NORTH ADAMS — On Thursday at around 9 p.m., darkness fell on Mass MoCA. Not a casual darkness, but a darkness so deep and so pristine I could not see my own hand in front of my face.
The lights went out, more precisely, in a windowless gallery on the second floor of the museum’s main building. The walls instantly disappeared. The audience members around me disappeared. The four musicians disappeared. And so did a man seated about 6 feet to my left with gray hair and a kind, bespectacled face. One might imagine this particular man, for at least a fleeting moment, smiling in the darkness, because if it’s possible to call any darkness proprietary, then we might say this was his darkness. He had written it into the score of his Third String Quartet, “In iij. Noct.” He is the composer Georg Friedrich Haas.
Once described as a “researcher into the inner world of sound,” Haas has built an intensely curious following in recent years through works such as “in vain” and the Third Quartet, in which darkness becomes not only a compositional device, but also a kind of catalyst for exploring a metaphysics of perception, and a way of radically re-sensitizing the ears. And it is indeed hard to find words for the disorienting strangeness and pulse-quickening exhilaration of listening to this work in live performance. This is, among other things, music about sound itself, music about the way we hear music.
Haas calls for the four string players to be seated as far apart as possible in the room, so they are communicating only through the sound they create. After the lights go down, the audience sits in silence, and anyone uncomfortable is given a chance to leave. This is not an idle invitation. At Thursday’s performance — part of the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival — the room was so dark and so densely packed, that, as if from some deep evolutionary place, one’s nervous system senses danger. For a few seconds, the adrenaline pumps. Fortunately, it was not long after this that the first sounds arrived, slipping in quietly, like some nocturnal rustlings in a forest of the mind.
Over the next hour — which passed in what felt like about 20 minutes — we heard a menagerie of sounds quivering on the border between music and noise: plucked string attacks, high-pitched instrumental shrieks, a snippet of a Gesualdo melody, interlocked plummeting lines suggesting an enormous machine powering down, and music that seemed to reverse the flow through passages of incessantly rising notes, suggesting a bubble of air surging upward from the ocean floor. Haas has the individual musicians playing at times as an ensemble, and at times speaking only to themselves, trailing off into the void.
And yet descriptions like these don’t suffice, in part because of how completely the listening environment transforms the experience. Darkness is not extrinsic to this music, but part of its DNA. The same effect could not be obtained by simply closing one’s eyes to a Beethoven quartet, or, as a skeptic might naturally wonder, through some self-administered experiments in dorm-room psychedelia. Haas’s spectralist music focuses attention on the granular materials of sound itself: microtones and overtones, intervals of consonance and dissonance. Yet so thoroughly are the building blocks broken down that once they are reassembled, they carry a kind of electric charge.
This piece also brims with private emotion. The idea first came to Haas, as he explained in brief comments to the audience, when he was traveling on a train in Austria to view his gravely sick father for what he thought might be the last time. In other words, this music has its origins in a moment of intense interiority that nonetheless took place in a resolutely public space. Haas has likewise here created a musical experience where, seated in a crowd, you are in fact profoundly alone.
Stripped of visual defenses, one listens from a more vulnerable stratum of the self. And because one’s own body, too, has vanished in the dark, you hold fast to the sounds of these instruments to avoid a kind of existential quicksand, a terror that lies just beyond the edges of this music. In this sense, you are aligned with the musicians as they navigate this score, gesturing out in the darkness toward one another, suggesting, if only metaphorically, a modern subjectivity as a kind of echolocation of the soul.
On Thursday night, after the last sounds died away, there was a long silence and then, as the light slowly returned to the room, an applause that grew thunderous. The performers, for whom this outpouring was well-deserved, were Lili Sarayrah and Lauren Cauley (violins), Alexina Hawkins (viola), and Lauren Radnofsky (cello).