Thursday, February 15, 2007
Morton Feldman: Piano and String Quartet (1985)
At 70 minutes or so, Piano and String Quartet is a stroll in the park when compared to the monumental journeys found among Feldman's late works. But scale is not so much the issue here as balance, both between the piano and the quartet and between the forward-moving continuity and the coherence of materials. Absolute coherence would be an absence of dynamic in any parameter, while a sense of continuity is maintained, perhaps paradoxically, only by the perception of change, in that one only registers and remembers differences. (Jeez, that's awfully Deleuzian. Continuity will be a topic in some upcoming posts). Feldman often worked at the minima of both forward motion and dynamic change, but his intuitive and virtuosic grasp of the lower limits is here always and scrupulously clear.
It's hard for me to imagine this played by any other musicians than Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet of the era, for whom it was written, and who premiered the piece in an unforgettable late afternoon at the County Museum of Art in Los Angeles during the New Music America festival. (I went with my father; before the concert we had spent the earlier part of the afternoon with many tens of thousands at a USC football game. Families are like that. Or at least mine is.) Takahashi can arpeggiate like no one else (the piano part, written mostly on one stave, is almost all arpeggios, both measured and unmeasured as broken chord, with a few grace notes here and there) and the Kronos brought the proper stoic dignity to their parts, in which only the cello emerges, and only then from time to time, with an identity separate from the near-anonymity of the string ensemble.
It occurs to me now that the subject of Piano and String Quartet is finding an answer to the question: "What does a broken chord break?" First of all, the chords break silences, in that age old match of violence and the sacred that Rene Girard describes best and Feldman knew even better. Second, distribution of a chord over time creates ever-new scoring patterns, both between quartet and piano, within the string ensemble, and, strategically, perhaps, between the cello and the rest. Further, the piano tones are broken in the entries against the sustained-but-metrical tones of the strings ring into indeterminant endpoints in the cloud of the constant Feldman sustain pedal; the tempered - and somewhat non-committal - tones of the piano subtly interfere with the directionality of the accidentals in the non-tempered string parts, while the strings all play into the piano's live wires over the raised pedal. This resonance, in which the quartet is effectively borrowing the piano's sustain pedal, confuses, indeed breaks the distinction between the piano and the quartet. Sometimes breaking things is a way of putting them back together.
(In San Diego in early 1987, before he played a recording of this piece to students at UCSD (Feldman had invited me to sit in on his seminar), I have the distinct recollection that Feldman called Piano and String Quartet his "favorite piece". My recollection may be wrong, but no matter: the idea that it might have been his favorite is simply impossible to dismiss.)