Charles Shere:  String Quartet


Screen (1967), En Balançant (1971), Vie Lactée (1971)

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score: large folio, available by request

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Screen was among my first and remains my most successful “graphic” score: notation which relies completely on drawn elements, rather than conventional musican notation. It was one in a number of “quartets” conceived as a series of experimental pieces investigating the concept of string-quartet playing, not as the playing of stringed instruments, or even the interpretation of that marvelous repertory of music from Haydn down through Lutoslawski, but as the act of listening to others and one’s self, playing in the moment while considering the long span, hearing and being in several places simultaneously, focussing consciously while leaving the intuitively expressive gesture free.
Of the many “quartets”in the series three turned out to be expressly for strings: Screen, En Balançant, and Vie Lactée. They were in fact ultimately combined to make a three-movement quartet, though Screen stands independent as well, and the others could theoretically be performed either singly or as a pair.
All three pieces are notated as generally horizontal systems, the marks indicating approximate pitch by their vertical distance from reference lines, approximate duration by their horizontal length, approximate loudness by their relative lightness or darkness.
Screen is intended as a sound-curtain through which something else might be heard — another composition or two, or ambient sounds, or internal songs. Screen should therefore not be too insistent. It should be fairly slow and quiet. Not too much needs to be made to happen. It is unassertive, like any linear statement. It is cool, a little formal, rather conservative, but not plain or cold. The several systems can be played forward or backward, each taking about a minute. I prefer Screen played by three to six instruments, weighted more toward violas than violins, including contrabasses too if possible. (I would like to hear it performed by a capella chorus one day, or by an ensemble of trombones.)
A recording of all three movements of the String Quartet is available from Vibedeck.

En Balançant and Vie Lactée take their names from Marcel Duchamp: they refer to elements in the Bride-region of his painting The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even; and they show up, as does Screen, in my opera to that work.
(The title Vie Lactée is an error. It should have been Voie lactée, French for “Milky Way”but a pun also on “voile actée,”acted-upon veil. But I liked the mistake, once made; it means Milky Life.)
Where Screen allows all the instruments of its ensemble to play with complete independence, En Balançant is written for two pair of stringed instruments, and Vie Lactée for a tight ensemble of four instruments.
The first performance of Screen was given in the studios of KPFA on a broadcast concert in January 1971. The other two pieces were first heard two months later, at Mills College; and the complete set of pieces were first programmed and performed as a string quartet by the Kronos Quartet in May 1980, also at Mills College.
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rev. October 8, 2001