The hour-plus, 24-musician tour de force In Vain invariably gets described as one of the first masterpieces of the 21st century. Tonight Northwestern’s Contemporary Music Ensemble performs the piece with members of Ensemble Dal Niente, utilizing the university's new black box theater to carry out Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas's unique instructions. 

The piece poses two chief challenges, says Alan Pierson, who co-directs the ensemble with Ben Bolter

First, Haas uses spectralist techniques in the piece, calling for pitches that fall between the notes on, say, an equal-tempered piano. Basically it's hard to play it in tune. “When you really get it right, it should just ring,” Pierson says. “It should sound really incredibly resonant and beautiful.” 

The second challenge? “Dealing with the darkness.” In his composition, Haas calls for large chunks of the piece to be played in the dark. When Ensemble Dal Niente performed In Vain in 2013, the room was so pitch black you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. 

Ensemble Dal Niente, 2013 Photo: Chelsea Ross

Pierson says Nothwestern's lighting designer has less-extreme plans for Thursday's performance—the theater's exit signs will stay on—but the interplay between the music and the lighting should still make for an unforgettable piece. 

“Sonically maybe the most luminescent moment in the music is the long section completely in the dark,” he says. “The music almost is glowing.” 

Go 3/10 at 7:30. $5–$8. Shirley Welsh Ryan Opera Theater, 70 Arts Circle, Evanston.