Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

We Close Our Eyes

April 20, 2010

You get the idea
Photo: mine 2010

Or, Further Adventures in Concert Going. Here’s a new one. I arrive at the season-closing performance of the Monday Evening Concerts series on time and enter the hall handing over my ticket and my signed waiver form. Yes, in order to attend Monday’s program I was required to sign a waver releasing probably everyone from essentially anything that could possibly happen to me during a performance of Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet No. 3, subtitled In Iij. Noct.. The unique, and arguably risky, part of this venture is that the piece is performed in complete darkness. And by that I do not mean that the hall lights are turned off leaving only cracks of light from around door frames and the like. I mean sealed-off-in-a-coffin, can’t-tell-whether-your-eyes-are-open-or-closed total darkness for a playing time of around a hour and ten minutes.

The venturesome audience had gathered at the Neighborhood Church of the Unitarians in Pasadena. (Insert Garrison Keillor-inspired joke here.) Special permission was granted by the local fire department for all of the emergency exit light to be extinguished for the show, and a local fireman was on hand to oversee the proceedings. We were given a one minute tester of the darkness prior to the actual performance as a last warning for anyone who wanted to bail and were told that if we did want to leave during the performance, to raise our hand high in the air where it would be spotted by one of four infra-red goggle wearing volunteers who would grab us by the arm and escort us from the hall through a maze like pitch black entry passage. No, I’m not making this up.

At this point in the evening we were joined by the JACK Quartet, a rapidly rising ensemble best known for a superior recording of the Xenakis string quartets in 2009 as well as other forays into new music. The members stationed themselves in the four corners of the hall surrounding the audience, and then the lights went out. The idea, according to Haas, was to meditate on the less Romantic qualities of darkness, those associated with hopelessness and isolation. He directly references in the work’s title tenebrae masses, which are services that take place on Good Friday and Maundy Thursday of Holy Week where minimal candlelight is extinguished one step at a time until the congregation is left in darkness to represent the devastating loss with the death of Christ prior to his resurrection.

Haas’ music is indebted to the spectralists and has a floating otherworldly feel to it. My only other exposure to his work was at the world premiere of his second opera, Melancholia at the Opera National de Paris in 2008. That tale of an artist’s slip into madness had much in common with the themes of In Iij. Noct. including a lot of spiritual and physical darkness. Perhaps the most amazing quality of the string quartet though, is how powerfully it can bring about the lost art of listening. Haas’ score is divided into several sections of indeterminate length that can be repeated, elongated, or shortened by the performers. Since the players cannot see one another, or a score, to communicate, they must rely on their own sounds to cue one another. Haas notes that he intends there to be some struggle as different members suggest different directions to move in between the repeating segments of the piece. A musical discussion ensues that forms the work itself. Now, I realize that ideally listening to one another is the hallmark of any great musical ensemble of any size. But playing in the dark brings the experience to a whole new level.

Of course, this creates a new atmosphere for the audience too, as many of us not accustomed to blindness or vision impairment were challenged with really listening to the music independent of any distractions or visual cues. And despite the sadness in the music, it was also very beautiful in its own way. The JACK Quartet played splendidly and MEC once again rises to the occasion with something unique and off the beaten path.




I heard the JACK in February, playing the Xenakis quartets, and they were incredible. Wish I'd been to this performance.
This sounds like a really interesting experience which I'd like to have come to SF. Good seeing you Saturday- hope to see you in June.
Crap, I forgot this was happening. :-(

Brian, didn't your eyes adjust to the darkness after a while, making at least a murky sort of vision possible? I remember doing the whole "block every bit of light" thing with some friends, some very powerful Kona Gold and The Dark Side of the Moon in Quad back in the day and that was my experience.
The MEC people had really spared no effort to close out any and all ambient light from the space. It was really so dark that opening and closing my eyes made no difference in what I could see. At one point I went to touch my face and forgot I still had glasses on thinking I'd taken them off if I was asleep. I was actually a little nervous at first that I wouldn't be able to actually go through with it. But the size of the room reflected in the live sound helped it not feel claustrophobic.
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