Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 (1983) lasts roughly five hours, about as long as the average time taken to run a marathon. The Calder Quartet, who will perform this exceedingly quiet behemoth in the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters on Saturday, is modeling its rehearsal schedule on the training program that the quartet’s violist, Jonathan Moerschel, follows to prepare to run marathons. The musicians have been experimenting with a practice of making micro-adjustments to body position in order to avoid fatigue as they play the same gesture many, many, many times. Andrew Bulbrook, one of the quartet’s violinists, recently told me that the greatest challenge is going to be the fight against gravity: To play the violin quietly the bow arm must resist the pull of gravity. To relax the arm into a bow stroke produces a sound that is much too loud for most of this vast collection of miniatures that whispers to the audience.
If you go to the Cloisters to experience this work, you are likely to pass through the Four Diagnosable Stages of Minimalism: firstly, curiosity; secondly, boredom; thirdly, anger; and finally, revelation. You can’t make it to the Fourth Stage without passing through the first three. The String Quartet No. 2 is an estranged cousin to minimalist process pieces and like them it enacts its own ritual of initiation. At times the quartet sounds, not like a finished composition, but like a record of the act of composing. This adds to the intrigue of the piece. It reminds me of the scene in Stefan Zweig’s memoir in which he visits Auguste Rodin in the studio: the conversation lulls and Rodin resumes sculpting, having forgotten that Zweig is still there. Sometimes you feel that Feldman has forgotten you — Third Stage Minimalism — but hang in there, the Fourth Stage is on its way.
Like an epic poem, the quartet captivates and lulls the listener — less grand narrative and more a carefully-sorted collection of episodes. The upcoming performance is a rare chance to binge-listen to this work, whose duration is also approximately that of a full season of a 30-minute network television program.
The titles of Feldman’s compositions tell you about the company he kept, as they enumerate his circle of friends of artists and composers: For Franz Kline (1962), The O’Hara Songs (1962), Piano Piece (to Philip Guston) (1963), For John Cage (1982), and maybe most famously, Rothko Chapel (1971). He worked nine-to-five in the family textile business in New York until he was 47, all the time wanting to be “the first great composer that is Jewish,” as he put it; he spent the last 14 years of his life as a professor of music at SUNY Buffalo. In a 1986 interview, when Feldman says, “I just want to say something very quickly,” it initiates a cascade of commentary, encompassing technical strategies of music notation, derision and praise for composers living and dead, the superior paint job on a Rolls Royce, a Bellini painting at the Frick, the Sistine Chapel, and his (lack of a) strategy for negotiating with landlords. The quartet itself is a careful unraveling of digressions. As Bulbrook said, “the experience is long enough to have memories.” Even more, it is long enough to have recollections of memories of the music while the music is still unfolding.
The game of Memory uses a deck of cards whose faces come in matching pairs; you lay out the deck in a grid, faces-down. Players take turns revealing a pair of cards. If you encounter a matching pair, you keep it. I find it helpful to listen to this work as if I was playing Memory. At 1:17:48 and 2:41:20 of the Voegler Quartet’s recording, I find matching textures that swarm like insects. I keep the pair. Feldman once explained, “I like the long pieces for the same reason you like Proust … you don’t drink it, you sip it. And you get into it—just saturated, more and more and more.” Admission to the concert is free with the pay-as-you-please museum admission, so you could just take a sip.
In this quartet, as in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, time passes. Her “Time Passes” chapter details the transformation of a house left uninhabited. The novel’s characters die parenthetical deaths as our attention is directed to how “weeds that had grown close to the glass in the night tapped methodically at the window pane” and, later, “the gentle tapping of a weed at the window had become, on winters’ nights, a drumming from sturdy trees and thorned briars.” Like the house in “Time Passes,” Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 has a way of falling back into nature. It’s uncommon to take five hours to do anything these days. This performance will steal an afternoon of your life so that, as Woolf says, it is “rescued from the pool of Time that is fast closing over.”
The Calder Quarter will perform Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 in the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Met Cloisters (99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan) on Saturday, November 12 from 11:30am–4:30pm.