Subject: I have found a DVD that I think you would enjoy
A long day's journey into night and back again
Sparky P. | composer, all around nice guy, yada yada yada | 01/14/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"At first it seemed impossible: prior to 1999 (or so) the only known ensemble to perform it was the Kronos Quartet in 1983-4 (at least twice, in Toronto and Darmstadt, Germany). They were going to perform it a Feldman mini-festival in New York in 1996, but had to withdraw due to possible fatigue. Since 1999 there have been at least a few baker's dozens of performances (although there still has yet to be a performance in the San Francisco Bay area). Frequent enough to almost remove the word "rarely" from its performance description, but still quite a long way from reaching, say, Shostakovitch's Eighth String Quartet proportions (thankfully (not that there's anything wrong with Shosty 8 (there isn't) but its overplaying and many players' ignorance of his other fourteen quartets can almost be frustrating and annoying)).
This is Morton Feldman's curriculum vitae. An assemblage of "found objects", examined and re-examined. Those familiar with Feldman's other works will find bits and pieces from works composed immediately prior to this, including "For John Cage", "Patterns in a Chromatic Field" (aka, the untitled composition for `cello & piano), "Three Voices", and his first string quartet, as well as the other, shorter string quartet pieces that he wrote in the 1950's. Feldman also loved his Schubert, insisting that the musicians play portions of it like [presumably, the beginning of the slow movement of] the "Death and the Maiden" string quartet. At six hours, this piece could resemble a road trip when taken in full: you're looking out the window, the scenery changes, some of the buildings are the same with often subtle differences, things return, unexpected things appear. In the first 2½ hours there's a short progression of a rising four note figure followed by a falling four note figure cushioned by `cello harmonic drone that springs up now and again, acting like a segue, a divider, a curtain, a wipe of the slate, a slice of pickled ginger after a great piece of sushi, a gasp of air before diving back into the pool, a pause for station identification. (The opening "Deal Music" from Stravinsky's Jeu de Cartes also came to mind.) Nothing announces its final appearance and before you know it, it has vanished. Occasionally there are some loud moments, just to keep you on your toes, but then the delicate moments return and order is restored. Some things return, sometimes verbatim with slight alterations, other times cleverly disguised but still maintaining its identity. Other things are tried out and abandoned in favor of other ideas. There is a progression of nine measures introduced part way through the third disc that gets shuffled upon its next go-around but it's not like you are comparing one version to another. ABCDE later becomes BDCEA, then CABED (or is it the other way around, or another?). Come midway through the fourth hour, things have slowed down to a comfortable crawl, like an exhaustion was built right in, with occasional spurts of "second wind". The four penultimate pages seem like an eternity, a summing up. Then comes the sunlight of the last page ("...the darkness has past and it's daylight at last." -Gilbert & Sullivan, Iolanthe). It's morning, afternoon, night and dawn.
Another important aspect of the Second String Quartet is time. Time does not become a factor to listening here. Like a baseball game (also with an absence of a clock), it is an escape from thinking about anything else. And something from John Cage also came to mind: I think it was from his "Lecture on Nothing" (see Silence); something like, "If anyone feels they should leave, they should go now." But there is nothing wrong with taking this in smaller portions as well (the index points allow you to do so). It's like looking at a selection of photographs. Or, sampling your favorite parts from a box of chocolates (no references to Forest Gump, OK?). Or., catching the highlights of a ballgame on the news: removed from its context, but substantial nevertheless (like Barry Bonds hitting a three run homer, but you don't bother to see how the two runners before him got on base (and no cynical references to that BALCO brouhaha)). In other words, one should have a little sense of what is happening before diving in; most expectations should be well enough abandoned. But that is not hard and fast essential: again, this may sound clichéd but this more like a journey rather than a novel.
The last thing (at least for now) that comes to mind about this Second String Quartet is the sense of tradition. The institution of the string quartet has now been in existence for over 250 years. It's the kind of institution where one can take liberties with, and usually succeed, that other chamber formats could not pull off (if you can find it in a library, Paul Griffiths' book, The String Quartet, A History, is an excellent tome on the subject; see the portion about Mauricio Kagel's quartet). A work of this magnitude could never get written for, say, a string quintet (Feldman's "Violin & String Quartet" does not really count; it is a technically a string quintet, true, but it is really more like a violin concerto accompanied by a low budget orchestra (I thank Frank Zappa for that designation)), although a string trio might receive something comparable (see LaMonte Young; and when in the heck will his string trio ever get commercially produced, or even his "Chronos Kristala" for string quartet? (sorry for the digressing and usual grousing...)). Anyway, this is the best I can talk about this Second String Quartet for now. I have listened to this many, many times, sometimes in full (a long work day can allow that), others in random portions. A piece of this enormous stature requires a different kind of listening "strategy". There are no rules as how to properly listen to this piece, just a sense of acceptance.
But, all right, all right, here is one last bon mot. Mode went the further step by releasing this piece in two formats: as a five-disc set and as a single audio DVD (the only visual on the latter is a depiction of a Persian carpet with the track markings on it) with the complete performance uninterrupted (the track markings are the same for both formats). When I heard that Mode was going to release it as a single DVD two and a half years ago (as of this writing), I could not help but remember this little tale: I saw the Kronos Quartet perform in Berkeley, CA, in September 1995. One of the items on the program was "Structures", a short piece form the early 1950's (yes, he did write shorter pieces early on in his career). After the concert, there was a Q&A with the performers and I asked if they would ever record this Second String Quartet. David Harrington, the first violinist replied, "Only if the performance is entirely on one disc!" I think Mr. Harrington finally got his wish (I hope he got his own copy)."
Among the Greatest of String Quartets
Roger Saxton | Las Cruces, New Mexico USA | 12/28/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I love string quartets. When I saw an advertisement for Feldman's first string quartet at a very reasonable price, I decided to order it. After only a few hearings, I was convinced that it was a masterpiece; and that if Feldman had written other works of the same quality, he was truly a great composer. I very quickly ordered Piano and String Quartet, Crippled Symmetry, For Samuel Beckett, and For Bunita Marcus. After listening to these compositions, I was convinced that he was indeed a great composer. It was only then that I decided to risk the money to buy the DVD of the String Quartet No. 2. In order to play the DVD I also had to buy a DVD player to hook up to my stereo system. In short, it cost me more than $100.00 to have this quartet and play it. Had I spent double the money, I would still consider it a bargain!
This is one of the few quartets that I would place beside Haydn's last eight and Beethoven's last five quartets. Superficially, it resembles minimalist music by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, but to my ears it has much more variation and subtlety. Feldman also gets a larger variety of sounds out of the four stringed instruments than I have heard in any other string quartet. For example: about four minutes into the quartet, there is a passage that sounds as if someone is tapping tuned bells with a felt mallet. How he manages to get that sound I don't know, but it is very beautiful and very effective. Though most of the quartet is played in the pianissimo range, there are also several powerful fortissimo passages. The main challenge in listening to this quartet is finding the six hours to listen to it all the way through. I have only been able to hear it once that way. Fortunately the DVD is divided into several sections, twenty- eight in all. If I am really busy, I might listen to it only an hour a day. To do this I divide it up as follows: sections 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-24, and 25-28. The most satisfactory way I have found to listen to it so far has been to divide it into two three hour listening periods: sections 1-14 and 15-28. This gives it a greater sense of continuity and allows me to concentrate more. The one time I was able to listen to it in its entirety, I found myself having to get up and do other things while it was playing. I hope to listen to it again in one sitting when I can avoid distractions.
Since I have purchased the quartet, I have listened to it over and over. For me it is addictive. Despite its huge length and the concentration demanded to benefit from it, I never tire of it. Now that I have it, I can't imagine being without it. I would recommend this quartet to anyone who loves minimalist music, the late Beethoven quartets, quartets by Webern, Schoenberg, Elliot Carter, or to anyone who wants a life changing experience.