On Saturday the Flux Quartet attempted to do something no group had ever done -- perform Morton Feldman's "seemingly unperformable" "String Quartet No. 2." The mammoth composition, considered by some to be Feldman's masterwork, runs six hours when played as written. The players are given no rest or intermission. The audience at the Great Hall in New York, however, was free to come and go throughout the piece.
At 7:40 p.m., Flux took the stage and bowed the first notes of Feldman's behemoth. About an hour into the piece, which is nearly devoid of dynamic shift or tempo change, the 300-person audience began to wither. To my right, a man took off his shoes and slid to the floor. By 10 he was gone. Dozens more filtered out. Some left and returned. Others nodded off, drifting in and out of what I imagined to be shimmering mini-dreams with soundtracks. By midnight, the audience had thinned by a third. A focused few watched the musicians. The rest let the music wash over them and fill the hall while they sketched in books, read snatches of newspaper or drifted off.
The Flux Quartet are talented New York upstarts. All four members -- violist Kenji Bunch, cellist Darrett Adkins and violinists Cornelius Dufallo and Tom Chiu -- are in their 20s. Juilliard-trained and full of downtown bravado, they like experimental music and relish going outside the classical canon. As a younger quartet, the combo is striving for recognition among several other avant-garde string performance groups, especially the 26-year-old Kronos Quartet from the Bay Area.
Kronos has played four-hour abridged versions of "Second Quartet" in the past. In 1996 the quartet promised to play the full six hours at Lincoln Center as the centerpiece of a tribute to Feldman, who died in 1987 at 61. The piece, however, was too demanding. Kronos canceled the show because members of the group began to develop problems like mental exhaustion and carpal tunnel syndrome. Soon after, Flux scheduled its own performance. Organizers offered Flux the option of having another quartet on hand to "spell" them, but the group refused. Completing it alone would be a public and artistic coup.
Well past midnight, Flux had not faltered. The music seemed to float and expand, abolishing typical notions of time and scale. Just across the river, at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Laurie Anderson was presenting clever, choreographed riffs about "Moby-Dick." But "Second Quartet," it seemed, was "Moby-Dick." And with the tenacity of Ahab and the wanderlust of Ishmael, Flux actually dared to ride the Great White.
By 1 a.m., the 75 or so listeners who remained had surrendered to the thing. They sat or stretched out on the floor in Trappist silence. As time wore on, I traversed the music listener's version of the runner's wall. Dissonant and sweet harmonic patterns shifted on the quiet surface. Plucked figures emerged and receded. There was a pulse, but little narrative or forward motion. In Feldman's universe, time needs no prodding -- it moves on its own, leaving the pure sound free to unfold. Flux bore on with amazing subtlety and control. Some passages were so quiet they almost threatened to disappear.
At 1:45 a.m., after more than six sonorous and grueling hours, Flux played the last note. The quartet had tamed an elusive beast of modern American music. Though barely a whisper, that last note was ecstatic. There was an extended moment of silence. People in the audience seemed to hold their breath, then release it in an explosion of shouts and applause. The members of the quartet rose slowly, looking vaguely stunned beneath the lights, as though they had been pulled from a dream. The applause went on and on. A voice rang out from the back -- "Encore!" -- and for the first time all evening, the members of the Flux Quartet laughed.