Amongst a diverse array of creative programming, FLUX will be traveling to Vancouver New Music, MIT in Boston and Korea for Right N0w Music Marathon.
Seoul Korea: Curator Inhyun Kim and associate Curator Peter Robles created E to M Arts Ltd. RIGHT NOW MUSIC MARATHON featuring a new work by composer Mathew Rosenblum, the Asian Premeire, composed for FLUX QUARTET and MANTRA PERCUSSION, the Asian Premiere of Tom Chiu’s Retrocon, plus music of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Michael Gordon.
By Steve Smith GLOBE STAFF PREVIEW
“My whole generation was hung up on the 20- to 25-minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it,” the American composer Morton Feldman said by way of preface to the works he produced late in his career, most of which extended well beyond that comfort zone. Feldman, born in New York City in 1926, belonged to a generation and milieu that included fellow “New York School” mavericks John Cage, David Tudor, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff.
“Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it’s scale,” Feldman explained of his latter-day path, speaking to the noted critic John Rockwell. “Form is easy: just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter. You have to have control of the piece — it requires a heightened kind of concentration.”
A big, brusque man who composed in whisper-soft shivers, Feldman turned repeatedly in the decade before his death in 1987 to fashioning vast sonic tapestries. Inspired by Anatolian rugs and modern art by the likes of Jasper Johns and Philip Guston, he stitched minimal gestures together, repeating them and varying them minutely for an hour or considerably more, to immersive, mesmerizing effect. The most famous example — most notorious, perhaps — is the Second String Quartet (1983), a complete rendition of which runs for six continuous hours. Few ensembles have embraced the piece; the best known among them, the Flux Quartet, presents what is billed as the Boston-area premiere at MIT’s Killian Hall on Feb. 28.
Violinist Tom Chiu, who founded Flux in 1998 and first played the Feldman Second a year later, has heard more catheter quips than he cares to repeat. For the present Flux lineup, cemented in 2008 — Chiu, violinist Conrad Harris, violist Max Mandel, cellist Felix Fan — the MIT concert will be the sixth account of the work. For Chiu, who performed and recorded it with earlier Flux iterations, it’s No. 13.
“When things are good, the more you know, the better it gets,” Chiu related about his enduring acquaintance in a recent telephone interview. “A little slippery slope is that when you know [a piece] better, there’s less process of discovery. It’s interesting to see everybody else’s perspective, but for myself, I don’t think increased familiarity takes away from the piece.”
That’s not to minimize the challenges of a work that makes enormous demands in terms of physical stamina and musical strategy. Harris — speaking by phone from Florida, where he’d just achieved a personal-best time in the Miami Marathon — compared playing the piece with running a road race. “With a marathon, I think about more the mileage than the time,” he explained. “Sometimes early on, like 3 or 4 miles in, it’s like, God, 21, 22 more miles to go. And then you get over it; that feeling goes away after 10 minutes.
“When I’m in the Feldman, I think about the pages; after five, 10 pages, I’m like, I’ve still got more than 100 pages to go,” Harris said. “And then, just like in a marathon, you get over it, you get into it.” One key difference: Unlike a marathon, for which Harris wears a GPS watch to track his pace, Harris comes to Feldman without a clock to watch. “I don’t actually know how much time has passed,” he said.
But on the whole, preparation prior to any given performance is less time-intensive, Chiu said. “Because of the novelty and terrain of the unknown in the very early performances, it was like, OK, we have to do a two- or 2½-hour continuous chunk to make sure we’re able to do it, both physically and mentally.”
Now, he said, the players approach their occasional engagements to play the work — a small sliver, actually, of a busy, wide-ranging collective career —with respect, but not trepidation. “The dauntingness of it has decreased, because we know that we can do it,” Chiu said. “But as that aspect of the challenge has decreased, it’s also increased our enjoyment of the piece. If you’re not focused on the difficulty of the task, then you can step away and really be in the music.”
The piece is a single, continuous river of fragments. Brief motives, built-up clusters, swaying-pendulum harmonies are repeated but also circled, considered; rhythms and emphases shift, the modules contract and expand. An eight-note melody sporadically returns, mantra-like. Sharper sounds periodically reset the machine: a funky burst of cello pizzicato, a clutch of knife chords. The second half coalesces into longer passages, much of it settling into a lean, glacially luscious chorale. Amid the occasional callback, the last hour spins variations on isolated pairs of notes. But by then, one’s ear — and clock — have been thoroughly recalibrated.
The Flux Quartet (violinists Tom Chiu and Conrad Harris, violist Max Mandel, and cellist Felix Fan) are the current, undisputed champions of Feldman’s Second, having given the first full performance of the piece in 1999. (The 1984 premiere by the Kronos Quartet was somewhat abridged.) Friday’s reading was a touch more brisk than usual (other performances have regularly topped six hours), but was still governed by insistent calm. Their strategy for meeting the work’s challenge — absolute physical efficiency, nary a wasted movement — generated a meditative aura of internalized skill, jewel-like sounds emerging from the workshop with low-key grace.
Feldman sometimes described his working habits as a respiration between fancy and craft: As he drafted each page of a score, he said, he would immediately, meticulously copy it in ink, all the while thinking about what should come next. That open-ended, deliberately industrious rhythm pervades the Second Quartet, epitomizing the implications of Feldman’s modus operandi: The music seems to take on the exact pace and dimension of the compositional process. The extreme length ends up solemnizing the spark at the heart of that process: The players’ concentration and stamina fostered, in essence, an all-night vigil over the mysteries of creation. Painstakingly, methodically transcendent, Feldman’s Second Quartet is, in a profound sense, all in a day’s work.