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How Four Musicians Plan to Survive the Longest String Quartet Ever Written

The Spektral Quartet is taking on a Morton Feldman piece that takes from five to six hours to perform.

Illustration by Ryan Snook
Illustration: Ryan Snook

Six hours onstage, with no intermission and rests barely long enough to sip water. Sounds more like Marina Abramović performance art than a chamber music concert. But that’s precisely what the daring local ensemble Spektral Quartet will undertake on March 11 at 6 p.m. at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago when the group performs Morton Feldman’s formidable String Quartet No. 2. Lasting somewhere between five and just over six hours, Feldman’s work is the longest in the canonical string quartet repertoire. Here, in anticipation of the performance, the four musicians detail their seven steps for survival.

Pig out

At about 4 p.m. on the day of the event, eat enough to last eight hours. Protein over carbs, which might make Feldman-induced serenity (he’s known for quiet pieces) tip over to food coma.

Stay limber

Back, shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists, fingers. Yoga positions and foam rollers. All four performers stretch regularly so day-of exercises don’t feel out of the ordinary.

Relax

One danger is what violist Doyle Armbrust calls “Feldman elbow,” or a stiffened arm caused by the extended period of playing. Between that and tricky hushed passages, violinist Maeve Feinberg says, “If you have a chance to drop a hand, take it.”

Focus

Feldman likes to play tricks on musicians, such as writing the same note in three different ways (E, D-double-sharp, and F-flat) throughout the piece. “He’s trying to keep you alert,” says cellist Russell Rolen. “He’s a little jerk.”

Stash snacks

Like hoarding squirrels, all four performers keep broken-up energy bars or crackers lined up on the music stands.

Lean in

“If we really immerse ourselves in the idea of being present,” says Clara Lyon, the other violinist, “maybe we’ll transcend time and space.”

Know where the bathroom is

And scout the fastest route for when the concert ends.

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