Slowly going to the heart of the matter: Morton Feldman’s ‘Piano and String Quartet’ by Ictus & Fumiyo Ikeda

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Once in a while a photographer takes a picture, and when he looks at that picture, he notices the presence of some ghostly figure. Someone who wasn’t in the room at all when the photo was taken. That’s what I had to think of, watching the Belgian contemporary music ensemble Ictus perform Morton Feldman‘s Piano And String Quartet (Kaaitheater, Brussels). On stage with them: Rosas veteran Fumiyo Ikeda. Was it that peculiar piece of music, or her dancing? It seemed as if she was there while not being there at all.

The story of this project began when a Canadian string quartet, the Quatuor Bozzini, contacted Fumiyo Ikeda and suggested she create a choreography for Feldman’s Piano And String Quartet, a piece the famed American composer had written in 1985. She got stuck, listening to it and turned to her Belgian friends of Ictus for help.

The stage is empty, when Ikeda and the five musicians walk towards the audience, except for the grand piano, the chairs and the music stands; all at the left hand side. The other side is empty. As the musicians start playing, I notice a funny detail: the cellist is playing barefoot. For quite a while Ikeda stays really close to the musicians. Sometimes she looks over someone’s shoulder, as if she too is reading the score. At this point, it’s all about the music.

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Only later on does Ikeda move over to the empty part of the stage. Plain white light follows her from above, shifting from left to right almost unnoticeable. At that point her dancing becomes a little bit quicker, although throughout the evening her moves will stay subtle. Sometimes one hand goes up, while the other gathers the fabric of her long skirt. She lies down, and slowly stands up again. Her two hands form a long monocular, or she slowly draws a square, in the air. At that point in the piece, the accent seems to shift, and you have the impression that for the first time the music becomes the accompaniment of her dancing.

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Although her movements are far from special, the wonderful thing is that Ikeda makes it easier for you to listen to the music, to stay focused all the while on that amazing, slow composition seeming to consist of merely tiny variations on the same basic elements. (As the renowned music critic Alex Ross wrote in a concise profile of Feldman in The New Yorker: “In confining himself to a minimum of material, Feldman discovered the expressive power of the space between the notes. The sounds animate the surrounding silence.”)

Once again, it’s an example of how you can achieve something special, by not going for something special at all. But some people find it too much to bear; the slow, repetitive music and this subtle choreography that doesn’t seem to be a choreography at all. Every now and then, the solemn atmosphere is broken by the sounds of somebody leaving the theatre.

(Actually: is IS a choreography, based on a fifteen-minute-long choreographic sentence, made up of 135 “words”, some of them linked to the body, some of them linked to animals. You’ll find more on that in an interview with Ikeda about this piece.)

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For me this was an evening of remarkable, serene beauty. I was in awe of the musicians, afterwards, and their meticulous attention for this piece of music that takes 80 minutes of their utmost concentration. A day later it was as if I was still hearing the piece breathing, feeling the violin bows slowly going up and then going down again.

In five years time I will have a discussion with someone about the evening I went to listen to Morton Feldman’s Piano And String Quartet. He or she will say: yeah, and wasn’t there a dancer as well? And I will say: I don’t think so. And however strange that sounds, that really is a compliment.

The entire interview with Fumiyo Ikeda and Jean-Luc Fafchamps (Ictus) about their collaboration here. For more on Morton Feldman, visit this website, or read Alex Ross’ interesting portrait in The New Yorker (‘American Sublime’, 2006). You’ll find an elaborate musical analysis of the Piano And String Quartet here.

 

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