December 21 2017 – This was the winter solstice; the shortest day of the year. As such, National Sawdust presented JACK Quartet performing the North American Premiere of George Friedrich Haas’s String Quartet No. 9 in complete darkness. There were two performances that evening, I opted to go to the earlier one at 7:00pm. The audience seemed to be buzzing in anticipation and full of NY musicians.
Before the performance began, I talked a little bit with one of the production people who told me the great lengths they had gone to eliminate all light in the small hall. For those that haven’t been, National Sawdust is a state of the art venue with tech everywhere – so to have to turn off every blinking light in the hall must have been quite the effort. A speech was given before the performance giving the procedure for evacuation if need be and the way someone could signal an usher if they intended to leave (by lighting up their phone so an usher can come to them). They were very careful to warn everyone to turn off their phones, even the smallest light can completely change the atmosphere of the room. Before inviting the quartet on stage, they dimmed the lights to darkness for about 30 seconds to make sure that everyone was comfortable listening for 45-50 minutes in that setting.
Above: JACK Quartet; Photo by: Shervin Lainez
After the brief test, the quartet came out on stage and sat down. The lights slowly dimmed until quite literally I could see my hand in front of my face. It was an almost oppressive darkness and no dared make a sound. To be honest, I found it claustrophobic at first and fidgeted in my chair. After a few moments of quiet, the lower strings let loose a low upward ripple that went on for about a minute or so as the upper strings began to play hushed high notes on top until the lower strings joined in this misty-eyed music.
This is not the only piece Haas has written to be performed in total darkness, there are at least two others that I have heard before. His String Quartet No. 3 is similar in concept, but the performers stand in different parts of the room. Here, the quartet is assembled in a typical formation on stage. The music in this quartet is also much less dark than I usually expect from Haas works; other pieces I’ve heard are noisy, dissonant, and disturbing. This music instead produces wondrous beauty out of microtones, savoring each slowly changing cord. The effect of being in such darkness though, is that every small shift becomes immediately apparent to the listener. Thus, after the first few minutes when the cello launches into the first major rhythmic pattern, it feels like a jump in sound. Just like turning off the lights does for the eyes, this new pattern takes a bit to settle in ears before it melts away back into the legato cords.
While similarly textured for a large amount of the piece, Haas manages to bring out extreme tone colors through his microtones. This is a study in how one can color various cords and why it is a shame the in-between notes of the scale aren’t used more often. Some of the more dramatic effects include parts that sound like a Shepard’s Tone, extreme harmonics about midway through the piece that almost sounds like glass ringing, and high pitched loudly bowed sections (reminiscent of the dramatic ending of Shostakovich’s 13th Quartet). My favorite moment was around two thirds of the way though the music when a pizzicato theme begins to take over for the first time. Here, the instruments change timbre to bring in pizzicato, but Haas plays with the listener. The pizzicato is present in all four instruments, but as it fades away it becomes ever present in the background as the music continues on. One instrument is always carrying the texture which then leads into a mixed chorale-like section, one of the most beautiful of the evening. Finally, the dissonance returns to end the work as all the stings play gather force and then quiet for one of the few bits of silence in the piece before giving one last whisper.
While beautifully rendered, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed that music as much without hearing it live and in complete darkness. Live I could hear all the small shifts and the darkness allowed a certain concentration and forced me to listen more intently. I think such music needs that kind of atmosphere, otherwise its subtleties can be easily lost. It was meditative to hear and almost trance-like. A great way to spend the darkest day of the year as my final concert before the New Year.
Dedicated to Rebecca Fiske, RIP.