The ensemble’s lowest register: at once a foundation and an abyss. Music at the limit of the pitch material. The context of the apparently familiar parameters of time, interval and volume is displaced. Night and light.
Thus Georg Friedrich Haas sketches La profondeur, his new work. As the composer himself suggests, the low, deep pitch regions form the work’s crucial, pivotal element or point; they harbour a dazzlingly responsive space in which a wealth of partials resonate, forming the fundament for the sound. Almost without exception, the gamut of pitches ranges from the lowest note on a modern grand piano (sub-contra A) to G below middle C, i.e. not quite two octaves.
Low winds and strings dominate the orchestration: bass clarinet in Bb, contrabass clarinet in Bb, baritone saxophone in Eb, contraforte (a newly-designed contrabassoon, much more dynamically flexible than the conventional one), bassoon, horn in F, trombone, contrabass and two cellos, as well as percussion (bass drums, low timpani and gongs), piano and accordion.
The strings are required to retune some of their open strings: the 1st cello’s G string a 3/4 tone lower, the 2nd cello’s C string a semitone lower and its 3rd string (A) a whole tone lower, the five-string contrabass is written in scordatura – C1, E1, A#1, C#, F# - instead of its usual tuning; all these adjustments to open strings facilitate highly effective microtone clashes.
Says Haas: “I hope that the sonics in this piece harbour a certain eeriness: for example, the great unisono melody starting in Bar 128 [after the striking overtone chords in the strings – ed.], which is set quasi espressivo but which sounds in a register where no one usually writes an espressivo melody – it has something unfathomable about it.” The music alternates between sonic masses and unisoni which use subtle intervallic shifts to develop an iridescent inner life of their own as the instruments sporadically circle about one or more pitch centres in slow motion.
Haas dispenses with flageolets entirely, due to the influence of the low register. As he explains, “There are situations in which pitches unsettle one another; the difference between clusters and chords becomes blurred. This piece produces many sounds which are not written in the score.”
Haas is referring not only to the overtone effects (which are particularly effective in the low register), but to the pitch transmutations, evoked by the stark, dynamically fluctuating crescendo-decrescendo sections, as well as the spectral effects the strings make by playing arco as closely to the bridge as possible, the gongs’ volatile intonation and the general sonic development in the low register, especially in the winds:
The notes are often so short that they do not have time to fully establish their pitches; the ground is unstable. In purely physical terms, the low C vibrates at ca. 32 Hertz. Now, assuming a metronomic tempo of crotchet [quarter-note] = 60, if I sound the pitch for the duration of a hemidemisemiquaver [32nd note], it will last for 1/8 of a second. In that time, no more than four oscillations can develop. With electronic music, that is enough time to make the pitch recognisable – on the piano, too, because its strings respond very quickly – but that is not the case with a contrabass clarinet; there, you hear only a kind of burble, as the oscillation barely begins to happen.
Sounds change their usual characteristics in their lowest and highest registers, thus entailing a shift in the parameters of time, intervals and volume, as Haas mentions. He explains this phenomenon using the example of the introductory motif; six pitches on the piano, in a register so low that it is barely perceptible as a melody. Haas comments:
Everything becomes indistinct at such depth. It is possible to sense a fifth or a third, but that is much more difficult than in higher registers. If I were to play the pitch sequence two octaves higher, it would be easy to hum. But in the low register the pitches lose their identity, chords cannot be identified; they turn into threatening figments. Due to the unpredictability in its low registers – specifically, the interplay of partials – the piece has a somewhat chancy character.
If you happen to be an ambitious instrument-maker, be forewarned; do not try to change the sound of an accordion. Says Haas:
With regard to bar 112 and the following ones [around the middle of the piece – ed.], where the accordionist first plays the semitone layering in the left register, where it sounds good, and then in the hollow-sounding right register, I hope that the accordion will never undergo improvements because otherwise this place [in my piece] will never work. The sound must be hollow – and if an instrument-maker tries to correct those hollow-sounding passages, then it will be so much the worse for the piece.
Translation Copyright © 2012 by Grant Chorley