With great consistency, venturing step by step into new musical territory, Georg Friedrich Haas (born in Graz in 1953) has developed in recent years into one of the most important and exciting of Austrian composers. Always interested in microtonal trends, even in youth he attempted, both theoretically and as an interpreter, to gain an understanding of the work of such figures as Alois Hába, the great pioneer in the field of quarter-, fifth- or even sixth-tone music. Of course, in more recent times microtonal thought has developed in quite different directions. Music based on the twelve-note system and its dodecaphonic or serial organisation had clearly arrived at a frontier, which was seen by post-modern critics of avant-garde experimentation as representing the ultimate exhaustion of this material. The sole remaining possibility was regression: looking afresh at old forms of utterance, seeking different ways to confront them with one another.
Of course a more differentiated subdivision of musical space – for example by means of a quarter-tone division – is in itself no guarantee of new quality. But several composers, coming from quite different directions, had new musical ideas which could no longer be presented within the limits of equi-tempered chromaticism. There were speculations about the spectral organisation of timbre (here it was the French spectralists who conjured up entirely new ways of listening) as well as a convergence with non-European patterns of thought (here one could cite, among other things, Claude Vivier, as well as Klaus Huber’s critical objection to the imperial proliferation of the Western tonal system across the globe). At the root of such ideas lies something like a restoration of sounds to a state of nature, liberating them from their quasi-‘digital’ calibration. The destabilisation of a musical consciousness determined by numerical quantification on both vertical (harmonic, melodic) and horizontal (rhythmic, metrical) levels is indeed one of the most exciting pointers towards a new kind of musical thought. Not only a child’s first sounds, but all our emotional utterances, know nothing of such measured quantities. Subsidiary meanings attached to the very word ‘measured’ (‘measured place’, ‘measured behaviour’) imply as much, suggesting control of action by a set of rationally determined rules. But living emotions, living experience go far beyond this, and composers as antagonistic as Harry Partch (who derived his musical material from the people, from the songs of hitchhikers or native Americans) or Giacinto Scelsi (with his manic immersion in individual notes or sounds) could no longer accept such domestication in their work.
The musical preoccupations of Georg Friedrich Haas come from the same quarter. The music journalist Reinhard Kager once said of his microtonality (with regard to the ensemble work In vain) that this piece involved a collision of ‘harmonic structures derived from overtone series with chords formed from tritones, fourths or fifths. From this arise surfaces of extreme microtonal friction, which Haas repeatedly causes to flow into circling spiral forms: sound loops which seem tentatively to seek, touch and feel their way forward but never lead towards any particular goal, like the endless steps in the drawings of Maurits Cornelius Escher. An air of futility pervades this music, which gently reminds us of the impossibility of ever attaining the perfect harmony of sounds (to say nothing of the harmonious coexistence of human beings). Without a doubt, through its incorporation of overtone spectra the music of Haas – from the beginning focused on sonic experimentation – has achieved a new, even more independent quality.’
Haas has an unmistakable love of imprecision, of the looming darkness. There are several pieces of his which require the performers to realise the work in total darkness (for example the third string quartet, In iij. Noct, which was first performed in underground vaults at the Franzensfeste in the South Tyrol in 2002). By such means metre is undermined: co-ordination through the delivery of precise cues becomes impossible, can be achieved only by listening. Likewise the handling of pitch organisation contains inbuilt imprecisions. Perhaps what most fascinates the composer about this is the rationally inexplicable sensation of ‘suction’ experienced by the solitary listener. This was already the case in his Hölderlin opera with its characteristic title Nacht (‘Night’), and even more drastically so in his Poe/Kafka opera die schöne wunde (‘the beautiful wound’, first staged in Bregenz in 2003), which hovers between anxiety and fascination. ‘I trust timbral analyses as little as I do serial tables,’ Haas has said: his ultimate authority is imprecision, its power as experienced in all forms of performance in which the ear is the only guide.
Georg Friedrich Haas appended the following remarks to his 2003 orchestral work Natures mortes:
‘The musical material of the orchestral piece natures mortes is based on:
These technical remarks and associations obviously cannot convey an impression of the direct impact of this piece, perhaps the most straightforward of Haas’ works. Ever and again the music latches on to sensual impressions, holds them fast, shapes them. The ear that savours delicate microtonal fluctuations no longer allows itself to be compelled to adopt the posturings of critically fractured sound but ranges free, dares to include beat-like rhythmic grids and a clear transparency in the disposition of forces. The music increases in sensual directness, in an impact which is as certain as it is characterised by intricate filigree work (for example a spectrum extending to the sixty-fourth partial!) The musical surface always remains in pulsating motion – the tutti sound is as it were its core, transformed by the most diverse kinds of diffractions, timbral compressions, filtrations or polyphonic and homophonic movement. A uniform semiquaver motion, whose pulsations are sustained over a long period (the large middle section of this 20-minute piece), and which operates like the resolution grid in a photograph, is treated like a pointillistic painting (or perhaps even like one by Roy Lichtenstein). By means of a calculated addition or subtraction of individual elements, the colour, density, harshness or even the proximity of the sound is varied. This process is further supported by a precise control of spectral timbral nuances by means of overtones. Thus there is at the same time movement in lighting, transformations from brightness to darkness or vice versa. This effect is considerably elaborated in the third section of the piece, in which the semiquaver pattern disappears to make room for long sustained notes. Thus we have, in the three sections of the work, three different forms of motion in sound: first, one based on global, predominantly chromatic inner movements, which operate so to speak like eddies on the surface (first part, bb. 1-79); then the uniform rhythmic grid (bb. 80-297); and finally a surface composed of sustained sounds with spectral shadings (b. 298 to the end, b. 433). From these surfaces, which are thus maintained in permanent inner motion by means of different processes, emerge melodic forms, either real or ‘virtual’, which so to speak drift ‘across the waters’. Naturally these are not ‘melodies’ in the traditional sense: rather they are intimations of song-like movement, which arise out of the complex interweaving of the basic patterns as they revolve around one another. The plasticity and clarity of these constructional techniques do not in the least stand in any contradictory relationship with the sense of the enigmatic which the words natures mortes evoke in us. The first performance took place on 19 October 2003, as part of the Donaueschingen Music Days.
The score of the Concerto for Violoncello and Large Orchestra was completed on 28 May 2004. In several respects the experiences of the orchestral piece natures mortes are here further developed and extended. Hölderlin’s ‘I would fain sing’ naturally acquires a heightened significance thanks to the incorporation of the solo instrument, and networks of definite motivic relationships, introduced above all by the solo cello, are clearly perceptible in the work. These finally coalesce into a quotation from Franz Schreker’s opera Der ferne Klang, ‘O father, thy sad inheritance’, which is announced towards the end of the piece with the cello in the foreground (triple forte!) supported by a parallel version in the strings, bells, glockenspiel and marimba at piano and triple piano dynamic level. By this means certain features of the work’s content are hinted at, and Schreker’s melodic pattern has indeed already been heard in several previous utterances of the solo cello.
Once again there are rhythmic grids here, which however from time to time Haas blurs by superimposing tempo layers in the percussion (for example, by overlaying crotchets in tempi of MM 108, 112 and 116; here the percussionists keep in time by means of individually programmed flashing metronomes). By means of such temporal or microtonal imprecisions, Haas undermines the highly melodic, almost conventional entry of the soloist after a massive orchestral introduction. Here the cello stakes its claim to more space in which to appear as soloist in the shape of a cadenza executed in the grand manner, projected outwards almost in the manner of a billboard. But then the orchestral apparatus gains the upper hand and displaces the solo performer: sounds in parallel fifths, set to a pulsating rhythm and expanding to a big tutti, now take possession of the orchestral space. The solo cello ‘cheats’ its way into this texture, beginning inaudibly with a single sustained note and, as it were, waiting until this texture has exhausted its inner energy. Events then once again take on a melodic character, leading into the second ‘quasi’-cadenza. Here the soloist plays the lowest note, C, extremely close to the bridge, thereby unleashing a wealth of overtones. It is so to speak a negative cadenza: the orchestra does not remain silent, but takes hold of the partials thus created and doubles them. Then follows the Schreker quotation, and in the final section the soloist takes over the microtonal lead in all its imprecision. ‘Concerto’ here is thus understood as a confrontation between two principles: the masses and the individual, melodic clarity (even expressivity) and imprecision. All that remains is a fading away in the extreme registers, with a suggestion of the note C as a microtonally blurred tonic.
Reinhard Schulz (Translation by Peter Burt)
With his Cello Concerto, Georg Friedrich Haas has brought forth a truly great work. (Gabriele Luster, Münchner Merkur)
With his Cello Concerto, Haas abducted his listeners into a hitherto unknown world of overtones - a journey to the most remote regions of sonic sensibility and a soft blending of conventional melodicism with fuzzy, micro-tonal friction. (Rüdiger Schwarz, AZ Munich)