In the intimate setting of the “Crown” at the Carolina Theatre of Greensboro, the Winnfield Quartet and The Difficulties led their audience through narratives that straddled the border of rich fiction and the pulse of day-to-day mundanity. With the audience closely and casually situated near the performers, the evening felt more like a sincere invitation to listen than an expectation. Without the attention-commanding conventions of the classical stage, I felt like I had an opportunity to reaffirm my desire to listen. While experiencing music that was mythical, sometimes dark, but rarely too serious, I was happy for the chance to recalibrate my musical senses with both groups.

The Winnfield Quartet’s first performance started not with music, but with a narrated prologue. Setting the scene for an original composition titled “The Gibbous Moon,” the narrator spoke into existence the tale of the grand city of Sarnath. As she described the world’s inhabitants, how they worshiped their sculpted idols, and how they “danced horribly when the moon was gibbous,” Will Beach on tuba and Erik Schmidt on marimba put her words to music. Like the words they imitated, their duet resembled a drunken, otherworldly dance. Based on the Lovecraftian short story “The Doom that Came to Sarnath,” the performance went on like this until the end, trading words and sounds back and forth to create a listening experience fraught with imagery.

Following the haunting mythology of Lovecraft was an innovative and playful set of miniatures for piano, percussion, tuba, and string bass. Showing us his magnetic board scattered with music, composer and bassist Steve Landis explained that the five miniatures can be mixed and restructured around the third movement. An eclectic collection of works, the movements featured a 30 second trio form, the sounds of rush hour in Kansas City, and a group cadenza.

Last on their program was a premiere of yet another original composition from Landis. The work, “Murder Hornets be Damned,” was a reference to the tumultuous past two years we’ve experienced. In his words, Landis said that this work is supposed to remind us to “take it a day at a time, be kind to each other, and to work together to get through things.” Although severe and cinematic, the music embodied a general sense of hope for the future. Featuring intense interplay between marimba and piano, daring percussion interludes, and cosmic bass lines in string bass and tuba, the group showed off their chamber skills with this one. At times I felt the piece deserved a little more tonal or timbral dissonance given the subject matter, but it was a lot like a comic strip in the sense that it was a neatly packaged, direct, and cohesive message.

Wrapping up their conversations with friends among the audience during intermission, The Difficulties took their place on the stage following the Winnfield Quartet. I learned very quickly that most of the audience members around me were long-time groupies and fans of the band. Acknowledging their rather long performance hiatus, lead vocalist Brian Lampkin started off their set with a teasing joke he’d heard from friends who were referring to the band as “The Disappointments.” With a deservedly good laugh out of the way, saxophonist and “laptop wizard” Mark Engebretson revved up their electronics and got the show going. The poetic monologue, the misty atmosphere of electronics, and the jazz-ish instrumentals reminded me a little of the music of Disparition playing under the broadcast voice of Cecil Baldwin from the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. Rushing into their next number as though the opener was just an afterthought, all of a sudden I was listening to sound effects reminiscent of a dusty record player and something like the intense robotics from the Portal 2: Songs to Test By soundtrack. If that first pivot wasn’t emblematic enough of The Difficulties’ style, they threw in some slamming baritone sax solos, howling spectral multiphonics, tender vocal harmonies from Sue Fancher and Lampkin’s daughter, and some ukulele, tanpura, and bagpipes to top it off.

As chaotic as their aesthetic sounds, their message was rather unified. The Difficulties’ lyrics weigh and prioritize the range of difficulties we experience as individuals and as global citizens. They expose the evils that can result from protecting something precious; they let breathe the insistent desire to love and feel. The group’s depiction of dystopia has some major influence outside of the Carolina Theatre as well. Later in the spring, the group will be playing a work for Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, during her visit to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Like the Winnfield Quartet, The Difficulties wanted to end on a positive note. In an attempt to lighten the air and end the night with some optimism, The Difficulties wrapped up their set with a work arranged by Fancher. Electronic drones, patient field drums from percussionist Eric Willie, and a jig-like soprano saxophone melody from Fancher herself immediately tempered the mood. Although Lampkin’s animated and eager sharing of the refrain “the end isn’t coming!” should have brought the message home, I still felt a quiet echo of sadness in his words. But it also reminded me that in the face of my own difficulties, sometimes a willful insistence on optimism is the most powerful thing I have to rely on.