Before Tuesday night’s program, titled “In the Dark”, at Lincoln Center’s Clark Studio Theater, I found myself free from all the usual pre-concert apprehensions. Is my seat too close, too far from the stage; will the height of the person in front of me be problematic? For once, these things did not matter, as we would all soon be plunged into darkness, and the common phrase “to watch a concert” would become obsolete.

Georg Friedrich Haas
Georg Friedrich Haas

Actually, I had experienced this phenomenon once before, also at Lincoln Center. During John La Bouchardière’s production of Lera Auerbach’s opera The Blind, the audience was blindfolded before entering the performance space, and the singers moved around the listeners as other effects – scents, breezes, and electronic sounds – wafted through the room. In The Blind, somebody feeling claustrophobic or curious might peek under or even altogether remove their blindfold without disturbing the experience for anybody else. But during Georg Friedrich Haas’ 70-minute String Quartet no. 3, “In iij. Noct.”, another listener’s curiosity might disrupt the darkness and therefore the entire piece. It seemed a tremendous responsibility to place on an audience.

Luckily, before the concert started, we were subjected to a “test minute” of darkness and given the opportunity to leave; we were also discouraged from checking the time on a phone/iPad/glow-in-the-dark watch. Even more luckily, nobody panicked that I could sense. After the JACK Quartet – Ari Streisfeld, Christopher Otto, John Pickford Richards, and Kevin McFarland – filed in and settled themselves each in a separate corner of the room, the lights dimmed and the darkness went uninterrupted for the duration of the piece. At one particularly quiet point I heard someone’s stomach growl, but otherwise I found myself quite unaware of the other audience members.

The darkness was surprisingly absolute and became almost oppressive throughout the 70 minutes. But my hearing was noticeably more acute thanks to Mr Haas’s ingenuity. In the absence of visual cues, one’s anticipation is heightened, never knowing when the next sound will come, how loud or soft it will be, or from which corner of the room it will materialize. I’ve never enjoyed being read to; I like having the agency of seeing what will come next. I also have vertigo. So this experience was a bit anxiety-inducing, not being able to see my own feet, hands, anything, much less where the music was coming from.

However, I shouldn’t complain: if I was experiencing mild disorientation, so were the musicians on whom the experience hinged. I can only imagine how challenging it must have been not only to play from memory, in total darkness, but to communicate with the other musicians. According to our program, the quartet was working not necessarily from notes but words, which described 18 musical “situations”. One musician can attempt a shift to another “situation” and the other three can choose to follow, or not. Interestingly, the ebb and flow of music for the most part did not sound improvised.

It began with the slightest pitters of sounds appearing and then evaporating in the air. Even with my senses heightened, my ears were straining to hear the tiny fragments. Then, graceful overlapping tones climbed to higher and higher altitudes, with occasional plateaus of consonance or dissonance. Sometimes, the music lurched into shrieks from all corners of the room; at other times, there were more persistent ascensions as upward slides grew louder and louder. I have never heard such simple yet beautiful yet modern harmonies as I did through the middle of the quartet.

Towards the end, we heard a Carlo Gesualdo quotation as the tension escalated further. Gesualdo was a Renaissance composer and lutenist especially known for chromatic harmonies and his choral works for Tenebrae worship. Tenebrae services, held during the three days before Easter, incorporate darkness as well, albeit more gradual. The Gesualdo fragment seemed to crystallize naturally from the moments preceding, and then just as naturally liquefied back into the semi-improvised questions thrown from one corner of the room to the other. The end was a crescendo of rising, repeated notes that reached near-hysteria, followed by a decrescendo and phrases that pulsed like stars or satellites until they finally dissolved into an absolute silence to match the darkness. When the lights were slowly turned back up, I heard more than a few sighs of relief and possibly disbelief.

This was an engulfing, unique experience, made all the more so by Mr Haas’ ethereal music. I would love to get my hands on a recording of this quartet – am I allowed to listen to it with the lights on?

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