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Feldman Draws Blood

by Greg Sandow

The following article first appeared in the New York weekly The Village Voice on June 16, 1980.

The most uncompromising and even shocking new-music event of the year was the premiere of Morton Feldman's String Quartet on May 4. If the classical music audience had any taste for current art, if it wanted to be challenged instead of soothed, Feldman's Quartet would have been played, several times, by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the thousands of people who would have heard it at Alice Tully Hall would have been better men and women for the experience. As it was, the quartet was presented by the Composer's Forum in Soho, at the Drawing Center, for an audience of perhaps a hundred people, some of whom fidgeted throughout the performance, or, mercifully for themselves and for everyone else, just got up and left.

My heart goes out to them, and to everyone who couldn't endure the piece. It does niggle on for an hour and a half without stopping. The players pick, poke, and peck their instruments, making tiny, scant, repeated squicks and squecks, gestures so vague that at times they might be little more than the rustling of dead leaves. Single chords are repeated ten, twelve, fifteen times. Feldman is Feldman, so the sounds are fresh and arresting, and follow each other not with logic but with a clear, intuitive purpose. Feldman's jumped here now, says the ear, and it's right. But the seconds, minutes, quarters of an hour pass: the niggling sounds grow dull, then tiring, then annoying; finally by persistence alone they begin to draw blood. At this point there are two choices. You can surrender to the piece, at the risk of pretending to like it more than you really do in order to stop the pain (much as hostages, in a well-known pattern, tend to identify with their captors), or - at the risk of throwing something valuable away only because of petty discomfort - you can reject the piece, fight back, close your mind and ears, twist around in your seat, or leave. I found myself making the first choice, and sat more quietly than I may ever have sat in my life. My companion found herself reacting the other way, and by the end of the performance was seething with anger.

Why write music like this? In remarks to the audience after the concert, Feldman was a little coy. He grinned like an overgrown brat and admitted that the quartet is all but impossible for performers and listeners. He insisted that Webern and Stravinsky ended their pieces arbitrarily, Webern at random and Stravinsky out of boredom. (That's not true, but it was interesting to see that Webern and Stravinsky are Feldman's personal classics.) He quoted himself as having said some months ago, "The last thing the world needs now is another 20-minute piece", referring to the length that's more or less standard these days for a major musical statement, and implying that other composers don't go on longer only because they don't think longer pieces are practical. But I had the feeling that his remarks about other composers were less important than his sense of his own work as a spiritual discipline. Feldman composes every day, writing in ink to make it hard for him to change his mind. He begins when he feels focused enough to trust that his ideas will be good, and stops after working a long or short time, writing much or little music - simply when he feels that his day's work is done. In writing the quartet he treated the entire piece as he would a day's work; his idea was to stop only when the music felt finished, without worrying about how long it might be. He couldn't specify how he knew when that was, but seemed to insist to himself that the length wouldn't depend on practical considerations. (Obviously he knew the piece was going to be long. Perhaps he has been frustrated before because he felt he had to keep his music short.)

* * *

The result? The quartet worked for me, I felt a structure, nonlogical but sound, underlying its great length. (I'm writing this his without having looked at a score or heard the music again on tape. The piece evoked strong reactions, and I wanted to write about mine without taking the opportunity, unavailable to most other people in the audience, of second-guessing them.) I thought I felt the end approaching when it came, but I may have been lucky; earlier in the piece I'd thought I heard the end coming, and I was wrong. I listened meditatively, but that wasn't the only way to react, since the piece was, in its quiet way, spiky and brittle, and not repetitious or smooth enough to be meditative. It demanded close attention, which was hard to maintain because the music refused to be diverting, varied, or assertive. I can understand my companion's anger.

Sometimes the piece made me think of microscopic or timeless processes, neurons clicking in the brain perhaps, patiently balancing heartbeats, wisps of thought, odd memories, and curiosity. Or Feldman's precise, persistent little gestures might have been subatomic particles, charmed and plain quarks, quietly arranging and rearranging themselves to insure that my score of Wozzeck and my typewriter and the Atlantic coastline all hold their shapes.

But most of all the Quartet made me think of Samuel Beckett. Its succession of quirky scraps reminded me of the short, unpunctuated separate utterances that make up Beckett's novel How It Is, or, with its sentences growing longer and longer, of the hundred-page final paragraph of The Unnamable. Beckett and Feldman, of course, have written an opera together; I've never heard music that better than Feldman's evokes Beckett's exhausting "chronicle of moribunds in their courses" (Beckett's own phrase, from The Unnamable):

"... the voice must belong to someone, I've no objection, what it wants I want, I am it, I've said so, it says so, from time to time it says so, then it says not, I've no objection, I want it to go silent, it wants to go silent, it can't, it does for a second, then it starts again, that's not the real silence, it says that's not the real silence, what can be said of the real silence, I don't know, that I don't know what it is, that there is no such thing, that perhaps there is such a thing, yes, that perhaps there is, somewhere, I'll never know. But when it falters and when it stops, but it falters every instant, it stops every instant, yes, but when it stops for a good few moments, a good few moments, what are a good few moments, what then, murmurs, then it must be murmurs, and listening, someone listening ..."

The performance by the Columbia String Quartet was, by the players' own admission, not entirely precise. There was not time and could not have been time for enough rehearsal. But they got through the piece honorably, which, considering the strain involved, was an achievement. Feldman was delighted with them and I was impressed, too: I admired them as practical musicians, for their concentration, technique, and stamina. If they keep the piece in their repertoire, I hope they'll get more of the unearthly tone I think it needs, and try to bring their softest playing closer to the edge of silence.

© Greg Sandow 1980

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