I’ve been listening to Morton Feldman’s second string quartet one movement at a time.
It’s similar to the strategy I undertook with Einstein on the Beach. The String Quartet (II) is nearly five hours long, and even with that kind of time on my hands, my media-saturated brain probably couldn’t take that much stillness in one dose.
One difference, though. I listened to Einstein in order. I’m sampling the String Quartet in shuffle mode, absorbing one of the 13 movements per sitting. It’s helping me discern the “personality” of each movement. Any one of them could be described as a light, subtle pulse, but of course there are differences — the ocean-waves patience of “XII”; the slow, neon dissonance of “IX”; the irregular rhythms of “X” and its oddball ending.
Here’s a characteristic passage: the pastoral and relatively bright strokes that begin “III”.
You know how a line on a computer screen can be so thin that you can’t quite tell what color it is? I’m getting that effect with the string pulses. At times, they don’t sound like strings at all, but like tiny puffs of horns or woodwinds. That’s especially true during passages when the notes vanish quickly, dissolving into white space. My brain is left wondering what that sound was.
The piece certainly doesn’t sound like a traditional string quartet, but with that horn illusion at work, it doesn’t even sound like a quartet of strings.
I was pleased to find that each movement does not consist of 20 minutes of the same idea. Each one is a mini-journey unto itself, going through at least two distinct phases — the surprise pizzicato section near the end of “X,” with trilly, swirly violin punctuation, is probably my favorite moment. I also didn’t expect the occasional swirls of darkness interrupting the pervasive cloudy-light mood.
What I don’t have is a feel for the large-scale narrative. Is there a trajectory here, a series of moods you’re meant to be led through? I’m suspecting not. Maybe I don’t know Feldman well enough. Or … maybe I’m doing this exactly the way I should be.