The FLUX Quartet have masterfully laid claim to the complete string quartets of Morton Feldman, becoming legends of new music along the way. They famously premiered the integral six-hour version of String Quartet No. 2 and later recorded it as part of Mode Records’ excellent Feldman Edition (in 1999 and 2002, respectively). It stood to reason that there would eventually be a follow up to complete the cycle, and it has arrived, well worth the wait a dozen years later.
The new release, featuring Feldman’s String Quartet No. 1 (1979) with Structures (1951) and Three Pieces for String Quartet (1954-56), presents a less daunting listening task than the earlier one, and yet there is much that is epic and unprecedented in it. The set contains the full program spread over two CDs and uninterrupted on a bonus DVD, and is accompanied by composer Linda Catlin Smith’s well-informed, expressive and illustrative essay exploring the idea of Feldman as a “speculative composer.” She has a wonderful way of describing the many exquisite sounds on this recording, and distilling her insights on the mysterious realm of this music and its creator.
FLUX’s marathon live concerts of No. 2 (one of which I was fortunate to attend last year in Toronto) undoubtedly inform their approach to No. 1 and enhance the resulting interpretation. In a way, FLUX covers a six-hour range of expressive possibilities in an hour and half, reverse engineering the composer’s material to an earlier, more compact stage to great effect.
No. 1 is the second in a line of very long, single movement works (after the opera Neither) that are the hallmark of Feldman’s final decade. Of No. 1’s composition, he remarked quixotically that he was “getting rid of the audience and the performers,” to allow himself the freedom to think about massive scale as a concept.
Feldman tended to deal with extended compositional duration by stringing together self-contained, iterative segments of unrelated material in chunks of time. These are not quite a series of discontinuities as with moment form, but neither do they disregard the moment for the sake of a narrative: “I feel that the moment, the rightness of the moment, even though it might not make sense in terms of its cause and effect, is very important.”
In the gigantic second quartet, these segments are recurring ruminations on single ideas, and changing between them can feel like moving through days of the week. The length of that work far outbalances the amount of material in it, but intentionally and brilliantly so. No. 1 by comparison has a relatively compressed feeling of time and place and appears crammed with ideas. That is not to say it isn’t an expansive work – it is, and FLUX strikes a balance between senses of timelessness and dislocation, and a more directed flow of thought.
Unlike No. 2 and some other middle and late pieces, there are no episodes of suggestive tonality to contrast with Feldman’s typically atonal landscapes. This brings into relief his widely-spaced intervals, rich, piquant sonorities and a broad (though not extreme) use of register. Indeed, No. 1 is all about density, register and timbre, the basic elements of light and shadow in music, than about relative consonance or dissonance. It is also about texture and variety, and FLUX’s palette of sounds is more than up to the task. The ensemble demonstrates an innate understanding of this body of work, almost appearing to live inside of it.
There have been at least two other recordings of No. 1. I will confess to formerly having some disinterest in the piece after periodic listens over the years to The Group for Contemporary Music’s 1994 CD. The 2007 Hat Hut recording by members of the Ives Ensemble evinced a more sympathetic approach, these players being well into a decades long edition of Feldman.
Both of those releases, however, had a running time of less than 80 minutes. FLUX professes to play the piece at the correct tempo with all repeats intact. Their recording is 90 minutes long; clearly the group respects not only the composer’s intentions in the score, but his ideas about scale and form. This is the twelfth volume of Mode’s edition and takes a prominent place in a series that, while still catching up to Hat Hut’s in scope, is as strong or better in terms of performances, imagination, production, and presentation.
Produced by FLUX founder and violinist Tom Chiu, this volume is every bit as engaging as its precursor, and benefits from the collective experience and technological advances of the intervening years. It is a production of great dynamic depth; the sonics are warm and vivid, with a playful reverberation. I was unable to preview the surround sound version, but the stereo master provides a wide spatial image, capturing an intimate performance sound rich in dimension.
I hadn’t thought about Feldman having much of a low end over the years, until recent recordings such as this one and ECM’s The Viola in My Life, which highlight the composer’s string writing throughout its full frequency range.
A more literal or pronounced reading of Feldman’s complex rhythms challenges the notion that his music should float rather than step in time. FLUX has found a sweet spot in the composer’s trademark quietness, where notes are faint but not fuzzy. Early on in No. 1 there is a sun shower of pizzicatos on a single pitch, iridescent with instrumental hues.
The 1959 Columbia recording that includes Structures and Three Pieces was one of my first forays into Feldman, and it was refreshing to hear FLUX take on these short, early works having logged countless hours with their supersized late counterparts.
The six-minute long Structures begins close to Webern, with an intuited rather than systematic pointillism, Calder-like patterns, and a distant, delicate brutalism. Its tiny waltzes of pizzicatos and high harmonics suggest a mechanical bird. Here, the playing ponders the surreal and breathes real life into it.
Three Pieces has a languid quality and a rarefied texture even for Feldman. It evokes his indeterminate graphic period, although it was specifically notated. The group plays with perfect non-vibrato tone, flawless harmonics, and subtle pizzicatos. They bring an evenness of sound, a detachment that differentiates the early years from the late.
One can only imagine what the middle period string quartets would have sounded like. Instead we have a 23-year gap which saw compositions for every other type of ensemble but this one. We can more confidently hope that at some point, Mode will record 1973’s String Quartet and Orchestra with FLUX at center stage.