Ives Ensemble are one of today’s important ambassadors of Feldman’s later works. In November 2011 they performed the 90-minute Piano, violin, viola, cello (1987) in Felix Meritis, Amsterdam. I wrote about that impressive performance and the history of Feldman’s music on Bachtrack. Now, 11 months later, the ensemble’s string quartet proved to be amongst the most hardcore of Feldman interpreters as they took on the physical and mental challenge of performing Feldman’s five-hour (!) String Quartet II (1983). This timespan borders the physical and mental capabilities of musician and spectator.

Rutger Muller
Rutger Muller

Feldman did not compose for dramatic or narrative reasons; not for broken relationships, wild nature, fear of the dark, the grotesque war, bombastic festivity or religious tales. He “simply” tried to create his own soundworld. He masterfully shaped an indiscriminate fusion of natural calm and sensory provocation; hence the music’s mystic character. Eventually Feldman reconsidered applying some drama to his music after a major publisher advised him to do so. But Feldman responded wittily: he didn’t actually adapt his style; instead, he stretched his compositions to dramatic lengths.

Feldman’s aesthetic has a thing or two in common with the atonal movements of the early 20th century and the minimalist school of the later 20th century, but his style contrasts these movements by possessing a unique semi-tonality and by focusing less on a rhythmic pulse. Feldman found influences in the semi-symmetric patterns of Anatolian carpets and the raw shapes of abstract expressionist paintings. String Quartet II’s extreme proportions and mystic colors express a continuously and subtly morphing palette in which dark and light tones blend into a single lingering entity. The listener remains in a wondrous state of exploration as the instruments patterns interlock in a way that Feldman called “crippled symmetry”. This term refers to the way Anatolian carpets are woven by memory, leading to natural irregularities. With String Quartet II Feldman lays out a chain of patterns that atmospherically morph but seamlessly connect. The morphing of patterns is the key elements throughout the whole five hours. Feldman said: “String Quartet II is like a jigsaw puzzle that every piece you put in fits, and then when you finish it, you see that it’s not the picture... Then you do another version, and it’s not the picture. Finally you realize that you are not going to get a picture.” (Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman, ed. B.H. Friedman, Exact Change, 2004.) One could state that chronology plays no role in String Quartet II.

A small rectangular stage was placed in the center of the concert hall. Its sides were decorated with the kind of carpets Feldman loved. Vertically aligned lights in the walls covered the whole room in a calm orange glow. The quartet of Emma Breedveld, Job ter Haar, Ruben Sanderse and Josje ter Haar faced each other. Emma Haar was new to the piece, while the others had already played in concert and recorded it in 2001. The quartet remained skilfully focused throughout the whole five hours; the only traces of doubt were visible in some quick, and well deserved, muscle stretching towards the far end. For the length of the whole performance a mystically morphing Feldman atmosphere reflected through the hall. It felt like the ensemble was maneuvering a delicate ship through a gigantic sea. Calm ambient waters alternated with threatening waves that seemed abstracted from the soundtrack to Psycho. In both calm and intimidating times the view remained to posses a natural beauty.

As the boat was slowly rocking, one option was to take a nap. An opportunity that some didn’t fail to miss, as a soft snoring almost overpowered String Quartet II’s more gentle patterns. But pizzicato patterns served as a cloud of refreshingly cold raindrops. As the seascape seemed so large, time became irrelevant. Beauty became a more static phenomenon, as one visitor to the concert stated: “I became increasingly awake and conscious. I gradually realized that music and architecture essentially have much in common: the balance between freedom and structure and between tradition and innovation. As an architect, I have in any case, learned much from this work of Feldman”. String Quartet II proved to be a challenge that left me with mixed memories. Some patterns struck me, others passed me by without much realization. But it’s a magnificent achievement of both Feldman and Ives Ensemble to make this mysterious puzzle seem so logical.