The illuminated exit sign has saved many a life. It's also a real hassle, a kind of curb on any performance, a reminder of the outside world that tends to inhibit total absorption.
But it can be done; you can shut off the exit sign - and with good reason if it's written in the score, as is the case with Georg Friedrich Haas's Quartet No. 3, which calls for musicians to play in a pitch-black space, and as far apart from each other as possible.
Haas's quartet has become a repertoire staple for JACK Quartet, a string quartet devoted to playing music written after 1950. They've played it for a largely elderly audience in Florida; one listener, who has mobility issues and cannot walk without assistance, reported that she felt like she was flying while listening to the piece. The New Yorker critic Alex Ross has compared the experience of hearing the piece to hearing bats echolocate in a darkened cave.
Big Car Service Center is the next stop for the Haas quartet. JACK will play the space as part of a two-day run in Indy; next Wednesday is the Big Car show, and then next Thursday they'll offer a more traditional concert experience, playing contemporary classical staples by Ligeti, Lutoslawski and Xenakis at The Toby. Both shows are part of the Ensemble Music series.
JACK Quartet cellist Kevin McFarland says he's often asked if the quartet has to memorize the music to the Haas quartet. "Yes and no," he says, because the score is demarcated into sections, each of which is structured by specific instructions that are "more like rigorous rules or structures for improvisation" than fully-notated passages.
The piece functions by means of invitations. One musician plays a musical fragment based on some kind of instruction (maybe she'll be asked to play a certain interval at a soft dynamic). Then the other players can do one of two things: ignore the invitation and remain mute, or respond in some fashion, mimicking the phrase or playing some other kind of complementary line. "Once that happens" - that is, once someone takes the bait, according to McFarland - "the whole quartet gets sucked into that section."
There are roughly 20 sections, and it takes the group around an hour to get through the piece. "[Haas] prescribes that you accept one to three out of every eight invitations, so most of the time, these invitations kind of hang there," McFarland says. There's a logic behind the structure: "The purpose is to familiarize the listener with different types of material, so that the listener can then follow the development of that material."
And, of course, it all develops in the dark. "We'll sit there during the dress rehearsal pointing out any pinpoints of light," McFarland says. "And then the music can do its work. One's listening can become more acute. We depend so much on our visual sense to understand how sounds are being produced and what we're hearing. There's a nice confusion of that. The audience will hear a lot of sounds that are unfamiliar, not those that they'd expect from a string quartet. There's also a sense that the sound seems to travel around the space, with a lot of material being passed back and forth."
The performance is preceded by a trial run where the lights are turned off for one to two minutes. After that point, those who feel they may find the performance unpleasant or nerve-wracking can take leave.
The piece's performance difficulty comes in the form of "hardcore ear training" for the players, according to McFarland, who notes that Haas is interested in exploring harmonic series, or all the frequencies (undertones, overtones, microtones) inherent in what we usually think of as single, unitary, well-tempered tone (e.g. middle C on the piano keyboard).
The JACK Quartet is committed to performing work by living composers like Haas. "If you try to make a decision about Beethoven, there are resources to figure out what the answer is in terms of interpretation," McFarland says. "But with living composers, you can ask the composer, they can tell you directly; it's the most invaluable resource for learning music that you can imagine. And I think it's important to support the work of composers that are still living so that they can be able to survive and do it for a living."
As it happens their Thursday concert at The Toby is comprised of work by composers who have all passed from this mortal coil. Still, the concert fulfills another of JACK Quartet's goals - to, quite simply, play new music. "A lot of this music gets neglected," McFarland says. "There's this idea of standard repertoire that persists at most conservatories, and what is thought of as standard repertoire is Bach up through, say, Debussy, Bartok, Shostakovich, those late 19th- and early 20th-century guys who can be still seen on the edge of a tonal framework. So we feel that it's important to play this music from a historical standpoint."
The program will open with music of the Italian Renaissance, both to serve as a tonal apertif to the harshness of the following three pieces and because, according to McFarland, the quartet likes to illustrate "how music from before the Baroque period continues to be influential on modern composers."
From there, they'll head to Lutoslawski's 1964 String Quartet, in which all the notes are written out but their timing is flexible, such that the quartet may occasionally settle into a canon (with each player is playing a line a few seconds behind or in front of the other player), before completely departing in opposite directions and by the beat of unrelated drummers.
Next up is Ligeti's String Quartet No. 2, a major piece by a composer "so influential in so many ways," says McFarland, such that "you can hear shadows of Legeti haunting" many a contemporary piece. His music, which was featured in the star child sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, is characterized by "extreme timbral variety" and "extreme rhythmic dissonance"; musicians often sound completely uncoordinated with each other, even when they're playing parts that are completely written-out and precise.
The concert closes with Iannis Xenakis's Tetras, "one of the reasons we became a quartet," according to McFarland, who describes the piece as "dynamic, brash and virtuosic," pushing the quartet to its absolute limits.