Sound is the new sight: Close your eyes. Say it out loud.
When MTV blared to life in 1981, The Buggles registered the first shot over the bow of popular music with "Video Killed the Radio Star." In a familiar narrative, critics, listeners and musicians alike bemoaned a shift to the visual. Suddenly (and reductively), no-talent bands with a sex symbol at the mic were going to spend more time primping their look in the dressing room than honing their songs in a sweaty van. Black-tie classical music would forever be relegated to the grandparent set.
In 2012, screens are ubiquitous. We carry YouTube links and multi-gig media libraries in our pockets, meaning individual images don't count so much, vanishing in nanoseconds. You might catch my eye for a moment, but if you don't catch my ear, I'll click the other way. Sound is back, baby.
In the classical realm, young composers, ensembles and musicians have capitalized upon this renewed sonic appetite, bringing contemporary work and commissions to local stages. They grab your attention with a variety of sounds, swapping the surface of the image for the depth of the sound.
To wit, this season has featured aural feasts: Brooklyn Rider's residency swing through Chapel Hill, upcoming Durham performances by the Wet Ink Ensemble, the Duke New Music Ensemble's annual covers set. This weekend, The JACK Quartet showcases this trend with two shows at Duke University. On Saturday night, they will play electric guitarist Steven Mackey's rhythmically topographical Physical Property, with the composer alongside the ensemble on electric guitar. And on Sunday, as the late autumn sun starts to set, the JACK will play Georg Friedrich Haas' third string quartet in the black-box Sheafer Lab Theater. They will perform in absolute darkness.
The Haas quartet, called In the Dark, demarcates the battle lines between sound and vision, but Haas plants his thumb on the battlefield, tilting it decisively in sound's favor. Blackness aside, the piece requires violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards and cellist Kevin McFarland to sit in separate corners of the space, surrounding the audience in the middle.
You can't re-read the program notes. You can't admire McFarland's bowing style. You can't exchange a glance with the person next to you. It's just you and the music.
"The visual aspect of a concert is the chief distraction to listening," McFarland explains. But this piece is different. "If it doesn't force a perfect focus on the sounds themselves, I imagine it's long enough that many audience members may find their mind wandering in a very interior space rather than being concerned with the external world."
In the dark, everything looks the same, but everyone hears everything differently.
Haas' quartet is a structured improvisation. One musician offers an invitation to play to the others by sustaining a musical interval, such as a major seventh. The score consists of guidelines about how another musician might accept that invitation by holding a different major seventh. Chords build out of the darkness, accumulating from all angles from an audience member's perspective. Basically, the musicians are playing a noncompetitive game.
"If it's playful, it's darkly playful. I'm not sure if that pun's intended or not," McFarland says, laughing. "A lot of people have very visual associations. Since they're sight-deprived, they'll end up imagining scenes, sometimes very concrete things such as an auto engine revving up or a scene in nature. Others will be more abstract—the idea of different colors or sensational flights."
The images don't have literal origins in the music, unlike the hum of Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee, which animates a swarm in the mind's eye.
"If there is any kind of narrative of the music, it's certainly not decided by the score, nor is it determined by the players," McFarland adds. "It's more like a garden of musical ideas. The players find their own path through it, and the audience does as well."
McFarland admits that the chief challenge can be listening to the other musicians when they're strewn around the performance space and unable to rely on eye contact, especially when he's playing loudly.
Haas recently asked the JACK to get rhythmically complex sections of the piece more in synch. Meanwhile, Mackey's Physical Property—the third part of a trilogy originally written for the Kronos Quartet—provides a similar challenge, albeit with the lights on. Hinging on a hard-edged rock guitar, the 14-minute romp constantly shifts its rhythm while always staying within reach of a headbang. For an audience member, there's a lot to notice.
"It's constantly evolving and shifting meter," McFarland says. "[Mackey] touches on a lot of musical references but it's hard to pin it down. Is he influenced by rock and jazz, or is it Stravinsky?"
Mackey composed the piece having never played with a string quartet before. Electric guitars and acoustic strings sounded like oil and water in the mid 1990s. Momentum, rather than rhythm, is the real organizing function in the piece, meaning Mackey had to figure out how to play an electric guitar like a chamber instrument for coherence from that particular mixed quintet.
"When this piece premiered, it got terrible reviews," remembers Mackey. "Critics said, 'This is a bad idea, an electric guitar and a string quartet. It just doesn't work.'"
To date, he's performed Physical Property more than 135 times with more than 40 quartets. Mackey turned to music after a career as a competitive skier was ended by injury in the 1970s; he now verges on describing what's become his signature piece as a kind of sonic athletics.
"The guitar can be a guitar. It's sort of a classic rock 'n' roll sound and the strings get to play fiddly fast music. It has this tangible, physical property. Instead of being intellectually motivated, it has this physical motivation," he says.
Mackey revels in a wide range of sounds, from jangly, serrated runs of notes, to the grunts and bleats of a Hendrix solo, to a clear, blank tone that brings a synthesizer to mind. But his instrument doesn't stand out from the strings. Often Mackey begins a musical line that a violin finishes, or vice versa.
"It's evolved over 20 years," he says. "It has to do with the difference between playing my part like I practice my part alone versus really listening to everything that the string quartet is doing and putting my notes just in the precise cracks that the string quartet is providing for me."
In short, Physical Property requires a virtuosity of attention from the musicians that Haas' In the Dark hopes to inspire in the audience. McFarland finds that challenge exciting enough to be nearly addictive.
"If the listening is difficult at times, I think it's the kind of difficulty that can bring a listener catharsis, you know?" he says. "Like how a distance runner is hitting the wall, where they don't think they can go any further but they push through it: There's a euphoria on the other side."
This article appeared in print with the headline "See a darkness."