Lawrence Toppman

Why is this quartet positioned like this? It’s a radical idea, at UNCC

Pianist Dawn Carpenter, violinist Faith Foster, clarinetist Mitchell Stokes and cellist Kelsey Sexton make up a remarkable UNCC quartet that plays entirely by ear.
Pianist Dawn Carpenter, violinist Faith Foster, clarinetist Mitchell Stokes and cellist Kelsey Sexton make up a remarkable UNCC quartet that plays entirely by ear. Courtesy of Jonathan Govias

Imagine Olympic fencers battling in the dark, locating each other by the swish of their foils. Or the Cavalier at the end of “The Nutcracker” closing his eyes, confident he can find the Sugar Plum Fairy by the sound of her toe shoes.

You now have an idea what it’s like to play in (x7) squared, the UNC Charlotte chamber music ensemble where none of the four instrumentalists see each other.

If you’re a classical musician, you just made this noise: “?!?!” If not, you may be wondering how big a deal this is.

Big enough that the quartet and its founder, assistant professor Jonathan Govias, are now in Scotland, at the World Conference of the International Society for Music Education – where the review panel gave them a rare 30-minute slot to perform and explain themselves.

Big enough that the 14th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in San Francisco gave the quartet the only hour-long slot and only live performance on its five-day schedule – and sent UNCC $1,500, the only travel award given, to defray costs.

Govias positions pianist Dawn Carpenter, violinist Faith Foster, cellist Kelsey Sexton and clarinetist Mitchell Stokes in a circle with their backs to one another. Carpenter and Stokes see the rear wall of a venue; Foster and Sexton see bits of the audience. But unlike all other quartets, they take no visual cues. Nobody can watch a bow about to swoop down; nobody nods or drops a hand to give the cue to start.

A break with tradition

This defiance of 400 years of tradition seems radical to most people, but not to Govias. He once told 120 musicians in the N.C. Eastern Regional Orchestra to come in on a Mendelssohn symphony in unison – with their eyes closed.

“That moment felt like walking off a cliff,” says Govias, now in his fourth year at UNCC and director of orchestras there. “But it put them in the highest possible state of attuned listening for the rest of the concert.

“The first step is to become attuned to silence, to dwell in absolute silence peacefully. In rehearsals, they began to hear the sounds of their own bodies. Then I told them, ‘When you think the time is right, play a downbeat.’ That failed at first, because someone would go “Squonk!” on a violin. And then they started breathing together, and they played together.”

Zen-like as this sounds, the UNCC quartet members – who have been together less than three months – believe it works.

“It felt very much like grasping in the dark during the first rehearsal, but as we kept trying, I was able to feel my way through the process ...” says Carpenter. “My sense of hearing strengthened and sharpened in order to compensate.” Foster speaks of a kind of interdependence she has never known elsewhere and says, “All four of us breathe together at every entrance, whether we’re playing or not.”

Adds Sexton, “It creates a special level of trust and comfort. I go back and forth between hearing myself and the others, and we’re all equal partners.” Stokes says adjusting volume levels can be tricky: His notes bounce back quickly, while the violin and cello must go all the way to the end of the hall before reverberating. But, he says, “We can take and give advice confidently, because we really know each others’ parts.”

Performing ‘an intervention’

When they get stuck, Govias performs “an intervention.” He helps them identify problems and fix those themselves, rather than giving orders. He believes even an orchestra conductor, the god before whom players metaphorically kneel, can do that.

“A conductor can be useful,” he says. “There’s a danger in letting players do their thing. That can become the path of least resistance, and I have to lead them to a place they won’t reach on their own.

“But if there’s a problem with brass overpowering winds, I stop them. I let the brass hear what the winds have to play and say ‘Balance to that.’ Musicians mostly know when they’re out of tune, and they play that way because they cannot hear. Adjust the balance of the orchestra, and 99 times out of 100, they’ll get it just right.”

But when someone insists musicians need a conductor – when even players break down and beg “Just tell us what you want” – how does he answer?

“The moment you focus on a conductor, you stop listening to each other. It’s a cognitive overload,” he says. “Research tells us the eye needs 400 milliseconds to synchronize to a conductor, but the ear needs 150 to 200. You think your eye provides a musical safety net, but it’s a net made of spider webs – if you fall in, it won’t hold you up.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232