Diffuse masses of sounds cascade into the depths. The descending motion is perpetually repeated, persistently spiraling downward, then upward again – but only seemingly, for the oscillating play of shifting accents and volume generates the illusion of an endless expansion of the tonal space. The deceptive game finally exposes itself when the deceleration of sequences reveals the inner pattern. A brilliant tonal space unfurls where well tempered sounds meet rarified overtone chords.
Titled “in vain,” this ensemble piece positioned Georg Friedrich Haas (born in Graz, Austria, in 1953) as one of the leading Austrian composers of today. According to Haas, the title refers to a return to situations that one had believed to have overcome – inferring a meaning that goes beyond the scope of music. In Haas’s case it can readily be understood from a political perspective, specifically as an expression of the painful loss of utopia. The composer’s quiet despair places him in the illustrious ranks of the disillusioned that includes the likes of Friedrich Hölderlin and his fictional protagonist Hyperion, both of whom appear in Haas’s chamber opera Nacht (1996) and reoccur in works like Hyperion – Konzert für Licht und Orchester (2006), and Rainer Maria Rilke, whom Haas quotes in the title of his percussion concert “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich…” (1999). Then there are also Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe, and Rosa Luxemburg, whose writings Haas joins in the libretto of his opera Die schöne Wunde (2003), and the Norwegian painter Lars Hertervig, protagonist in the opera Melancholia (2007). In his chamber opera Nacht, Haas interprets the failure of the French Revolution and the observation that social prophets become despotic tyrants as the existentially threatening loss of utopia that shaped the life of the writer Hölderlin. Today, two hundred years after the French Revolution, the toppling of revolutionary movements in dictatorial regimes is still highly relevant in many parts of the world. Time and again, Haas is drawn to explore the fate of individuals who are cheated out of their ideals, become social outcasts through various circumstances, and walk the thin line between genius and insanity.
The afore-mentioned piece “in vain” was composed in a very intense creative period around 2000, two years after Haas had taken the leap into independence, put his position as composition professor at the Graz University of Music on hold, and withdrawn into the isolation of composition. After a brief period in Berlin as a DAAD grant recipient, he spent the winter of 2000/01 in a remote place on the southwest coast of Ireland. However he soon felt restless there – Haas, who grew up in a mountain village area in Vorarlberg, went back to Vienna and Graz, where he took up teaching again from 2002-2005, until he was offered a professorship at the Academy of Music in Basel, Switzerland.
The years around 2000 mark a turning point in Haas’s oeuvre. His stylistic maturation was accompanied by an increasing departure from mathematical and computer-based methods of composition. Although in terms of sound and structure the resulting change in his musical language was fairly subtle, from the late nineties onward Haas had started to give his compositional instinct more freedom than before. “After self-critical observation,” said Haas in an interview in 2005, he recognized “plenty of elements of arbitrariness” in works in which he had used a lot of abstract construction principles. Early on he had looked for “principles based on human sentiment” that he could integrate in musical parameters using the computer, but from about 1995 onward he generally avoided construction principles. Concomitant with his growing self-confidence, Haas began to receive increasing commission, the initially risky leap into independence had paid off. In addition to “in vain,” he composed seminal works like the concerto for violin (1998), a piece for a 32-person choir, bass tuba, and string quartet called Blumenstück (2000; taken from the “Speech of the Dead Christ from the Universe Saying There Is No God” in Jean Paul’s romantic novel Siebenkäs), Torso for a large orchestra (2000; based on Franz Schubert’s unfinished piano sonata in C major, D 840), the orchestral work Natures mortes (2003), the opera Die schöne Wunde (2003), and the concerto for cello (2004).
To get a feeling for Haas’s musical aesthetic, it is advisable to to not only listen to his music, but also take a look at his writings. In “Fünf Thesen zur Mikrotonalität” he expresses his opinion that dissonances and beat do not represent some kind of a bane of musical practice, but in fact are a basic human need. Haas is convinced that “the various musical traditions are not looking for conformity with the proportions of the partial tone series, but rather are trying to depart from it.” It’s not about union, but dissonance, he says.
This also explains what the composer is talking about when he refers to his fascination for the “wonderfully ‘artificially tempered’ beat-producing major and dominant seventh chords” that he extracts from their tonality, their system, and accentuates the tonal chords in their essential sonority.
The alteration between microtonality and the equal tempered twelve-tone scale, which we are familiar with from the piano as what is referred to as well-tempered tuning, represents one of the quintessential qualities of Haas’s compositions. He says that the harmony of the little-known Russian composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893 – 1979) was a formative influence on his work.
Haas has explored the Russian’s idea of “non-octaving” scales in great depth. The point here is not to divide the scale into octaves but into intervals that diverge only slightly from the octave (i.e. microtonally varied sevenths and ninths). This is what produces the fourth/fifth harmonics so characteristic of Haas. The use of microtones is also implied by these non-octaving scales, even though Wyschnegradsky’s mathematical subdivision of the tempered halftone does not in any way adequately explain the diversity of the microtonal sounds in Haas’s work. Microtonality can be evoked by introducing overtone chords (in particular on strings), by splitting sounds (the microtonal densification a small tonal region of a whole tone, for instance), or through the use of percussion instruments (gongs with unstable key tones, reverb effect of drum skins). The human voice with its capacity of free intonation also opens up many possibilities here.
Ultimately – to sum up Haas’s scientific exploration of the nature of sound – all tuning systems remain fiction. Haas counters the debate over the purported naturalness of the overtone series in contrast to the artificiality of the equal-tempered twelve-tone scale with the sober recognition that “a chord consisting of partial tones from the overtone series is not a detailed rendering of the analysis of a real instrumental sound, but an abstraction, almost fiction.” However, according to Haas, this abstract chord develops its own independent quality, says Haas, and therein lies the compositional conclusion.
It is the remarkable multifacetedness that makes Haas’s music so fascinating. His works are filled with a dramaturgy of sound that reveals itself to the listener very directly, and above all nonverbally. They attest to a penetration of profane life with what can only be referred to as a mystical power of sound, a unification of the pleasant and the rough, the exuberant and the ugly, in a world of sound where dissonance represents the measure of all things rather than consonance.
Georg Friedrich Haas has been invited to:
Moving Sounds Festival New York, September 1 to 5, 2010
Moving Sounds is a 5-day festival of music, visual media and aesthetic dialogue, produced jointly by the Austrian Cultural Forum, the music information center austria (mica), and the Argento New Music Project.
Georg Friedrich Haas © Universal Edition/Eric Marinitsch