|Morton Feldman’s String Quartet (1979) follows over a decade of compositional activity where the composer was constantly occupied with a new piece for orchestra. In the eleven years before the Quartet he produced fifteen orchestral works, beginning with On Time and the Instrumental Factor (1969) up to Violin and Orchestra (1979). In the following eight years only three orchestral works were written, The Turfan Fragments (1980), Coptic Light (1986) and For Samuel Beckett (1987). With the String Quartet, Feldman’s attention turned almost exclusively to chamber music, and particularly, to the long piece. This change, however, was not made without a certain degree of uncertainty.
The String Quartet was first performed on 4th May, 1980, by the Columbia Quartet at the Drawing Center in New York City. The performance lasted well over one and a half hours, hence the nick-name of “100 minutes” by which this piece is known. A repeat performance by the same group took place a month later during June in the Buffalo Festival. At this point Feldman seems to have hesitated, for when he returned to composing he created three works of more or less conventional length. It was not until after the first West Coast performance of the Quartet, almost a year later, that he returned to explore the long piece. The overseventy- minute Untitled Composition for cello and piano, was completed shortly thereafter, and finally, the success of Triadic Memories for solo piano, dated 23rd July, 1981, committed him fully to this new direction.
Keenly aware of the controversy surrounding the length of the Quartet from its première the year before, Feldman began his 1981 CalArts lecture by discussing the length of a minute, the moral being that even a minute can be a very long time. Although the topic that afternoon was to be the use of the Twelve-Tone Technique in Varèse’s Déserts, Feldman used the occasion to provide some insight to his own music. He characterized the String Quartet as a natural result of his work up to that time:
“Mel Powell used the word at his talk the other day, a term which I feel very important to me. The term is strategy ... I don’t like to give things a name. This is my compositional strategy, I don’t want to give things a name. If I have repetition I don’t call it repetition. It looks like repetition, it doesn’t sound like repetition ...
I would never let a student of mine put in a repeat sign. I would say, “something’s happening, what if you wanted to change your mind?”
I copy like an idiot. Until finally I put a double bar line in and I just write fifteen times, seven times, nine times. But even that became a great concession. It was really a concession to my eyes, because I want to copy my own music...
So I don’t call things a name, because I repeat things for different reasons...
For example, if we asked the question, “isn’t there a certain type of material that you can repeat and can’t repeat?” “What’s repeatable material? “You can’t just repeat...”
What I think of it now is that I’m watching some bugs on a slide, and I’m just watching how I feel .. .
So the String Quartet has a lot to do with that kind of watching and letting it go. And the reason the piece is so long is that I got into dangerous territory. I let things go…”
Feldman’s harmonic language during this time was chromatic, influenced partly by his respect and admiration for the music of Anton Webern. Feldman does not follow strict serial procedures for ordering the chromatic scale, rather he starts with a chromatic subset which he utilizes as his basic material. Typically, he works with groupings of three to eight notes (a three pitch class chromatic sequence, such as C sharp, D, E flat, serving for him as the most fundamental of building blocks.) From these pitch class groupings he realizes a musical idea through an aspect of orchestration, registration or rhythmic patterning. The result is an identifiable musical module which is brought back at various times in the course of a particular work. With each return the material is altered; sometimes this is subtle (such as a cello figure subsequently played by the violin - in the same octave). It is a modular form of construction, with an obvious debt to Stravinsky, but also to his own music from the 1950s where he composed graphic scores on a grid.
A note about tempos: scores from Feldman’s last period usually carry the tempo mark 63 to 66 (to the quarter note), indicating a slow tempo with a certain degree of fluidity. In practice he was not generally critical if the performer(s) took a slower tempo. He was equally happy, for example, with a performance of Triadic Memories which lasted over one hour as with another which lasted closer to two. His tempo marks became, as it were, a maximum limit for interpretation. This is not to suggest that there are no boundaries as to how slow a Feldman work can be performed. His interest was in creating a gradually unfolding piece where the perception of time becomes distorted. Too slow a tempo can have the opposite effect, making each component of a musical gesture seem like a major event.
Characteristic of Feldman’s sound world in his last period are the over-all soft dynamic level and a preference for instruments with simple overtone structures (such as flute, celesta, vibraphone). In string writing he often uses the mute as a way of making the complex overtone structure these instruments have, less so. The String Quartet calls for the use of mutes throughout, offering the unique string quartet timbre heard on this recording.