In late July 1999, a little more than two months prior to the premiere, we received
the music to Morton Feldman's monumental String Quartet No. 2---four thick,
over-sized scores. We first had to establish a practical way to read and play the
piece for six continuous hours. In part due to the absence of individual parts, we
decided to all play from score, with a carefully devised plan of page-turning and
page-sliding to ensure a seamless performance.
After establishing a strategy for executing FSQ2, we proceeded to learning it,
which was not so different from learning other types of music. What is different is
its glacial scale and scope, which erased many conventional perceptions of form.
For instance, unlike the neatly packaged four-bar phrases in both old and new music,
FSQ2's melodic cells can repeat as much as thirteen times, and some sections
can last fifteen minutes or more before moving onto something new. That the piece
has clearly defined sections, which are not unlike what you might find in sonata form
or pop song structure, certainly helped us conceptualize its architecture. But the
sheer size of FSQ2 throws musical memory for a loop. In a pop song the chorus
might come back within a minute, and in sonata form the first theme usually recurs
within ten minutes; but with FSQ2, recapped sections might not occur for sixty minutes
From the perspective of string technique, playing FSQ2 requires incredible
physical stamina as well as a little bit of technical ingenuity. The length is a huge
hurdle in itself---let's face it, string players (in fact, any musician) are not trained to
play six hours without a break. Another big challenge, perhaps less obvious, is
the act of playing very quietly. It actually requires much more physical energy to
do less than more. Playing a virtuoso concerto that requires great technical agility
is actually less physically demanding then playing softly, because we are accustomed
to being in motion, not still. Downshifting both the speed and pressure of the bow
goes against many years of training. Furthermore, the suspension of the right
arm in mid-air, working against the gravitational pull of the arm's natural weight,
can become rather uncomfortable. Imagine yourself typing on a keyboard that is
positioned about one foot higher than its normal placement, and doing that for
six hours. That's what playing this piece is like for a violinist. To deal with this,
we individually experimented with our technique so we can find ways to minimize
motion and conserve energy.
As we approached the premiere, we focused more and more on the biological
challenges of the performance. Much was made about this pre-concert, including
an announcement in the Village Voice that humorously alludes to the use of
a catheter. But this feat was not only about not being able to use the toilet for six hours;
it was also about fending off dehydration and the depletion of energy. Essentially,
we needed to maximize physical energy while minimizing our depository urges.
So after having a rather large lunch shortly after noon, about six hours before
the concert, we made sure there were plenty of toilet breaks during the afternoon.
In the end, I am happy to report that a catheter was not necessary on stage. What did
accompany us to the stage, after much machismo objection, were two water bottles.
I remember clearly that on page 86 (out of 124), I was the first to finally reach down
for water during a short ten-second break. By that point, my need for hydration far
outweighed my anxieties about bladder control.
As for the performance itself, it was truly sublime. We were definitely in a zone.
The fourth, fifth, and sixth hours were brand-new terrain---not musically, but
physically. We were feeling new aches and pains, hearing increased lushness in
Feldman's harmonies, experiencing new emotions in this meditative state.
In the end, we truly felt like a lifetime had passed us by. The premier performance
of FSQ2 lasted six hours and fifteen minutes, and it was six hours and fifteen
minutes of pure bliss.