This work by American composer Morton Feldman [1926–1987] must be one of the most unusual string quartets ever written. It has a precedent in his First Quartet, which points the way to the six-hour SQ II. It has a structural approach that is unique in the repertoire. I like to refer to it as a minimalist work, even though that word has never been absolutely defined, to my satisfaction at least. Also, most of the composers who have been classified as minimalists such as Reich, Glass et al are now trying to shake of the tag. In all fairness, it doesn’t apply to all of their work.
Technically the structure underpinning this quartet is straight-forward. The piece is made up of many motifs or musical phrases. Each motif is repeated a predetermined number of times before moving on to the next motif, which is again repeated. The number of repeats can vary considerably, from a small number such as 2 or 3 up to 10 times. (I’ve never counted them). Some motifs return at different points, which gives a satisfying sensation. Most however, are used only once.
I recall the first time I heard the piece. I was working in a basement office of a CD store when I came across it. To me, it really hit the spot. Strange, but beautiful. I listened to the whole piece over four discs and distinctly recall the moment where it ended. No flourish, it just stopped.
I think I have run out of words for this one. You really need to hear it to decide for yourself whether it is a musical experience that you would enjoy. There are two recorded versions, by the Ives Ensemble and the Flux SQ. I prefer the Ives’ as I find the dynamic range of the Flux too broad. At a moderate volume there are times when you can’t hear the music. Maybe that’s how Feldman wanted it …
If the above has piqued your interest, try listening to the Ives’ on Spotify. It is a little difficult to find as all of the CD covers displayed look similar, with red text on a white background. But it is there, as String Quartet II.
I feel it is important for me to reiterate – don’t buy it until you have sampled it and know what you are getting into. For me, it is a unique and beautiful experience. Having said that, I don’t listen to it very often and, if I do, it’s usually only one disc.
Both versions of the work are available. The Ives Quartet 4-CD set is on the Hat Hut label, the Flux Quartet 5-CD or 1-DVD sets are on Mode Records.
You might also like to sample the First String Quartet which exists as a fine version on a single Naxos CD. It is also on Spotify.
Listenability: Caution, may induce psychosis.