Last September, I sat down in the Capital Theatre in Bendigo to listen to American composer Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No.2 played by the Flux Quartet from New York. Sounds a nice way to spend an evening? Well, not exactly.
There is a reason why the work was never fully performed in the composer’s lifetime (he died in 1987, four years after composing it) and why it had never before been played in Australia … it lasts for six hours without a break.
Every page of the score is full of wonderful details, and yet the work as a whole is almost impossible to comprehend. The experience of listening to a complete performance is a very rarefied kind of torture for both audience and performers.
For composers, artists, performers, and audiences alike, such great labours are surely not undertaken merely for fun or entertainment, and we all know there are easier ways to make a living. So what is a work like this for? What is its function, or its meaning?
Experiments in time
All creative productions are played out in time. Paintings and even buildings have a duration that is only prolonged (much like human life itself) through increasingly aggressive restorative interventions.
But Feldman’s string quartet is one of a relatively small but significant class of artistic works that take performative duration to one or other extreme. In terms of inordinately lengthy duration one might think also of J.S. Bach’s two-hour long B Minor Mass (first performed more than a century after his death).
For very short duration there is the classic example of Austrian composers Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg’s miniature experiments from around 1910-1914 (in opposition to the overblown long-windedness of some other music of that era).
Today we find that pieces in varied art forms such as music, dance, cinema, and performance art have pushed the limits of duration to such a degree that the scale of a work seems beyond the capacity of humans to apprehend and pushes (or exceeds) the limits of what both performers and audiences can endure.
Duration, in such extreme situations, becomes not just an attribute of the medium but an integral material for the artist. Time is transformed from being (metaphorically) a canvas to a substance of significance, although it is not always clear what exactly is being signified.
Pushing the limits of duration
As with so many ideas in late 20th century art, one could argue that this got under way with American composer John Cage. In 1963, he organised a performance in New York of Erik Satie’s piece Vexations (c. 1893) in the belief that Satie’s ambiguous instructions suggested that the tiny composition should be played 840 times consecutively.
Satie’s little unpublished piece was thus transformed by Cage into a monumental 60s happening, loaded with his own eccentric ideologies informed by (among other things) the Zen teachings of D.T. Suzuki. Played by a relay team of pianists, the performance lasted more than 18 hours.
John Cale of The Velvet Underground was one of the pianists, and recalled that audience members paid US$5 for tickets, with a refund of 20 cents for every 20 minutes they stayed to listen.
The following year, in 1964, Andy Warhol produced his film Sleep, which lasts for five hours and 21 minutes. The first of several long-running minimalist films made by Warhol, it has often been assumed by commentators and critics to have been directly inspired by the Cage performance of Vexations.
But Warhol’s film is short in comparison to the ever-escalating durations of more recent cinematic works, such as the 10-day long Modern Times Forever (2011) by Danish group Superflex.
In performance art, we find a similarly competitive escalation in durations.
Serbian-born Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present lasted 736 hours and 30 minutes in a performance at MOMA in 2010, while New York-based Tehching Hsieh’s works expanded since the late 1970s from lasting one year to 13 years in duration.
This increase in duration was accompanied by a relative decline in violence. In the 1970s, a great deal of performance art involved the artist’s self harm or an exhibition of personal (often physical) suffering (think of Chris Burden being shot as art in 1971).
By the time of Tehching Hsieh’s 13-year work (1986-1999), he had pointedly disappeared from public view entirely, while Abramovic in The Artist is Present simply sat.
Sitting and disappearing (neither of which are as simple as they sound) became newly interesting by virtue of the extreme duration. The duration is part of the fabric of the work, as much as the artist’s activity (or non-activity).
Similar extremes, of scale if not duration, are found in visual and installation arts since the 1970s. Environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s steel and nylon Running Fence (1976) was 18 feet high and almost 25 miles long.
Photos of parts of the ephemeral work as it undulated across the Californian landscape are spectacular and beautiful, but a part is all you could ever see. The work in its entirety was too big for a single viewer to directly experience.
Repetition of materials across time or space is a key aspect of most large scale works. Vastness is built by repetition of relatively simple materials and the larger the work, the more elemental the material.
Feldman’s String Quartet No.2 is in many ways best understood in this context of art works expanding in scale and duration during this period from the 1960s through to the present. Like the works of Tehching Hsieh or Abramovic, the extreme duration transforms otherwise simple activity into something strange and powerful.
There’s a rather passive-aggressive aspect to this quiet brutality, which I suspect is as much a symptom of the times as any intent of the composer/artist.
How much discomfort is beauty worth?
A long-duration performance takes on something of a ritual significance. Beyond a certain point it ceases to be music in a conventional sense and becomes some kind of transformative ceremony, a sacrifice.
In the moment-by-moment loveliness of his music, Feldman seems to pose a question: how much discomfort is the beauty worth, and how much is too much? Here, there is no 20-cent refund. The composer laboured to produce the gigantic score, the audience suffers through it, and we watch the performers struggle on in mounting agony. Even Cage once berated Feldman for being too extreme.
I feel that the solution to understanding a work such as Feldman’s quartet lies only partly in the nature of the musical material. At a superficial level it is a protest against our diminishing attention spans, and against our technologically-induced amnesiac impatience.
In a deeper sense, whatever such long-duration art means, it must be something important for us and our society, a message that cannot be communicated to us in any other way. Words might point a way towards approaching the work, but understanding will only come through experience.
You have to be there.
Alistair Noble will convene a colloquium at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, Duration and Durability, on Saturday September 6 at 11am.