Commissioned by the Xenakis Ensemble and written in 1987, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello was Morton Feldman’s final composition, the composer dying five months almost to the day after its 7 April 1987 premiere. As with Feldman’s other late works this one is long—seventy-five minutes—and unfolds slowly and at low volume, a typically Feldmanesque paradox of outsize length and understated sound.
Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello is a peculiarly contrapuntal work, its piano and string parts being separate and largely independent of each other. There are no real melody lines to speak of; rather, the substance of the piece is contained its virtually free-standing chords and clusters of notes. Most of these are characterized by a narrowly constructed pitch space, with both parts generally limited to a constricted pitch range set out in closely voiced chords, jarringly flavored with minor seconds.
Overall, the work is a field of tensions shifting between piano, here played by Aleck Karis, and the strings (Curtis Macomber, violin; Danielle Farina, viola; Christopher Finckel, cello). This tension is partly the product of the timbral contrasts between the dampened sound of the piano and the brighter sound of the strings, the latter frequently playing keener-edged harmonics. But it also is created by the clash of dissonances of the piano on one side and the strings on the other, each part running parallel to the other with the occasional convergence in a brusque collision. The few passages in which one part echoes or mimics the other are thus oddly unsettling, the equivalent of a rhyme turning up in an epic of fragmentary free verse.
As with much of Feldman’s later work, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello appears to treat time as a vaporous object at a standstill. This comes out in the deliberate, free-seeming tempo; in the strings’ elongated tones; and in the piano chords’ long decay times. In spite of this the music does carry a sense of motion–typical of Feldman’s late works it seems lateral rather than directed forward toward a melodic or harmonic resolution. The engine behind this motion is the work’s tension-field structure, which consists in shifts between the piano and strings as foreground and background elements; timbral differences between the two voices; and the instability of the harmonies. The piano and strings are like objects alternately attracting and repelling each other; when both sound simultaneously the effect is of opposing or interfering waves. As a result time is felt as a flux, an oscillation between moments rather than as a progression.