TBA:13: In the Dark: The problem of perfection

Third Angle enters the darkness for Georg Haas's 'Quartet in the Dark'

Third Angle New Music string quartet plays Haas's String Quartet #3 Wednesday and Thursday nights at OMSI.

Third Angle New Music string quartet plays Haas’s String Quartet #3 Wednesday and Thursday nights at OMSI.


Last night I heard – I did not see, though I was right there – Portland’s first complete public performance of emerging Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas’s third string quartet, popularly known as the “quartet in the dark.” (It’s actually titled “In iij. Noct.”, referring to the third night of Roman Catholic services in which light is gradually extinguished.) Ambitious new music ensemble Third Angle found a venue that was visually perfect, as it were – the Planetarium at OMSI. Aurally, perhaps it was too perfect. How can that be?

The work, the better part of an hour, is indeed played in complete darkness. No exit lights, no stand lights, nothing. Cell phones must not only be silent, but kept in pockets. (There were a few surreptitious transgressions, but not enough to be seriously disturbing.) As if to emphasize the impossibility of the usual lightning visual communication typical of such groups, the musicians – violinists Ron Blessinger and Greg Ewer, violist Charles Noble, and cellist Marilyn de Oliveira – took up positions near the walls at four points of the compass, next to tiny candles which had been ceremoniously lit for the occasion. The house lights went off, the candles were blown out, and almost imperceptibly, the musicians began to play.

Haas has come up with an ingenious substitute for intricate musical conversation, which is the traditional hallmark of the string quartet and totally impractical in this context. An invitation, a distinctive musical gesture, is issued by one musician.  There is a wonderfully colorful variety of invitations – they fly off the strings in a flurry of bowing or plucking, keen ethereally with the aid of harmonics, trill mysteriously with clever bow placement, slide insinuatingly on multiple string glissandi, stutter as if struggling against too much rosin in the works, and more. One even quotes appropriate liturgical music by the Renaissance composer Gesualdo. The other musicians are free to accept an invitation by taking up the gesture in an improvisatory manner, or to counter with their own distinct invitations. (Some of the most absorbing moments can be created by conflicting invitations, which Haas encourages in his instructions.)  Once an invitation has been accepted, the others must all eventually join in, sometimes including complementary contrasting gestures as well. Eventually something happens which makes them all stop. Then a new invitation is issued and the piece continues. There are a total of eighteen invitations, and the order of them and the number of times they may be issued is mostly determined by the performers. It may sound easy to throw together, but it isn’t. For example, fine pitch control is essential in most invitations, if not ubiquitously as in a traditional string quartet. In its own way, it is a virtuosic work, and such demands were well met by Third Angle’s master musicians.

It is also a work which would have been impossible before the conceptual innovations of John Cage, though in a delicious irony, that composer would have no doubt strenuously objected to all the improvisation. One of the effects of the complete darkness was to focus all one’s attention on sound – on every sound, including the inevitable coughs and rustles, even what sounded like an attack of the hiccups which (somewhat to my impish disappointment) was quickly suppressed. These sounds wound up adding a welcome extra dimension. True, sometimes they clashed, when sustained tones flowed from the instruments. But other times, they fit right in with skittering bowings and detonating pizzicati. And a few times, it seemed that the musicians took them as cues for a change in musical direction, and those were delightful.

Working against this aesthetic, however, is the almost complete lack of echo in the Planetarium. (This is what I meant by too perfect.) After the lights went out, I leaned back in the wonderfully comfortable chair, preparing for total blissful attention to sound. But I soon sat up again because I could barely hear the very soft opening invitation! Conversely, even where Haas asks for the most powerful attacks, the volume never rose above “rather loud.”

Also, the balance was determined by how close I was to each musician. (Blessinger, who is also Third Angle’s artistic director, indirectly alluded to this problem in his entertaining initial talk, joking that they would raffle off the one perfect seat in the house – the center – for ten thousand dollars.) But imagine if the performance space were live – the echoes would, with luck, even all that out, aid audibility, and add musical continuity as well. I can think of many reasons why this venue is an excellent choice, but unfortunately the most central consideration of all, the sound, comes up a bit short. This in no way should discourage anyone from going. Just don’t get too comfortable.

The darkness focuses attention, and it also ameliorates the nearly complete lack of certain traditional musical pleasures, namely, rhythmic interest and a feeling of progressive development. Only one of the invitations features anything that could remotely be called a driving pulse, and that is specified to happen only once, near the end. And while it might be possible to arrange the invitations in an order which create a sense of progression or journey, and indeed it would would be an attractive challenge for a quartet to do just that, I got few such feelings from the order Third Angle chose. They weren’t helped by certain of the improvisations developing in an all-too-predictable way, such as glissandi which always ended on one of the other player’s pitches. The composer must bear much of the responsibility for this, of course. I was reminded of the story of a young composer asking Stravinsky what a new work of music should do. Stravinsky replied with a favorite saying of the impresario Diaghilev — “surprise me.” Reading the score shows that Haas has done much to enable the performers to do just that, yet it seems there are, and were, lapses here and there.

One might think that the many inevitable silences, which follow each accepted and elaborated invitation, would make the situation even worse, but actually their effect was almost the opposite. Unlike certain other experiments in repeated silence which frustrate and annoy, such as is found in recent work by David Lang, these whetted one’s appetite for the next invitation’s invariably welcome contrast. If the lights were on, it would be too easy to react to dull moments by distracting oneself with whatever visual interest was available, and silence might not be enough of a cue to refocus on the music. This is the ever-present risk with improvisation, and even the best of the best may now and then fall prey. In the darkness Haas has provided a safety net of sorts, to give the musicians a chance to rise and bid for our sympathetic attention again. I’m glad to report that Third Angle finished the piece full of life, nor did it seem, after all, that they had played on for too long. Indeed, only a certain natural reticence prevented me from shouting lustily for an encore. (Playing the piece twice would, in fact, just about fill up a standard classical concert slot.) Yes, there are issues here and there, but “In the Dark” is a more than worthy component of this year’s TBA festival.

“In the Dark” repeats Wednesday night at 7:30 pm and Thursday night at the witching hour.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and a board member for Cascadia Composers. He thanks March Music Moderne impresario Bob Priest for showing him the published score of this work before the concert.

One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    thanx for the enlightening review of haas’ molto misterioso 3rd sq! i soooo applaud the 4 anglers for taking on this curious piece. what a wonderful opportunity to experience this unique work in PDX – surely a highlight of the new season just barely underway . . .

    i will be going to the thursday ’round midnight offering & am soundly “looking” forward to not being able to see a damn thing!

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