Concert Review: FLUX Quartet explore the effect of listening spaces

By Sian Last

The sanctuary of St. George the Martyr, home of the Music Gallery, has been transformed.  All the pews now face the centre of the space, no longer directing the viewer to the alter but rather four chairs set up in the middle of the floor washed in white light.  This luminous focal point contrasts the ceiling bathed red, yellow, pink, and green by stage lights arranged around the venue.  The pews – full and respectfully silent – wait for the show to start.

As a part of the X Avant festival, New York’s FLUX Quartet was to perform Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 (known to savvy listeners as FSQ2).  Feldman’s epic began as a two-hour performance but has slowly expanded over the years to fill six hours of playing time.  This performance, in particular, was put together with the intent of highlighting how different listening spaces affect the perception and enjoyment of music.  The performance was broadcast throughout multiple listening rooms in the venue, each with a different environment: church gallery, blanket fort, café and seating area, and enclosed garden.  U of T radio CIUT 89.5 also broadcast the performance live across Toronto.

As the musicians enter into the clearing framed by a diamond of pews, the viewers’ silence erupts into applause, which again fades as the musicians ready their instruments.

The symphony begins.  I am startled.  Minor notes resonate unsettlingly in my ears.  The music is uncomfortable and ominous.  With lucid transitions, the strings wind through measures of smooth beauty and frantic discordance.  All the while, I feel uneasy.  I envision myself in a film, the music an emotive and cinematic soundtrack.

My mind skips between the speed of the strings, my reading assignments, the musicians, the blanket fort, the lighting on the ceiling, and the people sitting around me.

Some listeners sit, eyes closed in appreciation, possibly envisioning their own films, most viewers watch the quick-fingered musicians move with their craft.  The musicians as well as the music are the focal points.  It is a performance and an experience.

After two hours, I move from my chair in the back of one of the rows of pews to the carpeted alter floor, on which I lay.  Next to me, a giant blanket fort has been set up, complete with lots of pillows, blankets, and mood lighting.  Inside, I feel sheltered and secure—more comfortable listening to the uncomfortable music.

With the start of the third hour, again I move out into the café.  Viewers take a break at candle lit tables, over which they sip tea and whisper.  The music is being piped into the room—still audible, but no longer visible.  It becomes a part of the ambience—no longer the primary concern but a part of the experience of sitting, talking, eating.

With the start of my fourth hour, I feel antsy.  I walk into the Church’s courtyard.  With the cool night air of the exterior space, the symphony becomes simply sound track.  In the open, the music weaves in and out of my consciousness, all the while informing the rate of my walk and tempo of my thoughts.  Away from other listeners, I became most conscious of my own mind and my surroundings—the temperature of the air, the rustling of trees around me, and illuminated.  It is in this environment that I find myself most connected to the character of the symphony—no longer distracted by the visual representation of its performance or its secondary nature in the café.  Outside and alone, I am unaffected by anything but my thoughts and the music—comfortable with the agitated symphony.

After another half hour, I get up from the courtyard to leave.  Exiting the church oasis the symphony fades into the sounds and lights of the busy city.  A drunken couple stumbling by singing Christmas carol drowns out the last audible notes of the hauntingly beautiful symphony.  Completely alone now, I bike home.

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