Music in the Dark 

Third Angle's Pitch-Black Performance


WHEN Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas set out to write his third piece of music for a string quartet, In iij. Noct., he wanted to get as far away from God as possible. Performed in complete darkness, Haas' piece references the Tenebrae—a Christian service performed during the three days before Easter, prior to the resurrection—a time when God is dead and the lights are out. For TBA:13, Portland's Third Angle Ensemble—made up of violinist Ron Blessinger, cellist Marilyn de Oliveira, violist Charles Noble, and violinist Gregory Ewer (all cohorts from the Oregon Symphony)—will perform Haas' String Quartet No. 3 (In iij. Noct.) at the OMSI Planetarium in total darkness. Night-vision goggles not allowed.

MERCURY: So, let's talk about this Haas piece.

RON BLESSINGER: [The composition] has received a lot of notoriety because of the circumstance it's performed in. I mean, it's performed in pitch darkness... that's instantly kind of intriguing. You say to yourself, 'Is that just an affect or is there something kinda serious behind that?' And you do a little digging and you find out that the reason that it's in pitch darkness is it's about the moment of greatest dislocation from God, it's the night before the resurrection, it refers to the Tenebrae... which means the candles are extinguished and it's pure darkness. So, you know, in darkness things go bump in the night, things kinda freak you out, and that can be a very scary moment. And if you're going to evoke musically that time of greatest dislocation from God, then you really have to go for it, you have to do it in pitch darkness. And what [Haas] does, which is totally cool. He's a contemporary composer and he uses contemporary techniques to evoke [things that are] very ancient and very spectral and very, I don't want to say scary, but scary in a very primal way. If you're going to evoke hell, you really have to go for it. So he does.

How about as a performer?

It places a lot of pressure on us because we have to play the piece from memory. Now, the good thing is, it's more like jazz than it is like classical music in that there's nothing literal that we have to memorize. We just have to understand the rules. And the rules are that the piece is in 18 sections, and each section has a gesture—it could be a sound, it could be a noise, or it could be a pluck, a pizzicato, something that is an invitation—and that invitation can be accepted by someone else in the quartet or not. If it's accepted, then that section is played. And if it's not accepted, then we kinda wander around in the darkness until someone makes another invitation gesture for another section, and then we accept that or not. So there's a lot of wandering around, and we find our way through the sections of the piece, and so the call-and-response aspect has a religious significance, too, that's very orthodox. And that's kinda loosely the structure.

But you also have to memorize actual passages of musical notation, no?

A couple. The [Carlo] Gesualdo quote has to be played that way and there's another tune—a 12-note tune that we are allowed to choose to play. But the whole gig with composers, especially lately, is how much control do you give to the players? Do you tell 'em exactly how to play it and exactly what tempo and what rhythm and what notes? What key, what dynamics, what affect, what emotion you're supposed to be feeling? Some composers do that. Very tightly controlled. Other composers will say, 'Here's a tree, play whatever comes to mind.' It's the other end of the spectrum.

And so the medium becomes choice?

Right! It's choice. But, it's guided choice. This whole subject about where the line is: How much control is the composer giving you, and how much is he keeping for himself? I mean, at the end of the day, we get to determine the order of these 18 sections, and even if they're all played or not. And yet it's still that piece. It's that piece because those 18 sections, many of them will be played and they'll be recognizable as the Haas string quartet. But the brilliant thing about it is that each performance will be distinctly different in terms of its interpretation.

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