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.

Snippets of String Quartet II can be found on YouTube and the complete work can be heard on earsense.

Listenability: Caution, may induce psychosis.


5 thoughts on “MORTON FELDMAN – SQ II”

  1. Postscript to below: My wife and I flew from San Francisco to LA in 2006 just to see the FLUX Quartet perform it live. It was one of the best quartet experiences (a close second would be “seeing” a performance of Georg Friedrich Haas’ third quartet, which was performed in complete darness).

  2. I wrote this blurb on for the FLUX Quartet (so why should I write a new one?):

    At first it seemed impossible: prior to 1999 (or so) the only known ensemble to perform it was the Kronos Quartet in 1983-4 (at least twice, in Toronto and Darmstadt, Germany). They were going to perform it a Feldman mini-festival in New York in 1996, but had to withdraw due to possible fatigue. Since 1999 there have been at least a few baker’s dozens of performances (there still has yet to be a performance in the San Francisco Bay area, but I did go down to LA a few years ago; it was remarkable!). Frequent enough to almost remove the word “rarely” from its performance description, but still quite a long way from reaching, say, Shostakovitch’s Eighth String Quartet proportions (thankfully (not that there’s anything wrong with Shosty 8 (there isn’t) but its overplaying and many players’ ignorance of his other fourteen quartets can almost be frustrating and annoying)).

    This is Morton Feldman’s curriculum vitae. An assemblage of “found objects”, examined and re-examined. Those familiar with Feldman’s other works will find bits and pieces from works composed immediately prior to this, including “For John Cage”, “Patterns in a Chromatic Field” (aka, the untitled composition for `cello & piano), “Three Voices”, and his first string quartet, as well as the other, shorter string quartet pieces that he wrote in the 1950’s. Feldman also loved his Schubert, insisting that the musicians play portions of it like Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet. At six hours, this piece could resemble a road trip when taken in full: you’re looking out the window, the scenery changes, some of the buildings are the same with often subtle differences, things return, unexpected things appear. In the first 2½ hours there’s a short progression of a rising four note figure followed by a falling four note figure cushioned by `cello harmonic drone that springs up now and again, acting like a segue, a divider, a curtain, a wipe of the slate, a slice of pickled ginger after a great piece of sushi, a gasp of air before diving back into the pool, a pause for station identification. (The opening “Deal Music” from Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes also came to mind.) Nothing announces its final appearance and before you know it, it has vanished. Occasionally there are some loud moments, just to keep you on your toes, but then the delicate moments return and order is restored. Some things return, sometimes verbatim with slight alterations, other times cleverly disguised but still maintaining its identity. Other things are tried out and abandoned in favor of other ideas. There is a progression of nine measures introduced part way through the third disc that gets shuffled upon its next go-around but it’s not like you are comparing one version to another. ABCDE later becomes BDCEA, then CABED (or is it the other way around, or another?). Come midway through the fourth hour, things have slowed down to a comfortable crawl, like an exhaustion was built right in, with occasional spurts of “second wind”. The four penultimate pages seem like an eternity, a summing up. Then comes the sunlight of the last page (“…the darkness has past and it’s daylight at last.” -Gilbert & Sullivan, Iolanthe). It’s morning, afternoon, night and dawn.

    Another important aspect of the Second String Quartet is time. Time does not become a factor to listening here. Like a baseball game (also with an absence of a clock), it is an escape from thinking about anything else. And something from John Cage also came to mind: I think it was from his “Lecture on Nothing” (see Silence); something like, “If anyone feels they should leave, they should go now.” But there is nothing wrong with taking this in smaller portions as well (the index points allow you to do so). It’s like looking at a selection of photographs. Or, sampling your favorite parts from a box of chocolates (no references to Forest Gump, OK?). Or, catching the highlights of a ballgame on the news: removed from its context, but substantial nevertheless (like Buster Posey hitting a three run homer, but you don’t bother to see how the two runners before him got on base). In other words, one should have a little sense of what is happening before diving in; most expectations should be well enough abandoned. But that is not hard and fast essential: again, this may sound clichéd but this more like a journey rather than a novel.

    The last thing (at least for now) that comes to mind about this Second String Quartet is the sense of tradition. The institution of the string quartet has now been in existence for over 250 years. It’s the kind of institution where one can take liberties with, and usually succeed, that other chamber formats could not pull off (if you can find it in a library, Paul Griffiths’ book, The String Quartet, A History, is an excellent tome on the subject; see the portion about Mauricio Kagel’s quartet). A work of this magnitude could never get written for, say, a string quintet (Feldman’s “Violin & String Quartet” does not really count; it is a technically a string quintet, true, but it is really more like a violin concerto accompanied by a low budget orchestra), although a string trio might receive something comparable (see LaMonte Young; and when in the heck will his string trio ever get commercially produced, or even his “Chronos Kristala” for string quartet? (sorry for the digressing and usual grousing…)). Anyway, this is the best I can talk about this Second String Quartet for now. I have listened to this many, many times, sometimes in full (a long work day can allow that), others in random portions. A piece of this enormous stature requires a different kind of listening “strategy”. There are no rules as how to properly listen to this piece, just a sense of acceptance.

  3. Good luck to you. It was performed in Australia by the Flux once but 2,000 miles away from me. It was also broadcast live on the radio. I’m always looking forward to a new, different recording. Fabulous piece, one of the most interesting in musical history.


  4. I saw the FLUX Quartet perform this at MIT earlier this year. I was a little apprehensive because I thought it might be difficult to sit for that long. As it turns out, I didn’t even get up out of my seat the entire time. The piece is phenomenal. The playing time turned out to be closer to five and a half hours, and some wags in the audience were joking around that they felt cheated. By the last hour, the players were all stretching their fingers and massaging their forearms during rests.

    I didn’t realize one of my wife’s friends was in the audience until after the concert. She said in college she used to set aside an entire day just to be able to sit and listen to the piece in its entirety. It certainly is rewarding to get sucked into its flow.

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