As it was the first sunny weekend of the Spring I went to Glasgow by train to hear the Smith Quartet performing Morton Feldman’s second string quartet. Our friend Marina was to have come with me, and we would all have made a weekend of it. Rather surprisingly (because although she likes avant garde music she is sometimes restless) she insisted that she had the stamina for the performance. The piece takes between four and six hours to perform, without a break. The organisers, with grim satisfaction, called the series of concerts of which it formed part ‘Minimal Extreme’ and promised Over Six Hours, twice and even on the tickets. As it turned out Marina was sick and I went by myself.
The concert was to start at three in the afternoon. I had planned to get to Glasgow about two and check into my hotel first. Unfortunately my Virgin train had issues around Crewe, so I had to go straight to the concert hall.
The hotel was named The Rennie Mackintosh. As I discovered later, there is little of the great man about it except some repro tat in the reception area, but it is comfortable and inexpensive and it is right opposite Mackintosh’s astonishing masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art, which I visited the next day.
Glasgow City Halls are also in an imposing building but it is not immediately clear where in it the music is performed; so I asked.
The six-hour concert, asked the lady, with a new respect in her eyes.
The room, although not large, was by no means full. Many of the men were of the sort that the better half calls ‘bald men with long hair’. Many of the women wore dirndls. I secured a seat near the front by the aisle. The programme said that it was permissible to come and go, quietly, but I did not intend to. I had a pee at the last possible moment, because six hours is entirely possible but not necessarily comfortable, and I settled into my seat. This had not been designed for long-term occupation. Not only that but it was free standing and there was a danger of making scraping noises if one fidgeted. A knight’s move from me and in the very front row was a bald and luxuriantly bearded man the back of whose t-shirt asserted an affiliation with Acid Mothers Temple and The Melting Paraiso UFO, which I believe is a popular singing group. I never saw the front of the t-shirt.
At three the quartet came in. They smiled at us a little sheepishly. It was the six hour thing again.
I am not naturally numerate, but it was soon apparent to me that there were eight of them. I wondered if the extra four were understudies, in case any of the quartet became exhausted, or indeed retired, in the course of the performance, but it was nothing so dramatic; they were there to turn the pages. The performing musicians were dressed as they pleased but the page-turners were all in black, possibly to indicate their lower status or, like Japanese puppet masters, to suggest schematically that they were invisible.
The music is quiet. All four instruments were muted throughout and much use is made of the scrapy sounds that you get when you bow almost on top of the bridge. I knew about that but not how the musicians got the weird high sounds, like overblows, when playing on the lower strings. Feldman exploited the instruments’ extremes. Often higher notes were coming from the viola and the cello than from the violins. He was not, however, interested in the extremes of lushness to which all three instruments can rise, and all too often do.
To start with it sounds like purposeful activity deep below you. Long meditative passages give way to scurried excursions (indicated by a quick nod from the cellist to the others) in an entirely different direction. Quite soon, of course, you are drawn in and it no longer sounds deep below, it sounds here.
About a fifth of the way in (I remembered that it was at the beginning of the second CD on the recording that I have) it got quite skittish. The cello player plucked obbligatos against chords like a jazz bassist. One of Feldman’s favourite devices is the uncertain tune and the backbeat that catches it up and overtakes it. As time went by this got rarer. There were long periods where the quartet ruminated on two notes. Acid Mothers Temple and The Melting Paraiso UFO was nodding dangerously.
One reason that it is not actually a challenge to listen to Feldman for six hours is that so much of his music replicates breathing, the in overlapping with the out.
Another analogy is the bewitched mirror that features in fairy stories or in Dr Who episodes of a certain vintage: you stand in front of it in peril of being drawn in, and if that happens, of course, nothing is ever the same again.
I never looked at my watch, although I did notice that the sky outside the window was no longer bright afternoon.
Suddenly (not that suddenly because I had seen that the cellist was on the last page of the score, but suddenly enough in the great scheme of things) it was over.
It was not six hours at all but five!
The musicians looked pleased, as well they might, and we stood up and clapped them. Again, some wag called. I went off into the night and had a burger with haggis and Black Isle beer in a bar with rock music so loud you couldn’t speak.
The Feldman is still running in my head three days later. I think that it has to be quiet and scratchy and it has to be very long. You are repeatedly surprised by moments of unearthly beauty. I’ve never heard anything like it and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.