Something very curious has landed in the courtyard of the Malthouse Theatre.

What is it? It looks like a big wooden box. No obvious doors or windows but if you listen carefully you can hear the faint scraping of string instruments.

It’s the Quartetthaus! The Australian National Academy of Music and lighting and design studio bluebottle have built a temporary space for the performance of string quartets during the Melbourne Festival. The venue only seats 52 people who sit in two rows encircling the round stage at which the four musicians play.

From the outside, no clues are given as to what lies within. The door opens mysteriously and you’re ushered in two by two between a row of coat hooks (very practical idea for an intimate space) and an inky black curtain adding to the air of anticipation. The bare wood of the outside of the Quartetthaus has been varnished on the inside to enhance the grain, bringing a warm hue to the interior very much like that of a violin.

At last the curtain is drawn back and we take our places. The lighting is subtle, turning the small room into a contemporary take on an 18th century candelit salon. The audience is hushed. No talking, no coughing, no fidgeting – the space is too small for that.

Each night there are three performances featuring musicians of the Academy. The night of my visit two of the works were unfamiliar to me – String Quartet No 1 Metamorphoses nocturnes by Gyorgy Ligeti (1953) and String Quartet No 3 (2007) by Richard Mills (2007). They were powerful works, at times discordant, at times melodic.  Being more of a classical music traditionalist, my favourite was the Schubert String Quartet Number 12 in C minor (1820).

At such close quarters you can hear the musicians breathe, see their brows furrow with concentration, admire the precision of their fingerwork and catch the tiny snippets of eye contact they make with the other members of the quartet. The stage rotates at an imperceptible rates, so you’re never stuck behind someone’s back. I watched the musicians sway on their stools and be transported by the music.

The Quartetthaus makes the string quartet experience visceral and incredibly powerful – even if you’re not a classical music fan I think you’ll like it. Tickets are free and while it is booked out there is a waiting list as inevitably people drop out. You can book at ANAM (03) 9645 7911 http://www.anam.com.au/qhaus. Don’t miss it!

Quartetthaus, Melbourne Festival, Ngargee Centre for Contemporary Art, Sidney Myer Courtyard 111 Sturt St, Southbank

Sun 16 – Sat 22 Oct
6.30pm, 8.30pm & 9:45pm

1hr no interval