Monday, April 17, 2006
The Long Good Friday
The Pelligrini Quartet take a bow after performing the marathon 5.5 hour String Quartet 2 by Morton Feldman. John Field Room, National Concert Hall, Dublin 14 April 2006.
"The point of course is to listen. There's no final information to be conveyed... Listening to this music is like looking at a star-filled night sky, anything else is material for an astronomy lesson."
Thus begins Christian Wolff's programme notes for Morton Feldman's monumental String Quartet 2 (1983), dedicated to Beckett, being performed as part of his centenary celebrations. An experience most likely never to be repeated. Five and a half hours uninterrupted. Whatever about the audience's commitment to listening, it's an incredible commitment on the part of the players. They take their places on the small stage at midday, strangely without any form of introduction for such a significant event, and, once comfortable, eye contact made, cue given, simply start playing.
I wondered how the audience, who are free to come and go, might negotiate this. I wondered how I would deal with it. I brought my lunch of course, and thought I was smart packing some reading material too. Would I really, otherwise, just sit and listen ? Well, as it happened, yes. As the work unfolded, I found time started to change shape. The first time I looked at my watch it was about 1.30pm. A whole hour and a half had gone by and it felt like 40 minutes. Regular as clockwork, my stomach was starting to grumble. Though I didn't quite want to leave for grub just yet. I was compelled by what I was hearing. However, come 2pm, I really had to exit, as my stomach was starting to soundtrack the strings (I was sitting in the front row), and I certainly didn't want to distract the players from their epic task.
I sat in the foyer and worked my way through my lunch. I then ambled out to a deserted Earlsfort Terrace, and strolled to an O'Briens at the end of the road and got a latte which I drank on the steps of the concert hall, reflecting on the strangeness of this event, and the somewhat paltry turnout (even though tickets were a mere fiver). There couldn't have been more than about 50 people there. Well, here we are, I thought, the hardcore Feldman enthusiasts, willing to go the long haul with this one.
Back inside about half an hour later, it took quite a while to really get inside the work again, to reach the level of concentration necessary. I noticed how the players would occassionally take a mint from their music stand and slip it in to their mouths. A little sugar hit for energy ? After a while you can't help but frame the music within what you are witnessing onstage: how these men can go through this so incredibly professionally. What levels of discomfort must they feel ? How do they prepare themsleves physically and psychologically ? How do they stop from getting dehydrated ?
The sense of duration and stamina becomes encoded in the music. A narrative writes itself, despite Feldman's non-linear approach. His soundworld is very pared and precise, working deliberately with a limited palette, subjecting it to minor variations over time, drawing out fresh nuances with each new configuration. The analogy with his fondness for finely patterned antique Turkish rugs with their small descrepancies is clear to see. Or rather, hear. Not wishing to overstate the case, but what he creates is profoundly beautiful and moving, without the material itself being emotional, or emotionalist.
There are moments when it feels the material is being finely hewn over time, constantly forming and reforming itself anew, till it reaches an incredibly tight pitch, as though it were a hard surface being worked up gradually to an intense shine. Burnished by bowing. Sometimes it feels like the music is taking you somewhere you're not entirely sure you want to go, certainly not in front of an audience. Superificially, it might sound depressing at points, but what it does is far more complex than that. The music works away at patterns for various durations, then takes sudden swerves in dynamic. There are some extremely quiet moments. Patterns and repetitions are constantly revisited and reworked till you think you are hearing the same thing from earlier, but can't be quite sure, the duration does things with your memory. It throws up all sorts of questions: how long do these sections actually need to be ? How many reworkings can they be subjected to ? Do we hit a point of diminishing returns ? Curiously, I never felt remotely bored.
As the afternoon wore on, I found myself really drawn in, and time seemed to slow right down at certain points. Half an hour seemed to elapse when in fact only ten minutes had. Not half as uncomfortable as I thought I'd be. My body just seemed to settle. The thought of reading now seemed, frankly, a bit silly. It would push the music into the background, I'd lose concentration. Some passages were so quiet that I daren't move let alone take something from my bag. This was a crucial aspect of the performance that gets lost in the experience of the CD: you are with it all the way through, you experience all the detail. Some passages are just lost or are too quiet to compete with other environmental sounds no matter how minimal these seem to be, even the central heating can remove a layer from this music. Headphones would be the best option of course, but ideally I don't like cutting myself off from my surroundings.
When the players reach the end, finally lifting their bows to an incredibly pregnant silence, longer than usual, as it seemed the audience were either unsure that this was definitely the end, or stunned to have actually reached the end. However, a sustained standing ovation ensues, and the quartet take a few bows. Standing chatting in the foyer afterwards, I notice the players stroll through with their violins on their backs. Some smiles are exchanged, thank yous offered, then they disappear out the door, presumably to their hotel. It all seemed so ordinary, yet it was truly extraordinary. I felt the praises of these men could not have been sung loudly enough.