Last July I swam in the sea for the first time after five months of Covid-19 shielding and it felt like a benediction. The ending of Georg Friedrich Haas’s Solstices last night – as the lights rose on the Riot Ensemble sounding an immense, reverberating, crashing chord after more than an hour of total darkness – felt the same, but more so.
Solstices is an awkward piece. Parts of it verge on being boring (although there’s usually something unexpected around the corner). Other than the progression from one harmonic field to another, there isn’t much of a shape to its first two thirds. (After the first ‘cataclysmic event’ around, I guess, fifty minutes in, it does become more directional, and there is a steady increase in intensity until the final dissipation.) The fact that almost all of it is played in complete darkness adds a lot, certainly: last night the faint glow of Kings Place’s cooling spotlights overhead gave one a sense of floating in space. Another weightlessness comes from the combination of darkness and Haas’s microtonal trickery, which makes it difficult to tell each instrument apart, a marvellously disorienting effect. And some sections – such as the tentacular opening of overlapping, descending scales, seem to spill, Akira-like over the stage and into the space before us. Yet while it is exciting and novel, sitting in complete darkness for this long is hard work (wearing a mask makes it even more so), even without having to find your way around a piano keyboard or percussion set-up. Before every performance of Solstices the lights are brought down for two minutes to give everyone an idea of what to expect and a chance to bail out. This is a piece that asks a lot of its listeners.
But quickly Solstices established itself as just the right work for this moment. (The last live music I heard before Covid lockdown was Liza Lim’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, played by the same ensemble in the same hall. Retrospectively that seemed about right too.) It’s a generous piece in that it doesn’t matter too much if you take a few minutes to get used to it; and after so long, we all needed that time to readjust our ears. Haas describes it as a love song (despite its title it has nothing to do with astronomy, but with the coincidence that he met his partner Mollena Haas-Williams on the winter solstice of 2013, and they married on the summer solstice of 2014), and it is full of moments in which players have to make connections with each other: notable in my memory is an early passage in which the guitar has to retune to the piano’s next microtonal harmony. Even in the dark it was possible to visualise the interaction of the two players, and vivid to hear the way in which the guitar’s notes drifted towards and then inexorably locked with and were embraced by the piano’s.
And then that ending … last night it was not so much breath-taking as breath-mugging, breath-dragged-into-an-unmarked-van never to be seen again. Much of the impact was due to the sheer joy of seeing live music once more – this absolutely is a piece that cannot be streamed – but this was simply the event that Solstices had occasioned. More of it was the sense of having gone through something together, making the work’s endurances and longeurs absolutely necessary.
After Solstices’ premiere at Reykjavik’s Dark Music Days festival in January 2019, Simon Cummings wrote that ‘Haas’ chords suggested plenty of waiting, the potential of light, though the light itself stubbornly failed to materialise. It begged the question: is the act of waiting more exciting than its fulfillment?’ And goodness me have we had to wait for this moment. It seemed ironic that after a sixteen-month break in seeing any live music, I’d chosen to wait another seventy minutes before I saw any musicians doing anything. But then the lights came up and we could see the flesh and sinew of these ten, brilliant players going at their instruments for all they were worth, and it seemed absolutely appropriate.