Trust Alex Ross to turn me on to some fascinating corner of contemporary classical music previously unbenownst to me. Now I know something about Swiss composer Georg Friedrich Hass, whose Third String Quartet, Ross says, “makes such extreme demands on players and audience alike that at one concert in Pasadena listeners were required to sign a waiver absolving the venue of legal responsibility….”
The work is subtitled “In iij. Noct.,” a reference to the Third Nocturn of the old Roman Catholic Tenebrae service for Holy Week, which marked Christ’s sufferings and death with the gradual extinguishing of candles. Haas, who grew up in Tschaugguns, a Catholic village in the Austrian Alps, asks for total darkness during performances of his quartet, the score specifying that even emergency lights should be covered.
In September I saw, or didn’t see, a performance [by the JACK quartet] at the Austrian Cultural Forum, on East Fifty-second Street. When the blackout began, I initially felt a fear such as I’ve never experienced in a concert hall: it was like being sealed in a tomb. No wonder the members of JACK usually try out a brief spell of darkness with each audience, to see if anyone exhibits signs of distress. (Indeed, one young man sheepishly got up and left.) yet the fear subsides whne the music begins. The perfoemrs who are positione din the corners of the room, seem to map the space with tones, like bats using echolocation to navigate a lightless cave. They have memorized the socre in advance, and it is an unusual document: Haas sets out eighteen musical “situations” — with detailed instructions for improvising on pre-set motifs, chords, and string textures — and a corresponding series of “invitations,” whereby the players signal one another that they are ready to proceed from one passage to the next.
Often, the music borders on noise: the strings emit creaks and groans, clickety swarms of pizzicato, shrill high notes, moaning glissandos. At other times, it attains an otherworldly beauty, as the players spin out glowing overtone harmonies. Toward the end comes a string-quartet arrangement of one of Carlo Gesualdo’s Responsories for the Tenebrae service (“I was like an innocent lamb led to the slaughter…”). That music is four hundred years old, and yet, with its disjointed tonal language, it sounded no less strange than the contemporary score that surrounded it. Weirdness is in the ear of the beholder.
In another direction altogether is “Nutty,” Paul Rudnick’s latest bit of comic ephemera — definitely good for a chuckle.