Last week my daughter and I went to Indianapolis to hear the Jack Quartet play Georg Friedrich Haas‘ String Quartet No. 3, “In iij. Nocht.” The Jack was in Indianapolis for two concerts sponsored by the Ensemble Music Society of Indianapolis, but I zeroed in on the Haas because it is a work that requires a unique presentation that cannot be easily duplicated on a recording. Lasting anywhere from 35 minutes to “significantly longer,” the performance instructions call for the work to be performed in total darkness.
Complete. Total. Darkness.
At the Big Car Service Center last week the room was appropriately prepared. I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face. Alex Ross wrote of his experience with the blackout as feeling “a fear such as I’ve never experienced in a concert hall.” It wasn’t fear that I experienced. It was disorientation, leading to complete disassociation. Without sight you lose any connection to the other audience members. It becomes a personal experience between you, the quartet, and the music.
In fact, anything that interrupted the isolation became a disturbance that you wanted to end as quickly as possible. I leaned forward and accidentally touched a coat on the chair in front of me. Suddenly I was back in a concert hall surrounded by people. I had to lean back and reëstablish my isolation. The music demanded it.
The music itself is beautiful, haunting, and tangible. It surrounds you. The performers sit in the corners of the room (not quite corners in this case, as the Service Center isn’t four-sided). Since the musicians can’t see each other, or even their own instruments, all their communication is by the music itself. The listener becomes intensely aware of this communication. Any musician may “invite” the other performers to move to a different section of the work by playing material from that section. If the other players want to move, they join the invitation musically. As the work progressed you found yourself very interested in new material being presented, wanting to know if the other players would accept or reject the invitations.
The performance is open-ended, except for the specification that a Gesualdo quote occur at the three-quarters point. Once the quote begins, the general proportion of the work is set. Performing without access to time keeping creates questions, such as how do you really know how long you’ve been playing? I talked with violinist John Pickford Richards afterwards and asked him about time. In concert they have to at least set a target duration for programming purposes. They planned on a performance that would last around 50 – 55 minutes. And they ended up with a performance right in that time period. Richards said that they frequently feel like they start the Gesualdo quote too soon, resulting in a mini-panic, but when the lights go up they find that they’ve hit their target almost all the time. A lot of it has to do with thinking of time in smaller segments, and how many repetitions fit into what amount of time. But they have also rehearsed and performed the piece so much that they have internalized the duration – which is remarkable given the time frame of the piece.
On a personal level, my daughter and I had a similar reaction to the perception of time as the audience member in this video. We felt like the piece lasted about 30 minutes, tops. Nothing near the scale of an hour. And as you can tell, I thought the piece and performance was wonderful. My 13-year-old daughter, easily the youngest person in the audience? She thought it was fantastic. Of course, she is a violinist, and daughter of two musicians, and she frequently attends concerts of everything from Bach to experimental computer music. But my happiness comes from her having such an open and adventurous mind. She begged to go to this concert with me, and we were both glad she did.