A Primal Experience - In The Dark
If JACK Quartet is playing Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet no. 3 "In iij. Noct" anywhere within a six-hour drive from your location, this is something that should not be missed. In early May, the Quartet (JACK is John, Ari, Chris, and Kevin) joined me out in Seattle to perform on my chamber music series, TownMusic. For the concert we continued this season’s composer/performer theme, and had several works by members of the quartet played along with pieces that have inspired them – such as Ligeti’s Second String Quartet and Xenakis’ Tetras. I was lucky enough to join them and premiere Ari’s arrangement of five-voice madrigals by 16th Century composer Gesualdo. As expected, the concert was dynamic, powerful, and even polarizing. I’ve seen the group perform several times in the last couple of years, and from the first minute I knew they had something unique.
The unexpected treat was a concert the night before through the Chamber vs. Chamber series by Michael Hebb at the Sorrento. We partnered up to present JACK twice while in town, and when I found out they had been playing Haas’ third quartet, we immediately pursued this opportunity. The quartet is performed entirely in the dark. I imagine you’re thinking that we turn off the lights. That’s only the beginning, though. Even the smallest glow is too much, so all electronics are shut off and covered with black tape, all windows sealed, doors as well, with heavy curtains as a second barrier. In the end, you actually can not see your hand in front of your face. The effect is absolutely startling, the times that most people experience complete darkness in their life are few, if at all.
When the candles were blown out and the music started, it was almost surreal. The sounds that Haas dictated (the piece is largely improvisatory, with motives that make up games, and rules that control the pace of the different sections. Oh, and everything is memorized) become physical, and impossible to escape. Sound a little scary? At times it was! If there were photos of people in the room during different soundscapes you would see faces lifted as in rapture, tight with tension, and exploding into a myriad of strange and uninhibited expression. Every subtlety was magnified, and the more powerful sections were almost overwhelming. The auditory experience was enhanced even more by the fact that the quartet is spread out in the four corners of the room, far from each other and behind the audience.
The music? Very natural. Afterwards, as I was thinking about how I was moved, a certain sense of instinct became apparent. Haas manages to write in a language that skips conventional musical rules and gets straight to the point. JACK’s realization of these very human sounds resonated deep within, and it was easy to follow and end up in a place that felt pre-historic, wild, and raw.
This experience was more than just a crazy hour (yes, it’s a long piece, depending on how the game unfolds). I left feeling extremely connected to sound. Sometimes, when you deal every day with refinement and detail and centuries of tradition, it can be very healthy to have all of your preconceptions shaken up by something that is direct and strikes straight to the heart. Not that it’s easy; Haas is an incredibly talented and intelligent mind to be able to create such wonders. If you like your steak medium to rare, are fond of sushi, or ready to go behind the Major and minor scales and chords we cherish so much, I recommend finding a way to hear this piece live. It’s also a great break from the screen you’re staring at right now. ☺