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Classical 101

Quartet Senza Misura To Perform In Total Darkness At VIVO Music Festival

color photogaph of quartet Sensa Misura performing at Alice Tully Hall
Quartet Senza Misura
Quartet Senza Misura performing at New York's Alice Tully Hall

"It's a really strange mind-melding experience to do it," says cellist Jay Campbell of performing contemporary composer Georg Friedrich Haas' String Quartet No. 3, "In iij. Noct."

The piece must be performed in total darkness and, because of the way it's constructed, the musicians never know exactly how each performance will turn out. And even though Campbell and his colleagues in the New York-based Quartet Senza Misura are top-drawer musicians on the cusp of world-class careers, the Haas quartet keeps them at the edge of their seats.

"With music performance, so much of what people get out of it actually is a lot of visual cues, and performers rely on them also," Campbell said, "so you really have to trust the other players that this open-ended exploration is not going to end in disaster."

Quartet Senza Misura will perform Georg Friedrich Haas' String Quartet No. 3, "In iij. Noct." on Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. in the Green Room at the Short North's Garden Theater. The performance is the second of three core concerts in the VIVO Music Festival, Aug. 21-23 in Columbus and is being presented in partnership with the Johnstone Fund for New Music. The quartet will make its festival debut Aug. 21 at the Garden Theater performing John Zorn's Cat o' Nine Tails.

New music like the Haas quartet is a mainstay of Quartet Senza Misura's repertoire and, ironically, has come in part to define the group - that is, if anything can define an ensemble that refuses to be boxed in.

No Limits

The musicians of Quartet Senza Misura became friends while graduate students at the Juilliard School.  Almost as an afterthought, they got together for a casual string quartet reading session one day. The session felt good, so they ran with it.

"Right after we had our first reading of a Haydn string quartet, we just went right downstairs to the (Juilliard School) registration office and signed up to be a string quartet," said Danny Kim, the quartet's violist and the roommate of quartet violinist Siwoo Kim (no relation).

The musicians got themselves out there as a quartet, giving concerts here and there. A performance of Zorn's Cat o' Nine Tails garnered the group other invitations to play, "so we had to come up with a name," Campbell said.

Quartet Senza Misura – Quartet without Measure, or more poetically, Quartet in Free Time – is an open statement of the musicians' embracing of repertoire across the boundless spectrum of time. The name also bespeaks their defiance of artistic limits in general.

"One thing we wanted to get across in the name was that we didn't want to box ourselves into one particular region of repertoire, that we wanted to be open and free to explore any time of music or repertoire for whatever occasion the concert is, or where we're playing, or whatever is interesting us at the time," Campbell said.

The quartet's name also reflects the varied, seemingly limitless careers of the group's members. Campbell and violinist, Francisco Fullana are pursuing international solo careers in tandem with their work with Quartet Senza Misura. Danny Kim and violinist Siwoo Kim are members of New York's Ensemble ACJW, a collaborative enterprise of Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School and the Weill Music Institute that fosters the careers of emerging professional musicians in a range of community-oriented performance and education endeavors. The quartet's members perform regularly at prestigious music festivals, including Vermont's Marlboro Music Festival. And all have studied and coached with, simply put, many of the finest classical musicians of our time.

Such career diversity makes for vibrant music-making when the musicians gets together as a quartet.

"We are very New York in the sense that the four of us have a lot of things going on individually. So when we get together, it really adds a lot of perspective, kind of different angles that we have to talk about and kind of make the music happen from four different perspectives," Fullana said.

"A Really Crazy Piece"

When Quartet Senza Misura performs Haas Third Quartet on Aug. 22, they'll not only have to make music happen from four different perspectives – they’ll have to make it happen from four different corners of the room. Haas asks musicians to be seated as far apart from each other as possible when performing the quartet – a potentially electrifying set-up for the audience.

"It's almost like 360 Surround Sound," said Danny Kim. "You’re kind of engulfed by the sound coming around you, rather than it coming at you from one angle, it's coming at you from all angles."

Haas' requirement that the quartet be performed in complete and total darkness also potentially – and paradoxically – adds other dimensions to the sensory experience of the work.

"It's a really crazy piece and it can be scary for people, I think," Campbell said. "There’s a feeling of almost being entombed once the lights go out, because it has to be pitch black, so it can be unnerving. The collective feeling of being in the dark with everyone else not making a sound I think is an experience that people don't usually do ever."

For this reason, Campbell and violist John Stulz will ease the audience into darkness with MatthiasPintscher's Janusgesicht​ (Janus Face), a shorter work they'll play before the quartet performs the Haas. The Pintscher work calls for the musicians to sit on the same piano bench with their backs to each other.

"It also plays at the idea of (the musicians) staying together using heightened hearing and, possibly, sixth sense," said Siwoo Kim.

Performing in complete darkness can be unnerving for the musicians, too. They can't get visual cues from each other, or even see their own instruments, and so are forced to play in a state of semi-disorientation. Haas also forbids the performers to give each other any auditory cues, including the audible inhalations that chamber musicians use as standard practice to signal upbeats to each other.

"The gestures or things that you do when you play chamber music are specifically prohibited," Fullana said. "And of course in total darkness, you don’t even have a glimpse of the other person's bow. That really requires a level of concentration and really trying to feel each other without any noise. I mean, it says in the music no breath, no tapping, no anything. You can't cheat, you can't fake it."

Add to the mix  that the quartet is constructed in sections of music that the musicians can invite each other to play in any order – and also that the musicians can accept or reject their invitations to each other – and you have a recipe for the unexpected.

"It could be a different performance every time you play it," said Danny Kim.

Contemporary Connection

Although contemporary music still carries for some the stigma of inaccessibility, the musicians of Quartet Senza Misura say they embrace contemporary works like the Haas quartet precisely because they believe they can move listeners.

"There are fantastic (contemporary) pieces that, I think, if played with the right amount of commitment and rehearsal time and work put into them, they can really connect with the audience," Fullana said.

Those connections can be immediate and visceral, indescribable and inexplicable, even. If you feel something in response to the music, Campbell says, you're doing it right.

"You don't need a deep understanding of the construction of music to get anything out of it," Campbell said. "It's not like this really esoteric thing that you have to be an expert in to appreciate. Anyone can get anything out of it. So I hope that anyone that comes to the concerts will have a really great time listening to these things and get something out of it and see that it’s not really that intimidating."

Quartet Senza Misura performs Georg Friedrich Haas' String Quartet No. 3, "In iij. Noct." on the second core concert of the VIVO Music Festival, Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. in the Green Room at the Short North's Garden Theater.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.