In the ultra-refined experience of chamber music, there’s always the problem of what to look at. The violinist’s bobbing? The cellist’s hemline? The snoozing guy in the second row? The ceiling? Within even the most immersive experience of sound, the brain jumps between inputs.

Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas has spent years blazing a path beyond the distractions fusing music and visuals, the latter in the medium of light, choreographing everything from the stage lights to lasers. But true to its usual adventurous spirit, Portland’s Third Angle New Music Ensemble picked Haas’ most provocative piece, String Quartet No. 3, “In iij. Noct”—played in total darkness.

Third Angle New Music: In the Dark
OMSI Planetarium
Sept 18 at 7:30 p.m.; Sept 19 at 11:59 p.m.
In the already otherworldly environs of OMSI’s domed Kendall Planetarium, Third Angle’s artistic director Ron Blessinger arranged the members of his string quartet at the exit doors. Anybody who needs to leave during the performance, he said, should raise their hands, clap twice, and wait to be escorted out by one of the volunteers wearing night-vision goggles. Then lights dropped, the musicians blew out candles before them, and Haas’ composition unfolded.

The piece is structured into 18 movements, each initiated by a call from one musician followed by responses from the others in a highly structured improvisation. Highly abstract—for long stretches it seemed no one was bowing above the bridge—the initial effect was like a walk through the nighttime forest, each individual creature’s utterance drawing out all the others. But Haas—or maybe the improvisers—gradually evolves the piece into dramatically spatial sequences that leave you feeling the whole room is rising, sinking, or spinning, or in one particularly hallucinogenic moment, coming apart—a moment in which you could easily imagine that this would be the experience of flying with swifts.

Toward the end of the piece, Haas drops in a quote from legendarily mad Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, a singular bit of melody and harmony in a composition that is otherwise entirely spectral. The effect is, pun to be fully savored, eye-opening. A distant, but apt, comparison comes to mind: Chris Marker’s seminal film “La Jettee” which, otherwise composed of still images, suddenly offers a few seconds of motion—a beautiful woman, up close, taking a breath and blinking her eyes.

Sensory deprivation is a powerful experience, as anyone who’s gone blind or deaf will tell you. Haas and Third Angle offer just a hint of its possibilities for music. At this writing there’s only a few seats left for Thursday 11:59 p.m. performance. Grab one.

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