Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello was the American composer Morton Feldman’s final composition, written shortly before he died of pancreatic cancer. It is a spiritual, meditative reflection upon life itself, inexorably going towards something unknown, but always going. On Monday, the Norwegian contemporary music ensemble Cikada invited the audience along for a calm, yet uneasy exploration of sound and time.

Morton Feldman © Rob Bogaerts / Anefo
Morton Feldman
© Rob Bogaerts / Anefo

The piece – as with so much of Feldman’s other music – explores the notion of time and temporality to the extreme. Lasting over 75 minutes, it unfurls slowly, changing harmonies ever so slightly before crawling back to the starting point. At first tones and harmonies repeat and slowly metamorphose, gathering into building block-like structures. The structures start repeating, with tiny changes throughout. There was also a certain playing around with sonorities. Often the same pitch would travel around the string instruments, each time played in a slightly different way. The almost clarinet-like cello harmonics especially stood out. There was a fragility to the string instruments, most evident when they were playing alone.

The quiet loneliness of the strings, even when playing with others, was offset by the unrelenting march of the piano. Procession-like, it intoned chords, unyielding in tempo, which suddenly dissolved into broken chords and single pitches, but true to the cyclical nature of the piece, the piano soon regained its footing and continued on its march towards eternity. Notes and chords were allowed the time and space to die out before new ones took their place. As much as the piece looks at slow musical development over time, it was just as much an exploration of minute differences in sound and sonic decay.

Harmonies were dissonant, with little sense of resolution, yet there was a peaceful quality to the dissonance. The drawn-out music, with its inherent slowness, allowed the harmonies to sneak in, making the effect more calming than unsettling. Still, there was much discomfort to be found as well. Staunchly unresolved harmonies, only begrudgingly changing, left me with a sense of uneasy calm. The slow, soothing pace of the music combined with the unmoving tones, coming from nowhere, going somewhere unknown.

At such a length and because of the pervasive monotony, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello calls for and facilitates intensely focussed listening. When the music is so characterised by sameness, every new musical gesture, however small, counts. The slightest of rhythmic and harmonic variations are suddenly filled with meaning. With such awareness of sound, everything around me became part of the music, be it the tram rumbling past outside, audience members cracking their knuckles or a buzzing phone. Everything becomes part of the piece.

Towards the end came the biggest changes. Sudden pizzicatos jumping between the string instruments, the music suddenly sounding like the shadow of a waltz. A trace of movement. The piano, earlier a captive of the march-like monotony suddenly attempted to break free, striving upwards. The upward movement however, was for naught, the piano trapped in the futility of its middle range.

In the contemplative silence that followed the last notes of the piano, I could not help but feel transported. I, along with the rest of the audience, had been taken on a musical voyage, although where we had arrived was anyone’s guess. Then again, with a journey so unsettlingly beautiful, it seemed silly to worry about the destination.