It’s not just any living composer who can draw 350 people to a concert of a single modern string quartet. But that’s just what happened Friday night at the Logan Center, when University of Chicago Presents hosted the JACK Quartet playing the String Quartet No. 9 of Georg Friedrich Haas.
Haas, born in Austria but now resident in the U.S., wrote this composition for the JACK Quartet, who had already extensively performed his Third String Quartet. Both those works, as well as “In Vain,” are to be performed in total darkness. That is a tricky proposition in practice as fire marshals and other safety mavens must be satisfied that the venue remains safe.
Amy Iwano, executive director of University of Chicago Presents, introduced the program and explained to the audience that there would first be a two-minute “test” in the dark, after which the lights would be turned on again and anyone who felt uncomfortable in the darkness could leave. No one took that option. For added safety, two UCP staff members were fitted with night vision goggles and Iwano told us that if any of us raised our hands, the goggle-people would come and escort us out safely in the darkness. There was also UCP staff at each exit (where the bright red exit signs had been covered in black cloth) armed with flashlights, should they be needed. It’s been reported that one venue performing a Haas-in-the-dark concert required patrons to sign a liability waiver.
The String Quartet No. 9 employs overtone-chaining, high string harmonics, microintervals, and other techniques to create a unique sound world. The piece was about 50 minutes in length. The quartet seemed neither slower nor faster for the darkness, in fact for all the interesting sonic effects — the swarming sounds, high and eerie tremolos, the anchoring drones, screeches and cries — the spiritual quality of the music was not enhanced and the work seemed over-long. It came off rather more like a haunted house for lovers of new music.
What sort of person insists on total darkness for a performance? If it is one with a strong personality, that’s Haas. He’s known for it in more than his music. Since his marriage to his fourth wife in 2015, they’ve posed together nude for a calendar celebrating plus-sized people. And Haas has come out publicly as the dominant member of the marriage and his wife as the submissive member, causing a New York Times writer to observe that, “His exacting, virtuosic style gives a whiff of the dominant-submissive to the composer-performer relationship.”
Likewise in this quartet Haas, that master of special effects, seems eager to hold the audience captive.