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Invited to get lost in sound

Morton Feldman's nearly six-hour String Quartet No.2 is given a remarkable West Coast premiere performance by the Flux Quartet.

April 17, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Late Saturday afternoon, the four members of the Flux Quartet settled into their folding chairs set up in the middle of a third floor gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and began playing soft, serene, ethereal, eloquently patterned music. Five hours and forty-six minutes later, after the sun had set and warm day had turned to chilly night, they stopped.

There was no break. An audience of maybe 50 at the beginning that doubled a little later and returned again to around 50 by evening witnessed the event -- as did paintings on the walls by Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Irwin and other East and West Coast artists from the '60s and '70s.

At long last and at great length, Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 2 -- a work of legend and of indescribable beauty -- had its West Coast premiere. It was written for the Kronos Quartet in 1983, which first played it in Toronto and then a few more times in the U.S. and Europe.

Feldman's quartet is for the young. Violinists and violists must keep their bow arms suspended for nearly the full five or six hours. Dehydration is also an issue, since the players must be careful about drinking water before a performance (or during one) for obvious reasons. Such a glut of gorgeous, intensely sensuous music (the composer himself once called it "disgustingly beautiful") is produced only through pain.

For more than a decade, Kronos was the only quartet strong enough, daring enough and devoted enough to attempt Feldman's Second. But when asked in 1996 to present it at the Lincoln Center Festival, the players discovered they no longer had the physical stamina. The feisty Flux, founded in 1996 in New York, took up the dare, performing the quartet in 1999 and recording it two years later on five engrossing CDs or one DVD.

Others have come along. The Ives Ensemble, a Dutch group, also made a recording in 2001, a sleeker rendition that is squeezed onto only four CDs. Performances are hardly common, but by coincidence the Pellegrini Quartet from Germany performed the Feldman Second on Friday in Dublin as a highlight of the Irish capital's celebration of Samuel Beckett's 100th birthday April 13.

Feldman is often considered the composer closest in spirit to Beckett; the two were friends and collaborators from 1976 until Feldman's death 11 years later. Originally meant to be given at a Monday Evening Concert last month but rescheduled after one of the Flux members slightly injured his hand, Saturday's performance became L.A.'s de facto Beckett centennial highlight as well.

I'm not sure where to begin with this magical music, but I'm helped with the fact that Feldman's quartet doesn't, in the traditional sense, know where to begin -- or end -- either. This is music about time that is suspended in time, ever waiting for Godot.

Feldman's experiments with duration were radical. Almost all of his early music is shockingly short and most of his late music is scandalously long, with the Second Quartet the longest. Seemingly perverse, Feldman tended to reduce, not exaggerate the amount of musical material he put into his longest works.

This quartet consists of little more than a few dozen short and often quite simple musical ideas that are continually reworked in unpredictable ways. Everyone will hear the work differently. A small, distinctive phrase, say some sumptuous chords pressing against each other or a ghostly dance of harmonics, may not return for hours and, then, in altered form. Memory plays tricks, and after a while you are not exactly sure what is new and what isn't.

Though of epic proportions, the Feldman Second is not an epic. It is an assemblage, not a narrative. Feldman was close friends with the Abstract Expressionist painters of the '50s in New York. I wish LACMA had taken its one Philip Guston -- "The Room" -- out of storage for the occasion. Guston and Feldman had been best of buddies. But at least other friends such De Kooning, Rothko and Pollock were hanging nearby.

Turkish rugs were also a passion for the composer, and the everlasting quartet, like all Feldman's late long works, was all about painterly and rug-makerly things, such as tactile texture, stitching and design. The time scale wears down all resistance to the music. A commitment of nearly six hours in its presence means a slowing down of the metabolism of listening. In fact, everything slows down. Feldman's music is all about getting lost in the sheer physical beauty of the sound of an instrument or a pitch and of taking the time to examine it very, very closely.

The Flux was remarkable. Only its founder, first violinist Tom Chiu, remains from the original quartet that made its Feldman recording five years ago. Still, the new players were in full command until nearly the end when they began to falter ever so humanly.

I missed the incomparable spiritual dimension Kronos brought to the score, but the Flux's intensity under difficult circumstances was nonetheless inspiring. For the first four hours, the galleries were open and the Flux was forced to play through distractions. But when Feldman owned LACMA for the last two hours of the quartet, the gallery became a mystical space.

In two weeks, a heartless LACMA will boot out its Monday Evening Concerts. But Feldman's sounds will echo through its rooms of 20th century art much, much longer.

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