The late Morton Feldman's legendary monolithic string quartet finally comes to compact disc almost 20 years after it was written, and some 13 after it was debuted by the Kronos Quartet for the CBC as a live broadcast. While much of Feldman's later music is long in duration, this was his endurance test. The score is 124 pages long (Kronos performed a somewhat edited version), and is notated throughout where individual passages are to be repeated as often as 11 times. For one of Feldman's later works, tempo is varying, though it is scored for only one major change; the meters do shift from measure to measure -- as ghostly traces of intersecting statements -- so often that the work's changes in pace become nearly imperceptible. All of the classic Feldman traits are here -- at least the ones that mark his mature work -- but only more so. Here, the arrangement of musical and tonal ideas is perhaps the most "disorderly" of any piece he ever composed. The depth perception in his tonal field and the juxtaposition of different timbres in constant flux with spatial consideration were never more than partials to be extended ad infinitum. His vehement anti-systematic approach to the organization of sonic relationships was, in itself, so insistent it seemed to -- but ultimately did not -- impose a system of its own. The Ives Ensemble takes to the score with great care and control, which is what the composer insisted upon toward the later part of his life. The pages of the score fall to a cadence that strikes all traditional relationships of pitch to one another, and literally introduces new ones in the same way that the painters Feldman most admired -- Guston and Rothko -- introduced new conceptual ideas not in theory, but on the canvas. Feldman's method of assembling on the musical canvas was one where disorder was to be welcomed as a guest at the table and filled to its heart's content of whatever was available. Here sounds are composed not for their inherent relationship to themselves, one another, or the musical system, but in relationship to the hearing their utterance will cause -- hence the place of repetition and shifting metrical values. Sounds are brought to the fore, interlocuted by the voice of their chosen instrument, set in the open to be engaged -- or not -- by the other sounds being uttered, and fall away, sometimes to return to inform yet another utterance, sometimes just to disappear, their trace element having been heard and left to create their part of a series of musical shapes that would be added to or discarded throughout the rest of the work.
Feldman's masterwork also delivers on his propensity for being a trickster. None of the shapes that come into being as a result of their musical utterances are fixed; they too are illusory in the tone field. They are created by various means of notation and coloration and move in flux with the perception caused by the utterance, which is heard and then perceived as something in one hearing and something else quite different in the next. There are complex notations in the score regarding not only metrical shifts, but angularities of pitch, interruption, and identification, but they are not the work of an architect who adds to the design something that is not visible to the naked eye. Feldman's use of wildly discordant and discontinuous forms, meters, and timbres is completely audible, and readily experienced by the listener who marvels at the constancy with which his vision changes shape while never losing hold of the dynamic control that was his trademark. There is a syntax at work here over the course of some four hours and 45 minutes -- with demarcations made by Hat for the sake of identifying places in the work (its own kind of rearrangement already and arguably a discourtesy) -- but that syntax is, while articulated with great aplomb and grace by the composer and the Ives Ensemble, hardly recognizable upon one listen. This is a work that should be carefully considered for all that it introduces in terms of setting the Western system free -- finally -- of its unbroken and often unspoken restraints, while carrying forth a notion that music is a living, breathing, and speaking consideration that explores a series of relationships listeners know nothing about, but can hear plainly, delight in, and be in awe of. More than brilliant, it's almost more than human.