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JACK Quartet at The MAC, Belfast

JACK Quartet at The MAC, Belfast
Ian Patterson By

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JACK Quartet
The MAC
Belfast
January 18, 2013

"This is really weird," a woman said as she deliberated where to sit for the concert. With no stage in the windowless room and the two halves of the audience facing each other—an arrangement which naturally invited plenty of mutual, casual scrutiny—there was no obvious sweet spot in which to sit for the JACK Quartet's recital of Georg Freidrich Haas' String Quartet No. 3 In iij. Noct.. Intriguingly, all sorts of conventions were challenged before a single note had been sounded.

The JACK Quartet's reputation has been built mostly on performances of avant-garde music; the works of György Ligeti, John Cage and Philip Glass, singer Theo Bleckmann, pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist John Zorn—to cite just a few—are all fair game in the imaginative playpen of violist John Richards, violinists Ari Streisfeld and Christopher Otto, and cellist Kevin McFarland. Such open-mindedness and willingness to experiment are prerequisites for tackling Austrian composer Haas' music, particularly his technically—and one suspects emotionally—challenging third string quartet, which is performed in absolute darkness.

Haas' title and the ritual that surrounds this performance are inspired by the Tenebrae service for Holy Week where Christ's suffering and death are commemorated by the snuffing of candles. The pre-gig, minute-long blackout was designed to test the mettle of the audience, a necessary precaution given that most people never experience a prolonged absence of light during their lifetime. How do we respond to darkness so complete that it alters our perceptions of space and time? Our essential compasses unmoored...

The musicians took up position in the four corners of the room before light was swiftly expelled and darkness reigned—an experiential novelty for most, to hazard a guess—and it was total. Well, if truth be told not quite total, as two tiny red sensor lights broke the pattern. Nevertheless, these red dots were positioned so high up the walls as to be immaterial, though perhaps an occasional magnet for those in the audience who had spotted them, searching for some point of reference in this suddenly borderless environment.

Little pizzicato trills and shrill notes at varying intervals sounded in call and response. Sustained croaking like a great tree bending under pressure alternated with long arco notes of purer resonance. Though Haas' composition requires a significant degree of memorization it also allows for fairly hefty improvisational leeway, meaning that the 35-minute piece can often last for twice that length of time in performance; certainly there was a pronounced sense of invention about JACK Quartet's interpretation. The sense of time, however, which essentially is gauged by the passage of light, was warped in the engulfing blackness; the seconds and minutes seemed stretched, or condensed, as the musical to and fro at the outset grew to a shimmering wall of sound.

Drone was an important element in the piece's structure and when coming from all four corners simultaneously, interlocking in quadraphonic sound, the effect was powerful. So too, the sensation of an altered state of consciousness as the ego was diminished, perhaps for listener and performer alike. The notion of audience as we conceive of it also vanished, replaced by audient souls. Yet paradoxically, in a performance where all spectacle was removed, this was an intensely visual experience, at least in the mind's eye, and vaguely hallucinogenic.

Pizzicato interludes seemed to signposts each new movement while pockets of silence were occasional and above all brief. Dissonance and harsh punctuations—whistling kettles and squealing rats came to mind—created an edgy abstraction, with dramatic reverberation torn by stabbing notes. It was often a short step from the nervous tension of horror film soundtrack to quasi-meditative passages; unified drones like frozen car horns or accordions unfolded into quite beautiful, choral harmonics. Small, plucked or creaking notes contrasted with intense rushing cacophony in epic, sci-fi dramaturgy.

In an emotionally charged finale a bass drone underpinned ascending violins and viola, alternating sharp exclamations like steps in a relay that rose and fell, rising again towards an inevitable climax. The resolution though, came gradually, the sounds dissipating and fading—into the vast distance—to nothing. There was a considerable pause, maybe a minute's worth of silence before the audience began to applaud and the lights came up, returning everyone's feet to the ground.

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