I used to be able to count the number of profound, live musical experiences I’ve had on one hand. It began with the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin performing an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, op. 70. The second movement was perfection, and the violin/cello duet therein left me with an indelible memory of the event. The next such performance was hearing Krystian Zimerman perform Chopin’s Ballade no. 4 in F minor, op. 52. I had heard recordings of this piece, live performances, and had even played it myself, but this was a revelation. The lessons I learned about pacing, rubato, and control from a single note in ms. 56 I’ve not forgotten.
More recently, the most stunning experiences I’ve had have been of new music: Charlemagne Palestine performing Schlingen-Blängen, hearing MAX!MAL BL!NDMAN give a concert in Belgium, and spending far too little time in La Monte Young’s Dream House. Now I’m going to have to add the JACK Quartet’s “In the Dark” concert to this rather exclusive list. I will not soon forget their performance; this program is not to be missed.
The concert was held at the ATLAS black box theater on the campus of the University of Colorado-Boulder, and was co-sponsored by Pendulum New Music and Newman Center Presents. The focal point was Georg Friedrich Hass’ (b. 1953) String Quartet No. 3, “In iij Noct,” which is to be performed entirely in the dark. In anticipation of this, and the possible difficulties that may arrive from the audience perspective, all audience members were required to sign a waiver before entering the theater. This may have been drafted by a lawyer, but from a performance perspective it was a fantastic way to introduce the music. (A ticket and signed waiver were required for the programs.) I requested a blank copy for this review, and while it is worth reading in its entirety, I’ll give just a sampling.
I acknowledge that attending a concert in total darkness is an inherently dangerous activity and I fully realize the dangers of attending this event. I fully assume the risks associated with such attendance including, by way of example, and not limitation: dangers associated with walking around or leaving the theatre in total darkness, the possibility of colliding with other audience members, walls or columns, the possibility of tripping, falling or slipping, property theft, shock from the turning on of lights at the conclusion of the concert or during an emergency, the negligence of anyone that is in any manner involved or connected with presenting the concert, and the possibility of serious physical and or mental trauma or injury, panic attacks, or claustrophobia associated with the event.
The theater was arranged in four sections, each facing toward the center of the space. After an introduction from the sponsoring organizations, the audience was treated to brief sampling of the darkness, after which, if desired, anyone could leave with a full refund. None did. We were also shown the night-vision goggles that one person would be wearing to aid in the event that someone needed to leave during the performance. Again, I know that most of this was for logistical purposes, but one cannot help but be influenced by the seriousness of this endeavor. It was as if they were saying, “You are going to be in absolute darkness for over an hour. You’ve never experienced anything like this. Do you think you can you handle it?”
Finally, the music begins, but not in darkness. The program began in the center of the space with arrangements of Gesualdo (1566-1613) madrigals by Ari Streisfeld (b. 1983), a violinist for the quartet. It was perhaps as foreign to a new-music concert as complete darkness, but it was a brilliant way to begin. The JACK Quartet performed these extremely well, with judicious use of vibrato and a purity of tone and intonation. (In a Q&A afterwards the quartet mentioned how they relied on just intonation to achieve the right sound.) The arrangements themselves were also quite well done. Having sung several of Gesualdo’s madrigals, it was a pleasure to hear that they both gave the impression of a vocal ensemble while also sounding completely idiomatic to a string quartet—a difficult balance to achieve.
Following these relatively brief pieces, the members of the quartet moved to each corner of the theater, and the lights fell. I have never known darkness like this. This wasn’t darkness in the sense of little light, but the total absence of light. It was blindness. Opening and closing my eyes changed nothing. I felt alone, and were it not for the occasional cough or shifting of audience members around me, I would have felt like the only person in the theater.
For me the concept of night is not connected with any Romantic ideas but with hopelessness and the loss of a grip on reality, with the plunging of the soul into darkness, and with the loss of utopias.
-Haas, quoted in the program notes
“In iij Noct” begins very softly, almost at the point of inaudibility. Ideas are exchanged among the players, and the audience slowly begins to settle into the experience. The initial chuckles at surprising sounds die away, and everyone enter his or her own isolated space. It is as though you can feel the audience moving from curiosity at the visual and aural experience to a place of acceptance. This is our new normal, for however long an hour+ feels to the newly blind.
The music is divided into seventeen phases, which, with the exception of one such phase, may be repeated as often as desired. Communication among members of the quartet is essential, as each has the ability to suggest moving to a new phase, and such invitations may or may not be accepted by the other members of the quartet. What is heard is an intricate dance between members of the quartet that happens in surround sound. The phases themselves vary quite a bit, though the single Gesualdo quotation is by far the most tonal. At times these phases tend more toward noises, such as a loud scratching or “clouds of pizzicatos,” but at other times intricate chords were built based on overtones or dense tritones.
This level of structured improvisation combined with the effect of pure darkness could easily move into the realm of empty effect, but in the hands of the JACK Quartet it becomes music at its finest. With pieces such as this, the burden falls on the performers to properly construct and pace the piece, and at this they excelled. Yes, their exquisite musicality and technical prowess was on full display, but their communication and trust in one another was what was astounding. Their exploration of each of these phases was spot on, and with a total length of approximately 70 minutes, they allowed each to breathe and be explored in a way that seems to happen infrequently outside of minimalism. It was a stunning concert, one that absolutely should be heard if at all possible, and one that I’ll be talking about for decades.
And it was dark. Really dark.