Jack go Black in MAC

Fade to black. Total black, that is. Not even the emergency exit lights are illuminated, and when I open and close my eyes experimentally there is no real difference. I could, suddenly, be anywhere: all is inkiness.

I am, in fact, at the MAC in Belfast, in the upstairs performing area. Around me, a capacity audience of 100 people is seated in total silence. You could hear a proverbial pin drop. And it’s a noise not much louder than that which eventually impinges on the silence – the thinnest wisp of violin tone, like a player tuning tentatively in another, distant time zone, or another universe.

It’s followed by a light, locust-like clacking, as the four players of New York’s JACK Quartet stir their instruments to life, responding in the pitch black to one another, conjuring slivers of sound from the antiphonal spots they occupy in the four corners of the auditorium.

How can they see their music? They can’t, because they don’t have any in front of them. For their performance of the Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas’s In iij. Noct. (String Quartet No. 3) all parts have to be memorised, and there is no possibility of the eye contact normally so crucial in securing precision of ensemble for string quartet players.

The music itself is cast in eighteen sections, or ‘situations’, as Haas calls them. Not all the notes are pre-determined by the composer. Instead Haas gives the players specific motifs, chords and textures to use as base materials, the realisation and development of which is up to them, and differs from performance to performance.

A series of ‘invitations’ to move on to the next ‘situation’ are built into the score. These are signalled musically by the players to one another, when they feel that the possibilities of a particular section have been exhausted.

It all sounds rather random and open-ended. In the JACK Quartet’s MAC performance, however, it isn’t. They splice the various episodes together in an apparently seamless fifty-minute continuum, achieving prodigies of concentration, precision and textural layering in the coal-black darkness, with only their musical intuition and an intimate acquaintance with one another’s playing habits to guide them.

They cannot, of course, even see their own fingers on the neck of the instruments, making the justness of their intonation, the accuracy of harmonics, and the total absence of splodged attacks a thing to marvel at, and ponder.

The music itself is strange, spectral and constantly involving. Haas certainly knows what stringed instruments can do technically, using pizzicato, glissandi, microtonal slides, spiccato and sul ponticello bowing to conjure sounds you wouldn’t believe a string quartet capable of.

Textures are frequently spare and wispy, laid out with a spaciousness and a numinous quality at times recalling the late quartets of Beethoven. The spiritual element is unsurprising: In iij. Noct., the piece’s title, refers to the third nocturn of the Roman Catholic Tenebrae service for Holy Week, where Christ’s sufferings are meditated on, and candles progressively extinguished.

Reinforcing that connection further is Haas’s quotation of a responsory written for Tenebrae by the sixteenth century Italian composer Gesualdo. In the context of the woozy, indeterminate harmonic landscape that surrounds it, it’s a brief, beatific vision of something timelessly beautiful, a point of reference in a world of swirling, slithering uncertainties.

The work’s conclusion is also immensely impressive, as the JACK players, multi-stopping and interlocking, construct a vast, siren-like wail suggesting alarm and imminent danger. Again, you can hardly credit the sound is emanating from just four instruments, and the cross-cut to the merest whisper of residual tone at the work’s conclusion is a literally breath-catching moment.

Does the total darkness which Haas insists the work is played in make much difference? Gimmicky as the stipulation might sound on paper, there is no doubting its effectiveness.

For one thing, it not only aids audience concentration, it demands it. Where were the sneezes, snuffles, coughing, Facebooking, and unwrapping of sweet papers which have, bewilderingly, become such an accepted part of standard concert and recital behaviour? Conspicuous by their total absence. Go figure.

With visual distractions eliminated, the music itself becomes preternaturally vivid, the process of interaction with it more visceral and immediate. There is, paradoxically, nowhere to hide yourself in the darkness, and fewer buffers coming between the listener and a living encounter with Haas’s composition.

The JACK Quartet understand all this, and deliver a performance of immense musicianship and technical assurance. It’s still only January, but I’m certain that this superb Moving on Music concert will still be at or near the top of my personal shortlist when the cultural highlights of 2014 are enumerated come December.

Visit The Mac Belfast website for information on forthcoming events.