The organisers of Reykjavík festival Dark Music Days clearly underestimated quite how popular the world première of a new piece by Georg Friedrich Haas in deepest darkest January would be, and had oversold the auditorium at The Nordic House, a rather modestly-sized, round-ish space. We were packed in, with a group of students sitting crossed-legged in front of me, surrounding the Riot Ensemble in the middle. So, when the lights went off and we were plunged into total, complete darkness, for 70 minutes, it felt like a game of sardines gone too far.
We weren’t eased in either, with turbulent, angsty chords from the piano and sinister streaks of trombone beginning as soon as the lights went down, and the novelty of sitting in the dark was quickly supplanted by mild panic. Sitting there, with no knowledge of the aural geography of the work, no visual signals, and no way out (bar crashing through the percussion section, and trampling over several audience members), it felt very claustrophobic.
The Riot Ensemble played emphatically for a bunch of people who couldn’t see what they were doing. Sam Wilson, with a vast array of percussion, and various different sticks and mallets, was in particularly rude form, as I found out when he struck, with deafening precision, something big and metallic inches from my ears.
Comprising ten instruments, including a ‘de-tuned’ (or, as Haas himself corrected in the post-performance Q&A, a ‘very precisely tuned’) piano, for the first five minutes the group set about establishing the harmonic parameters which would dictate the rules of the musical games that followed.
Each new segment was announced to the players by pianist Claudia Maria Racovicean, which was then performed and filled out by combining memorised units with semi-improvisatory techniques and patterns. A sustained passage of violent crashes made for a tense middle section, and overtone chords that oscillated between constituent notes dominated the structure, with some being held for minutes on end. This was my overriding recollection of the music; material that anticipated dawn but excruciatingly delayed it.
I felt myself yearning for light, and it was not until some crept in during the last few moments that the feeling of claustrophobia eventually subsided. It didn’t last for long though: as soon as we were outside, it was back to the eerie darkness of Reykjavík, fifteen inches of snow piled up on the sidewalks to trample over before reaching the nearest bar. A drink was much needed.
The mind wanders to rather strange, occasionally sinister places whilst isolated in the dark like that. I needed to occasionally nudge my pal, just to make sure both he and I were still there. I imagined at one point that the lights would go on, and we’d find someone had died during the performance; a thought which, I’m relieved to say having spoken to other attendees, I wasn’t alone in thinking.
Solstices will be broadcast in the near future on BBC Radio 3, recorded at its second performance this week at the Royal Academy of Music in London. If you tune in, ensure all surrounding light is oppressively blocked out for full, nerve-wracking, effect.