Last Saturday, I attended an unusual performance at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. The concert was given by the JACK Quartet, a string quartet dedicated solely to the performance and commissioning of new music works. The particular performance I went to was the JACK’s rendition of Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet, No. 3 “In iij. Noct.” I had never heard of this composer, who was born in 1953 and is still alive. I had heard of the JACK quartet, but never heard them play, either live or in a recording. My experience as an audience member was exactly that: an immersive experience.
I read before trekking downtown that the quartet was written by Haas to be performed in complete darkness--I thought, interesting. Why not? Upon arrival at the ICA Theater, I handed over my ticket, and was informed by the usher, you will not be able to leave during the performance. This foreboding message had me feeling uneasy, but I soon found out there was nothing to worry about. The audience was welcomed by a friendly ICA higher-up whose name I cannot remember. He explained exactly how everything would happen. A two-minute darkness test was administered so if any person felt truly unsafe, he or she had the opportunity to flee and receive a full reimbursement of the ticket fee. Our cordial announcer-of-the-night emphasized the locations of every exit in the theater (Haas explicitly instructed that even exit sign lights are verboten), and called our attention the presence of the ICA house managers, who had night vision goggles. These people would come and whisk us away if we absolutely could not go on in the darkness-- hold your hand up nice and high, and keep it there until someone comes to escort you out of the theater. All in all, the concept of a performance in complete darkness was risky and potentially problematic, but it seemed that the ICA team had made an effort to think through every foreseeable problem and create a solution. The JACK members filed into the theater to hearty applause. Each member proceeded to set up in a different corner of the theater. Here we go. The lights of the theater dimmed and went out.
I was not sure when the quartet began. The first minute of playing consisted only of the softest finger-tapping against the fingerboards of the instruments, one player at a time. It was almost as if I was at the ophthalmologist, getting my eyes tested by that machine that creates barely perceptible blips at random places around the screen while you stare at a predetermined point in the center (push the button if you see one). The sound kept leaving and cropping up again from a different location, causing me to question, did I really hear that? Then, abrasive, single note outbursts began to arise sporadically from the texture. This as far as I can remember chronologically into the piece. What I do remember is having some of the most coloristic and tactile experiences I’ve ever had with sound. The JACK’s very tight ensemble was showcased with some tightly-knit dovetailing of various motives--which is particularly commendable given that they were performing from memory within an intentionally improvisatory framework set up by Haas. The experience as a listener was almost like seeing light travel through a prism in slow motion, and in great detail. What I would guess was a little more than halfway through the performance, I began to experience sound as a tangible object. Every individual instrument seemed to produce a strobe of sound particles hurling at me in the darkness. I actually felt these imaginary particles hitting my face. Even when some sort of light accidentally flickered from the outside world in between the theater’s light-blocking panels, it seemed to coincide with gestures in the music, and I paid attention even more. Somewhere tucked in the work was a single phrase of highly tonal music among the otherwise atonal fabric. With all ability to look at the performers and all concepts of traditional harmony stripped away from me, that simple chord progression sounded more profound and hopeful than it would have in more ordinary circumstances. Quite near the end of the performance, the quartet executed possibly the longest and most evenly graded crescendo I have ever heard. It must have lasted for three minutes. All four players played in double stops and at different speeds, and the tension was absolutely flooring. I wasn’t sure when the crescendo peaked, but suddenly, it had become a diminuendo. The piece ended as quietly as it began. The audience was so attentive and enraptured that as long as a full minute passed between the last note played and the first few claps of applause. The ICA did not turn on the lights until the applause began--we all sat together in the dark, hypnotized, wondering if the sound had stopped or not.
It seems that more and more, performers and audiences alike are no longer content with the old-fashioned concert where performers get up on stage and just play some music. Whether it’s playing music with a film projection, playing in the dark, or making a concert interactive, the public seems to want a multimedia experience when they enter the concert hall. Maybe this is a trend or a fad, or maybe this is instrumental music’s way of catching up to the multi-faceted entertainment medium of opera. Either way, I know that the performance the JACK quartet staged was art. They, in collaboration with Haas, forced me to hear and experience reality in a new way. And that was definitely worth the trip downtown.