Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet


A major figure in 20th-century music, Morton Feldman was a pioneer of indeterminate music, a development associated with the experimental New York School of composers also including John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown. Feldman’s works are characterized by notational innovations that he developed to create his characteristic sound: rhythms that seem to be free and floating; pitch shadings that seem softly unfocused; a generally quiet and slowly evolving music; recurring asymmetric patterns. His later works, after 1977, also begin to explore extremes of duration.

If any single piece epitomizes the beauty and the hypnotic power of Morton Feldman’s final works, it is Piano and String Quartet, composed in 1985, just two years before his death. Performances generally last between 80 and 90 minutes, relatively modest by the standards of late Feldman, but the self-contained world this music creates is utterly distinctive, and the way of listening to it unique –

“Up to an hour you think about form”, Feldman once wrote, “but after an hour and a half it’s scale”.

The tempo never changes, the dynamic range is limited and the musical material scanty: rocking chords that never quite repeat exactly, long held single notes and an upward arpeggio that acts like a point of reference throughout. The composer David Lang points up the relationship between Feldman’s music and that of Webern: in Piano and String Quartet, Lang says, “you can hear Webern in the distance – in the way each gesture, each note, each phrase matters. It’s just that in Feldman’s music there are so many, many more of them.”

There have been three recordings of the work released roughly ten years apart:

  • Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet (1993)
  • Ives Ensemble (2001)
  • Vicki Ray and the Eclipse Quartet (2011)

They are all worthwhile and bring out different aspects of the work.

Vicki Ray and the Eclipse Quartet (2011)

MI0003285896This performance by pianist Vicki Ray and the Eclipse Quartet is timed at just over 79 minutes and is controlled and meticulous, so every pitch is heard clearly and in the same narrow, quiet dynamic range throughout without much variance. The point of the music is to concentrate the listener’s mind in the moment, so the piano’s widely spaced arpeggios and the string quartet’s sustained tones eventually make one forget what came before and effectively deny anticipation of what is coming, producing an effect of stasis. The piano is a little louder than the strings, and their flat, vibrato-less tones usually follow the piano almost as an echo or extension of the pitches, though they also have their turn at playing slowly broken chords. The hypnotic quality of this austerely beautiful piece inspires a transcendent stillness, so many will find it to be enjoyable as ambient music, but will find it is deeper and more complex on repeated listening. Bridge’s sound is focused and has very little background noise

“I don’t write a piece, unless it’s a large orchestra piece—I just did a piece for the New York Philharmonic and I just forgot about myself and said, “It’s a great orchestra,” and I wrote a piece for them.13 I didn’t even think about myself. But, in a sense, I don’t think about myself when I write for Paul Zukofsky, or Aki, or the Kronos either. So what I do now more than I ever did as a young composer—I mean we all write these pieces, you know. We don’t realize that all these other people had the Esterhazy Orchestra. They all heard everything they did, you know, always on Sunday as I use to say. I used to just write one piece after another, just like everybody else. But I wasn’t thinking of any groups, they were just pieces. Now I can’t write a piece unless I’m thinking of Aki, or Roger Woodward. Aki plays my music like Satie; Roger plays it like Beethoven. I’m trying to find one that goes right down the middle. And then there’s [Herbert] Henck who’s fabulous, but he plays my music too slow, and too soft. But the fact that I’m writing casted pieces now is very, very important. I write for Aki’s unbelievable devotion. She plays my music as if she’s praying, and I love and thank her for it. And then Paul, he’s craggy, cretchy, and it went into the violin concerto. The orchestra is anonymous; it’s just an orchestra. But Paul, I felt, he was doing things that only he could do.”

Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet (1993)

MI0000428026Shifting, unsettling, and yet every bit hypnotic, pianist Aki Takahashi and the world-renowned Kronos Quartet conjure up the ghost of Feldman to wander the streets of New York as if they were abandoned. This single piece, over 79 minutes in length, is like an icy flower that blooms almost undetected. Takahashi is so delicate on the piano as to whisper quiet clusters of notes, reverberated by the Kronos Quartet for further contemplation. Feldman often preferred his performances and recordings to be very quiet, almost inaudible at times. Truly, it would make no sense to play a Feldman piece at volume ten on the stereo — it would be like shining huge spotlights on a Rothko painting. The beauty is in the shadows, and the chill of “Piano and String Quartet” opens it’s vast arms and pulls the listener in alongside the darkness. Breathtaking.

Ives Ensemble  (2001)

MI0001059990Morton Feldman once called the string quartet ‘the pinnacle of Western music’, and his long-term interest in the genre certainly flourished in his later years. His 1979 String Quartet was followed first by his epic, five-hour String Quartet II (1983) and then by a series of works for solo instrument and string quartet, including ones with clarinet (1983), violin (1985) and piano (1985). Often, Feldman’s choice of these relatively conventional instrumentations contrasts markedly with the very unconventional ways in which he uses them. In Piano and String Quartet, the piano part, written in the treble clef only, is based on a rising six-note phrase, an arpeggiated chord, played pianissimo and with the sustain pedal depressed throughout. The strings, also pianissimo, play mostly sustained chords, with none of the busy internal dialogues that characterise Classical quartet-writing. Feldman composed Piano and String Quartet for Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet, who recorded it for Elektra in 1993. Their definitive performance wonderfully captures the music’s mysterious, mesmerising beauty. By comparison, this new version by the Ives Ensemble, though estimable, seems a little too earnest and clean-cut, while Hat Hut’s drier acoustic gives the sound a harder edge.

One thought on “Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet

  1. I’ve heard the Takahashi/Kronos recording which is really wonderful. I can’t imagine trying to use Beethoven-like dynamics in this music.

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