Music review: Rare Morton Feldman piece at Piano Spheres

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Exactly 25 years and four weeks after its world premiere in Los Angeles, Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet came home. It is a very slow piece, a very long piece and a very, very quiet piece. And like all late Feldman scores, every performance is a special event.

Part of New Music America ’85 (a once-roving festival that landed in L.A. that year), Feldman composed the score for pianist Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet, who played it at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (once a historically hospitable home for new music).


On Tuesday night, as part of Piano Spheres in Zipper Hall at the Colburn School, Vicki Ray and the Eclipse Quartet were responsible for a spellbinding performance.

‘Spellbinding’ is practically an instruction to the players. There are essentially two aspects to the score: arpeggios (mostly in the piano) and sustained, mysterious chords (usually played by the strings). The dynamic remains pianissimo. A listener rocks on water watching the reflections or floats on a kite merging with the clouds, or … pick your own trippy metaphor. The British composer Howard Skempton describes the experience as time slipping through your fingers.

Tuesday’s performance lasted 77 minutes. It was on the quick side. While the premiere was a mere 69 minutes, Takahashi and the Kronos had slowed things down considerably by 1993, when they made their classic recording that clocks in at 80 minutes (full disclosure: I put together a collage of quotes from the composer for the notes to that Nonesuch CD). A new recording by John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet, played with ethereal quiet and stillness, slows time to a heavenly 90 minutes.

Typical of Feldman (who died in 1987 of pancreatic cancer at age 61), Piano and String Quartet uses everyday musical materials to produce a sense of something unworldly. Feldman was a tactile composer who loved design and texture. He could sew. He hung Turkish rugs on his walls and hung out with New York Abstract Expressionist painters. A heavyset man, a heavy smoker, a wise-cracker, a brilliant thinker, he was also a ladies man and the composer of the most sensual music of the American (or any other) avant garde. John Cage called Feldman’s music erotic.

In this quintet, the piano and strings remain in continual, ever-changing play. The harmonies may belie traditional musical analysis, but neurologists will surely one day discover that Feldman’s unique combinations of frequencies interact with brain waves in some marvelous manner.

Ray has had long experience with Feldman. She played with a hypnotic intensity, making each note of each arpeggio feel like the discovery of a new star. The Eclipse -- violinists Sarah Thornblade and Sara Parkins, violist Alma Lisa Fernandez and cellist Maggie Parkins –- showed sure intonation. Sometimes the strings got a little too insistent and the cello’s vibrato became overly expressive. But the quartet kept its concentration and the women made their chords sound like breaths taken, each unique but each from the same source. Near the end, the strings rock back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The piano’s arpeggios become condensed to, sometimes, a single note. This is not a dialogue but a kind of galactic musical star chart, the cosmos contracting and expanding, the gods dancing. Again, when it comes to Feldman, metaphors are for the picking.

Twenty-five years ago, KUSC broadcast the premiere of Piano and String Quartet from LACMA. Tuesday, time having marched along, Piano Spheres made a high-definition video of the concert. Both are documents worth preserving.

-- Mark Swed