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Morton Feldman: Structures for String Quartet (1951)

by Lejaren Hiller

The following note was originally published with the LP recording of Feldman's piece by the Concord String Quartet (The Avant Garde String Quartet in the USA, VoxBox SVBX-5306, 1973) and later re-published in the liner notes when the recording was reissued on CD (American String Quartets 1950 - 1970, VoxBox CDX 5143, 1995).

Although Morton Feldman's best-known innovation is the devising of graphical scores that permit a range of choices (of, say, pitches to be made by the performer), the present composition is not such a work. It is as fully notated as any classical quartet. In fact, it has been remarked that it could well serve as an example of how the composer himself might realise one of his graphical scores. This is precisely what Feldman actually did. He sketched out a plot of what one might call musical events (versus elapsed performance time), filling in this graph until it satisfied him. It should be understood that this was not a literal plot of, say, frequency versus time but a general guide to laying out event successions. Once this was done, Feldman then transcribed the material into a precisely notated conventional score so that performances of this piece are relatively fixed. This particular compositional technique he has only used twice, once in the present instance and once in composing, also in 1951, a piano piece for Merce Cunningham, who then choreographed it as "Variations" for solo dancer.

Structures for String Quartet turns out to be a short composition in one movement always played as quietly as possible - another Feldman specialty. The "structures" of the piece follow one another in a quite straightforward linear pattern. The opening section is pointillistic and sparse in texture. This is followed by what I will call, for lack of a better word, a series of quasi-ostinato passages. Each one of these is almost but not quite a precisely fixed ostinato of a type almost resembling a tape loop in electronic music. Four of these occur in sequence separated by short rests or simple intervening chords. A second pointillistic passage, reminiscent of the opening, appears next and this is followed by two more quasi-ostinati and a concluding section again reminiscent of the opening. The dialectic of the piece thus is one of emptiness versus density, and of irregularity versus periodicity.

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