An afternoon (and evening) with Feldman and the FLUX String Quartet

  • Ready for the long haulThe FLUX String Quartet warms up moments before their April 21 performance of Morton Feldman's six-hour String Quartet #2 at Sadler Center.

    Jim Ducibella

    Ready for the long haul
  • ConcentrationFelix Fan (viola) and Conrad Harris (violin) prepare to perform Feldman's String Quartet #2. It was Fan's first time, an experience FLUX founder Tom Chiu called "always a journey."

    Jim Ducibella

    Concentration
  • The compositionFeldman finished his String Quartet #2 in 1983. At a time when compositions of a certain genre were expected to last a certain length of time, Feldman's goal was to break that stereotype. At six hours long, he succeeded.

    Jim Ducibella

    The composition

At first, Will Anderson sat about 15 feet behind FLUX String Quartet founder and violinist Tom Chiu.

Then he moved across from violinist Conrad Harris.

Then he pulled over a second chair and stretched out his legs.

He removed his shoes.

He removed his socks.

He leaned back.

He leaned forward.

He took out his cellphone and captured some video.

He put his shoes on, got up, and walked around the Sadler Center’s Chesapeake A Room.

He sat back down and removed his shoes again.

All the while -- five hours, 42 minutes unofficially -- Chiu, Harris, Max Mandel, and Felix Fan never took a break from Morton Feldman’s epic composition, the String Quartet #2.

And Anderson could not have been more delighted.

A 2010 University of North Carolina graduate who minored in Music, Anderson drove to William & Mary from his home in Greensboro just to hear String Quartet #2. As is the custom with #2, audience members entered and exited the performance hall.

Anderson was one of the few – maybe the only – person who witnessed the composition from start to finish.

“Feldman is my favorite composer,” he said when the performance was complete. “I’ve never had the opportunity to see him performed live.

“I debated standing and yelling, ’Encore!’ ”

He was joking.

Performances of Feldman’s String Quartet #2 are rare. According to Feldman historian Chris Villars, last week’s presentation by Chiu’s quartet was the first time the piece, completed in 1983, had been heard in Virginia. Since 1999, when Villars began keeping track of String Quartet #2 performances, the piece had been played just 31 times world-wide.

The sheer length of the piece is an obvious deterrent. Feldman wrote it at a time when audiences were accustomed to pieces of a certain genre being a prescribed length.

“Feldman wanted to break that mold, to create something that defied people’s expectations,” Chiu explained. “This is the most extreme one.”

Chiu said there’s an easy way to replicate what it feels like to play the violin for upwards of six consecutive hours: Sit at a computer and hold your right arm six to 12 inches above the keyboard from noon to 6 p.m.

“That’s the feeling,” he said.

There are tricks the performers use to combat fatigue and Mother Nature.

Violinist Mandel, who has performed the piece five times, tries to get as much sleep as possible the week leading to the show. He also tries to eat healthily; maintaining mental focus is paramount to a successful physical performance.

If possible, he swims laps and takes saunas to loosen his muscles. At W&M, he did some light jogging daily. He drinks as much coffee and water as he can when he gets up the morning of the show then stops about 90 minutes before he goes on. In general, he won’t drink any water until he is about four hours into the piece.

There’s also the pace of the piece. It is slow and it is quiet, and that makes it even more demanding to play.

“I think we are meant to be in motion; being still is not our (normal) biological state,” Chiu said. “Specifically, for the training of a musician as a child and adolescent, you’re learning these big concertos. You learn to do fast, active stuff. All of a sudden to sort of freeze is actually a lot more demanding.”

Despite more ambient noise than usual, Chiu was pleased by the performance.

“Hey, it’s all very organic,” Chiu said. “Performing this piece is not so much a concert as it is an experience. Not to the degree of (April 21) but we keep the door open, and there’s always an element of what ’might’ happen.

“People come in. They go out. We get the hard-core fans. We get those who are just curious. We get people who stay five minutes.”

And they got Anderson. In a rare scheduling quirk, FLUX will perform String Quartet #2 to close the eight-day Feldman Festival in Philadelphia on June 12. 
Having finally heard it once, Anderson was headed home to check his schedule and how long it would take to drive to Philadelphia.