The Everest of modern string quartets received its Chicago premiere at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Saturday night, and Spektral Quartet gamely scaled it in a mere five hours and eight minutes.
What? That's surely a misprint.
Well, no. Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 2 (1983) is the longest such piece in the active repertory. Its title page estimates duration to be between five and one-half and six and one-half hours. That is, of continuous music, without a break.
Entertainment the work is not. Feldman was a modernist who set out to write a masterpiece on a huge scale that pressed upon the sublime. And like many masterpieces, his Second String Quartet is an ordeal for performers and listeners alike. That does not go down easily in a culture where everyone seems to have a short attention span and the impulse to entertain dominates even "serious" art. But the MCA sold out its 150 tickets, and despite many apparent no-shows, about 60 listeners stayed until the end to receive a complimentary, congratulatory "I heart Morty" headband.
The piece is a succession of fragments, generally short, strung end to end. The whole is vast though its sound is predominantly quiet and bare. The quietness is often at the absolute threshold of audibility. The bareness comes from a tone clear and dry that eschews sweetness or expressive heightening with vibrato. Many of the fragments, melodic as well as rhythmic, are repeated, with alteration and without. They also are circled around and referred to. There is no sense of the stream moving forward toward resolution or, for that matter, indicating where it will go next.
Musicians and museum attempted to make the experience somewhat easier. The performance took place not in the auditorium but at the entrance to fourth-floor galleries that remained open for visitation. Listeners were encouraged to let their minds wander, to walk around, even to lie down. Less than 20 minutes in began the perambulation; cellphones, books and water bottles came out earlier. But for all its shifting, coughing and shuffling, the audience was for the most part unobtrusive. Only rarely did noises waft up from galleries below. And, perhaps most importantly, the lack of absorptive material in the space — it was all glass, metal, drywall and stone — did not make string tone unduly hard or glassy.
Spektral had not played the work completely in one go, not even in rehearsal. Cellist Russell Rolen announced they did not know how it would turn out. Apart from creeping wooziness in the final hour, the account was more consistently sensitive to dynamics, color and nuance than on the two existing recordings — an achievement.
- Alan Artner