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Every now and then I reread some of my old reviews and come across phrases like “once-in-a-lifetime concert,” “unique” and even “life changing.” Without a doubt those were all appropriately applied and I have been fortunate to have attended concerts, plays and multi-media events that have held me in awe, admiration and sometimes near disbelief. However, until today, I have never experienced anything quite like what was presented at Duke’s Shaefer Theater, a “black box” theater that is very rarely used for a purely musical event. The JACK string quartet had played a more-or-less traditional concert the night before at Reynolds Theater, a floor above in the Bryan Center, but on this late Sunday afternoon minds were intended to be blown, and indeed this writer’s was.
JACK Quartet is a young but already internationally applauded ensemble whose name is an acronym of the first letter of the first name of its members: John Pickford Richards, viola, Ari Streisfeld, violin, Christopher Otto, violin, and Kevin McFarland, cello. In their relatively brief existence they have commissioned and premiered numerous works by many of the most notable living composers and have garnered a reputation of living musically on the edge. Nothing is more “edgy” than their performance of Georg Friederich Haas’ String Quartet No. 3 “In iij, Noct.,” 2001. This is a work that, despite its utmost modernity and use of effects that defy explanation of how the sounds were produced by acoustic instruments, is also tied to “ancient” composers, especially Gesualdo. It is long, difficult and taxing on the players, and, by the way, it is performed in absolute total darkness with each player at their own far corner of the room.
This was more than a concert: it was a psychological and sociological study as well as an examination of how our senses give and take depending on the need. It began as you entered the theater and saw the unusual configuration of the audience: people tried to gather in the middle to get the best quadraphonic auditory line. Before the music began, Aaron Greenwald, director of Duke Performances, conducted a one-minute “darkness test” to ensure that no one would freak out during the actual program and had a final opportunity to leave. While this certainly seemed reasonable and even prudent, I read reports where in other performance of this work you needed to sign a waiver of liability before you entered! So, the members of JACK came out (all dressed in solid black), went to their respective corners, the already dim lights were turned off and we sat…and waited.
My first impression was that how infrequently any of us experience absolute, deep darkness. This was cave-like, center-of-the-earth total absence of light, and that in itself was quite delicious and exhilarating. Deprivation of my dominant sense almost immediately caused both a sharpening of my hearing as well as a skewed sense of time. It could have been twenty seconds or six minutes that I was just sitting and waiting for a sound. Finally I heard very light tapping by an unknown instrument eventually followed by others. What followed was what I can only describe as what sounded like the disassembling of the instruments: creaking, pops, bursts of wood that made you hope a luthier was in the house. It seemed (“seem” to use that word a lot since time seemed to be altering) quite a while till what can only be described as a “real” musical note was sounded, and even then it was fleeting and sparse. Eventually the music progressed to passages that sounded like they had wah-wah pedals connected, but it was all wood, strings and horsehair. There was a brief moment where a quasi-tonal passage was played in the style of an eerie Gesualdo-like chorale.
To be honest, I don’t quite remember all of the music, but that was far from the sole purpose of this string quartet. As I was listening I questioned whether I’d be as highly focused and attuned to this extremely unconventional work if it was being performed “normally.” I have to say that my answer was emphatically “no.” This lasted about 70 minutes and for most of us that exceeds a point where we still are willing or able to remain attentive – especially with “difficult” music. Except for the somewhat uncomfortable seats, I could have stayed there and listened for several more hours, regardless of what was being played. Of course the enormous versatility and musicianship of JACK was a major part of this. Playing “in the dark” and without looking at your instrument should not be a big deal for any accomplished musician, but it is for four musicians at the same time and they were always musically and psychically in synch.
Another unusual thing happened here: after a while I felt like I was the only person in the room. There was no audience “participation,” smells or even the feeling of human proximity. Alone, dark, floating in the ether with music surrounding you – is this what the “other side” is like? If so, with all due respect to Mr. Haas, can there also be some Bach, Mahler and Coltrane?