his knapsack to pull small candies out of a cellophane bag. I liked her. My regret is that I didn’t talk to these two favorite people after the concert. We might have become friends, or at least, could have had a spirited conversation about the evening.
On FLUX’s website, violinist Tom Chiu writes of the piece:
That the piece has clearly defined sections, which are not unlike what you might find in sonata form or pop song structure, certainly helped us conceptualize its architecture. But the sheer size of FSQ2 throws musical memory for a loop. In a pop song the chorus might come back within a minute, and in sonata form the first theme usually recurs within ten minutes; but with FSQ2, recapped sections might not occur for sixty minutes or more.
And that’s certainly true. What I wasn’t prepare for, however, is how my experience of these recurring themes would be so heavily influenced by my visual perception of the event. Listening to a piece, a trained musician might be able to conceptualize how a player might perform certain motifs. My being a string player certainly aids this process. But having a visual component concretely tied to aural perception makes the structure of the piece more tangible. For instance, there is a recurring alternating two-note harmonic motif in the cello which is repeated at length in several sections. One is able to hear this clearly on FLUX’s own recording of the FSQ2, yet watching cellist Felix Fan stretch his thumb and fifth finger into position, sliding his hand up and down the fingerboard dozens of times in the motif’s first iteration, made this gesture more memorable than if I’d only heard it occur. Thus, when the motif reoccurred in two or three lengthy sections later in the piece, hours apart, I was able to draw on two types of memory, aural and visual, to tie these sections together. This is true for every distinct motif over the course of the six hours. Having the structure made more available, is a gift, especially when the length of the piece could very easily drive a listener to boredom, feeling as though he has nothing to which he can attach himself. Were the piece through composed with no reoccurring motifs, the piece would be nearly insufferable. Here, I’m reminded of Glass and Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, which I saw in 2012 at BAM. That performance, clocking in at around four and a half hours, also benefits from the visual component, as bodily gestures are very much tied to musical motifs, of which there are very few, though they reoccur more often than those in FSQ2. It was Feldman himself who remarked that the length of a work and the available musical material should have an inverse relationship. It is never more apparent than in his second quartet; I can remember only 5 or 6 distinct ideas comprising the majority of the piece, overlapping and recombining themselves throughout the six hours.
Connected to the idea of limited musical material is that of the several motifs which show themselves only once or twice in the work, and for brief iterations at that. Though I never once checked the time, I think it was around hour 5 (judging by the stack of pages on one of the violinist’s stands) that suddenly the viola played an extended solo passage. What a delight! (It was at this time, that the three other players took their first sips of water from bottles placed on the floor next to their chairs, so I imagine it was quite a delight for them as well.) Because I was both keenly aware of visual and aural repetitions, the sudden interjection of new musical material five hours into the work, may have been one of the joyous moments of the evening. It was not that I was growing tired of the previous material, but rather, so impressed and in awe of the idea that Feldman (I feel) was risking something by allowing this solo passage to unfold. Later, the other instruments had short solo passages as well, and those moments were equally inspiring. One has to imagine Feldman in 1983, after what certainly must have been an extended period of intense composition, reaching this point in the piece and suddenly choosing to include this solo for the first time. What was he thinking? I can’t say for sure. And quite possibly, these solos are based on other material in the piece, but that they’d be played as solos at all is a new event within the work. Feldman, in those moments, seems to be at his most daring. One can only be in awe.
Equally awesome (in that word’s original usage) was the communication between the players. Within the first hour (again, I’m estimating), the violist stood up and reached over to turn a page for the adjacently seated cellist. He might have done this nearly ten times before one of the other players did the same for another member of the quartet. The 1st violinist turned pages for the 2nd violinist, and the 2nd violinist turned pages for both the cellist and violist, the latter occurring as a single gesture. The nature of the piece lends itself to a kind of teamwork one doesn’t often see, even in performances of other chamber works of long duration. The turning of pages aside, there were less direct ways in which the quartet seemed to help each other out. There were, of course, glances exchanged to give cues and bodily gestures to ensure synchronization. But around hour 5, when the cellist was going into yet another iteration of one of my favorite passages, the aforementioned two-note harmonic motif, he and the 1st violinist exchanged smiles. Here we go again, they seemed to say. But these smiles seemed to be uplifting to both players and the other two, who were witness to the silent exchange. One has to imagine that in rehearsing the piece, they’ve had to cheer each other up (and on), whenever the challenge seemed too daunting. But these feelings of being overwhelmed feelings must be amplified in performance when there is no possibility for pause; having once begun, there is no turning back. The audience has payed $50 a ticket and the quartet must deliver. How do the players encourage each other then? With these smiles, of course, and other signs of solidarity. I saw the 2nd violinist come to what must have been his favorite passage—or perhaps his least favorite—because he and the 1st violinist exchanged similar smiles, although this time they appeared to have been remembering a joke, something only they would have known. How else could the four members of the quartet possibly push through the mental and physical tests of endurance were they not to have each other to lean on, to offer wordless messages of hope that at some point the piece must come to an end?
Which brings me to the end. For what must have been 45 minutes, I misjudged when I believed the piece was going to end. The only marker of time I relied on was looking at the two stacks of pages on the players’ stands. On the left, those which had been played; on the right, those yet to be heard. So in the final 45 minutes of the piece I looked at the stack on the right and saw there were three pages left. My heart began to race. I was wrong. Each subsequent page turn left what I believed to be 3 pages on the right. At a certain point, I had to stop counting. It was getting distracting, but the anticipation wouldn’t leave me alone. And there did come a moment when I did, in fact, see three pages on the right. My heart began to race again. I could not control it. And I suddenly thought: What happens when it’s over? I couldn’t actually imagine not listening to this piece. It had unknowingly become my only reality. This sonic situation; this room; these other people; these four players. Could I go back to my own life? It seemed impossible. My heart beat faster, I could feel my pulse in my arms, my head. And then: there it was, the last page. I knew it because there it stood on the 1st violinist’s stand, much more crumpled and worn than the other 126, having been at the bottom of the pile for so many years. (Did I mention the piece is 127 pages long?) I could vaguely make out a date in the bottom-righthand corner that signified the page’s place as the last in the stack. The piece ends with that aforementioned oscillating motif from the cello accompanied by the rest of the quartet followed by a bar of rest. Then the motif again. Then a longer bar of rest. Then the motif again. And a final 7/4 bar of rest. So for me there were actually two moments when I thought the piece was over and I one moment when I knew the piece was over. The first bar of rest came suddenly. I had been hearing sound for so long that in that moment, silence was more shocking than any loud or unexpected noise could ever have been. My heart was pounding in my throat. Then I recalled my previous listening experience 4 years earlier, and remembered that there would be these pauses. Still, the second bar of rest felt like the end. I was anticipating the ending so much that any number of events could have signaled the end for me. That second bar came and went, and I was nearly unable to contain myself. And finally: 7/4. Nothing. No sound. All the shifting and coughing and unwrapping from the audience had ceased probably 20 minutes before. The audience was enveloped in each new moment which came and went. Nothing; I knew it had ended; I stared at the players who were all looking at something, either another player, or into their music, or at an undefined point in the room. They held their attitude for what might have been a half-minute. Their arms lowered. Our journey came to an end. And I’ve never, never in my life, smiled harder at the end of a performance. My brain felt changed, my perception seemed to have been shifted. And my question of what to do now was still unanswered. All I could manage was to stand up with the rest of the audience and applaud, still grinning, still in disbelief that this moment was wrought into existence. The four men in the center of the room seemed to want anything but applause. This was, it seemed, no time for congratulations. But what else could I as an audience member do? They must be thanked for their service. For this was not merely a performance, an experience of entertainment, but, for me at least, a life-changing afternoon/evening. I don’t know exactly what has changed about my perception of music, but I can tell you that there’s more of an urgency to create, to be prolific, than ever before. And maybe that, to change my own work habits and life-goals, is a better thank you that any amount of hand-clapping could ever be.
The audience filed out of the room, more than six hours after most of us had walked in. A few of us hung back in the lobby to shake hands with and speak to members of the quartet. I’ll share one short exchange I had with the 1st violinist, the founder of the FLUX quartet. I first expressed my sheer joy at having been a witness to the event. Then, I told him that I was very familiar with Feldman’s music, and so to be at this performance was really a treat, something that might I never be able to do again (not for not wanting to, but how many times will FLUX perform this work in a city I have access to?). Then I told him that I’m a composer. He said, “You’re from New York?” “Yes,” I said. And in his fatigued, overwhelmed, and stuttering voice he replied, “You should be in touch some time.” Perhaps he was just being nice. Or perhaps he really meant that. But I can’t tell you what that meant to me. It reminded how important the connections between creative people are, that it’s vital for creatives to encourage one another, even when a person’s work is to one’s dislike. Tom Chiu doesn’t know me or my work. That he would even suggest I contact him or submit a score for review simply means that he, too, understands the importance of these connections. And after living discouraged in New York City for a year and a half, feeling like my work hasn’t yet taken me to the places where I want to go, his kind words lifted my spirits.
Later that night, I went to FLUX’s website and found an email link under the heading “score submissions and commissions.” They’ve got an ongoing open call for scores, it seems. Tom really did want me to contact him.