What was it like to hear the Jack Quartet play Georg Friedrich Haas’ In Iij. Noct.at the Austrian Cultural Forum in midtown last night in more-or-less total darkness, as the composer intended? On the most prosaic level, the ensemble performed it in stereo, mirroring how the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony incorporated the audience into their stage plot for their performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony earlier this year. In this case, cello and viola (Kevin McFarland and John Pickford Richards) were behind the audience, violins (Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld) onstage, with only the occasional twinkle from a tiny overhead light (a CO2 alarm, maybe) and a couple of orange neon fire door lights, muted and obscured from much of the sold-out crowd. In any case, it was impossible to see the performers. Were they able to make out a shadow or two in the audience? That depends on how sharp their eyesight might be.
The performance was playful, and fun, and gripping, and full of surprises, and harrowing in places. The quartet, who’ve played it a couple of dozen times, at least, have it more or less in their fingers, although the score is mostly improvised, based on a series of riffs and a brief quote from Gesualdo which surfaced about three-quarters of the way in. What was most stunning was how meticulously the group made the slow slide downward, then upward, from basic major to minor triadic harmony and then back again during one long sequence. There were flickering, irresistibly fun hide-and-seek interludes, lots of austere, acidic atmospherics that required extended technique to sustain challenging overtones and harmonics, and a couple of chillingly insistent codas that reminded of Julia Wolfe.
One might think that hearing it in such relative sensory deprivation would be a solitary experience, but that turned out to be 180 degrees the opposite. Being in the dark enhanced the sense of everybody being in the same boat. Basic questions of urban diplomacy quickly posed themselves. Why didn’t that narcissist with her paroxysms and grossness just stay home instead of sharing her sickness? Does an oniony lunchtime falafel carry through the air like the homey scent of hand sanitizer coming in on the left? If anything, an experience like this reinforces how much a little compassion, or just plain common courtesy, really make a difference at a public event.
As far as hearing the music in near pitch-blackness, we’ve all done that, at least those of us whose windows face a shaftway rather than the street. If you’ve ever drifted off to sleep with something wafting from the boombox or the turntable rather than from the glow of a phone or a laptop, with, say, a cat or a girlfriend nestled in your arms, this was somewhat more impersonal but required no less attention to the consequences of disturbing the peace.
The Austrian Cultural Forum puts on a lot of adventurous shows like this. There’s another tomorrow night, February 26 at 7:30 PM at the Czech Center 4th floor ballroom at 321 E 73rd St. featuring works by Haas performed by members of the Talea Ensemble, including the world premiere of a piece for solo trumpet, dedicated to the memory of Eric Garner, to be played by Gareth Flowers.