One thing I’m really curious about is how the JACK Quartet, or any quartet for that matter, develops their interpretation of this unusual open-ended piece over time. The piece is comprised of a bunch of sections that each have musical cues. Any player can play the “invitation” to any section at any time, which the others can reject or accept. The sections can themselves be a precise set of instructions, a guide to perform, or other process.
The sections are arranged alphabetically from A to Q. Each start with an Einladung, or invitation, with more details to follow below, either words, musical symbols, or both. Here’s an example of a two-page spread from the score:
Despite the alphabetical order, they can be performed in any order, and there are really only three basic musical elements. The piece can basically be reduced to 1) glissandos, 2) seventh chords in Just Intonation, 3) short sounds: pizzicatos, tapping fingers on the fingerboard, very fast bow strokes, etc. Most sounds in the piece are easily categorized as one of those, and the remaining ones can easily be thought of as extensions of these groups. Then there is also mixing of the elements. For example, there are Just Intonation chords that move around at the quartet’s will by glissando.
To begin to answer my question—how does a quartet such as the JACK Quartet develop its own interpretation or performance practice of this piece over time, and what is actually changing in the piece as they do—I think the basic explanation is that, as the Quartet gets more comfortable with playing the piece (as they certainly were by the time I heard them), they will get more and more “off the page.” The piece is done in the dark and the first page of instructions clearly states that they will have to perform ohne Noten, without notes, that is, without the score. But I mean off the memorized page, too, away from the literal instructions.
It seems that the best performance of this piece is not the one where the composers’ instructions are followed most transparently. The piece is written to allow the performers to get beyond the piece itself, to focus on listening and playing. However, I think this is no different from any other piece essentially. A good performance of a classical repertoire piece does not make a crescendo from piano to forte obviously audible to its listener. If the listener comes away thinking, “Wow, I really heard the crescendo from piano to forte,” this is not a good performance at all. A good performance gets at something else, whatever that may be, by means of those cresc., p and f markings. The point of the markings, of course, isn’t to express them as markings, but to express what they represent.
But since there are only verbal instructions in this piece, which all require intent listening to accurately execute, the composer is really just asking his quartet to listen and play. And what they play is going to depend on what they played the night before—more so on that than on what it says on the actual page in German, I would argue. The same reasoning explains why, in a much more obvious example, the second great Miles Davis Quintet’s live recordings of “There Is No Greater Love” and “I Fall In Love Too Easily” sound more alike than their recording of “There Is No Greater Love” does to Ahmad Jamal’s recording of “There Is No Greater Love,” even though the written music is the same in the later example, and completely different in the former.
What I find so fascinating about Haas’s piece though, is that it seems to ask of the performers something that is always at stake in the so-called Jazz tradition. In that tradition, the interest lies in how you play around the existing or written material. When you play “There Is No Greater Love,” how can you make it not sound like “There Is No Greater Love,” is always one of the essential questions and criterion for critique. Haas’s piece, in my understanding, similarly asks the performers to play the piece as little as possible, while still retaining the identity of the piece. The piece is not doing the piece—how little can you follow the instructions and still be playing it?
The score hints that this is really what it is asking for, and the JACK Quartet is beginning to achieve it. The score says that the quartet should reject invitations a few times before accepting them, 3-8 is the suggestion, though it is not a rule, and that competition between invitations is possible—almost nothing is a rule, almost everything is stated as a suggestion, as the Violist pointed out in class. This has a traditionally formal musical purpose: rejecting invitations improves the piece because when it is later accepted, the whole of the composition is pieced together more prominently and strongly by making reference to earlier sounds. The sounds that permeate the work are less localized in each section, but more dispersed throughout, helping make the largeness of the form feel manageable.
But this little bit of text about rejecting invitations (“Es soll nur 3. bis 8. Einladungen angenommen werden”) does a lot more than that. In JACK’s performance, I could hear them toying with each other, being thrown off, feeling lost, and getting back on, all of which provided fascinating sonic events that seem to me impossible to otherwise notate. They also said in class, for example, that they play games in performance, trying to hide from each other which invitation they are playing, instead of expressing the invitations from the score obviously. Taking these risks made their performance less predictable. Strangely, the score does encourage these risks that pull clarity away from the score itself.
Which brings me to one more question. Since the score asks for the four players to have competing interpretations of what the score says, and all “argue” for them musically in real time, and have to reconcile those arguments with each other—i.e. conversation—is it possible that a quartet could know the piece well enough so that they could not follow any of the instructions, in fact, treat the whole score as one big “suggestion,” and just play, just improvise, roughly in the context of all of their own past performances of “In iij. Noct”? The score, in the abstract, is nothing but a set of scenarios designed to produce an effect that sounds like communication. Concretely, it contains roughly the sonic characteristics of some of Haas’s conventionally notated music. These last two sentences right there sound like enough to use as a full set of instructions for a performance of “In iij. Noct,” if the quartet has enough experience.
I wonder how differently it would actually sound if the JACK Quartet told themselves before a performance of the piece: we will play not-this piece. Kevin Sun had the opportunity to ask Herbie Hancock about a famous story where Tony Williams, the drummer in the second great Miles Davis Quintet challenged the rest of the band to play “anti-jazz”. As Herbie explained to Kevin in their interview,
“What had happened was that we got so good at being able to make the music work—to make it happen—because we kind of knew what each one was going to do based off of what each one was going to play. It just became too comfortable and, to us, it was like stagnation. We had grown to the point where we could do that. Now, what’s next? We needed to push the envelope in some kind of way. It was the idea that came from Tony, but as soon as he said it, I totally agreed with him. We needed to break the rules and play against everything we had done before. The idea was: whatever somebody expects you to do at a certain musical idea, do the opposite.”
The music that they made on that gig, which we luckily have available to us as Live at the Plugged Nickel (1965), is incredible stuff, full of excitement and all sorts of madness and unusual brilliance. But it also doesn’t sound that different, unsurprisingly, from the recordings of the Quintet from just a few months before.
JACK, I’ve heard you do “In iij. Noct.” It was great. Now I want to hear “Anti-In iij. Noct”. I actually think that’s what Haas is asking for.
I wrote this piece for the Harvard Book Review blog, here: http://www.theharvardbookreview.com/2015/01/28/improvising-in-the-dark/
(Jan 28, 2015)