Monday, September 15, 2014

String quartet: En balançant; Screen; Vie lactée

Score: En Balançant
En balançant, for two pairs of bowed instruments (first half of the score)
Score: Screen
Screen, for four to six bowed instruments
Score: Vie lactée
Vie lactée, for any four bowed instruments (first half of the score)
I HAVE WRITTEN ONLY one string quartet. ("So far," I suppose I should add; but I think it unlikely I will ever compose another, unless it is a re-notation of this one.) But even a simple statement like this is misleading, for my String Quartet is in three movements, each of which was originally written to stand alone, and was conceived for a different kind of instrumental configuration. The three movements were only gathered into a single unit a few years later, when I needed a string quartet: and the performance I heard on that occasion so pleased me that I now find it difficult to think of the three movements as separate entities.

Throughout the late 1960s I was concentrating on the quartet idiom of instrumental concert music. Conventionally this idiom has reached its apex in the string quartet, as it developed from Haydn through (at that time) Bařtók, Cage, and Feldman. What fascinated me, in the quartet, was the ability and the necessity of each of the four musicians to remain independent, focussed on his own material, but aware of each of the other three and of the evolving product of their simultaneous work.

As you see, the music is written out in "graphic notation," which was en vague in the 1960s. I was not particularly concerned with pitches at the time I composed them: I was thinking of representing the sounds of the music as elements in a spatial analogue of the psychoacoustical dimensions in which music is heard, freeing the music from the constraints of conventional melody and harmony as they are attached to a system of pitches, allowing them to become present as the musicians more or less intuitively are led to produce them.

As already noted, Screen was the first of these three movements to be composed. The title refers to the idea that the piece could be performed simultaneously with other compositions, and heard by the audience as a sort of acoustical screen through which the other music would be filtered. Although I intended the piece to succeed if standing alone, I did in fact combine it with other pieces; it appears as an aural ingredient in the early From calls and singing for chamber orchestra and in the opera The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even and with the Variations for harp with optional chimes in another chamber piece, Voie lactée.Screen was thought of as a string quartet, but I was drawn to the string sextet configuration as well, and from the beginning intended it to work for any four to six bowed instruments. The other two movements, though, were quite specifically written for four and only four instruments, though the specific instrumentation is not determined. (On the performance whose recording is linked to this post the three movements are played on violin, viola, cello, and contrabass.)

The titles of the outer movements refer to passages in Marcel Duchamp's great painting on glass, La mariée mise à nu par ces célibataires, même, which — together with the verbal notes Duchamp assembled to accompany the painting — form the subject of the opera alluded to earlier. En balançant describes the physical state of an important part of Duchamp's upper panel, which represents the Bride as a "pendue femelle"; Vie lactée was my unintentional pun on the voie lactée (Milky Way) which spreads across the top of his painting, representing the Bride's aura.

While Screen is quite free, its ten pathways playable in any order, left to right or reversed; the outer movements are more directed. They are to be played in sequence, left to right only. En balançant presents only two pathways, and is meant to be played as a canon, the second pair entering whenever they desire. The balancing act is meant to be performed by each pair, and by the pair of pairs.

Vie lactée is even more conventional, requiring the quartet finally to play in tight ensemble, free as to the specific pitches and the relative loudness and tempo but determined by attentiveness to the score. The three movements therefore represent a sort of catalogue of quartet possibilities, ranging from the equipoise of the opening movement, through the loose lyricism of the second, to the coherent expression of the third.

I have heard a number of performances of the quartet (though many more of Screen), and I've been pleased with all of them. My favorite, though, both for its performance and for its instrumentation, is the one linked to this post. It was in fact the first performance, played in 1971 I think. I no longer have a program from the performance, which probably took place in the Berkeley concert hall 1750 Arch; and I'm not even certain of the personnel. I know the late Nathan Rubin played violin; I think Ron Erickson played viola, Tressa Adams cello, and Jedediah Denman contrabass. Perhaps someone reading this will know.

I listen to this recording every night as I fall asleep, and am surprised at how often its sounds fall together in configurations that seem new to me. This was of course the intent: to provide notation that would allow musical sounds to develop, combine, separate, adopt changed configurations, and exist completely free from anyone's ego-expressive intent. Perhaps falling asleep to the music explains my fairly rich dream life.

You can listen to it too: just click on the titles under the score pages. Let me know if it puts you pleasantly to sleep.

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