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More than Technique: The hyper-relevant music of Georg Friedrich Haas

At a time when writers of mainstream music seem to shy away from political comment, the Austrian composer is creating work that pushes boundaries.

By Paul Kilbey (Content Producer (Ballet))

20 April 2015 at 4.15pm | Comment on this article

Everything coalesces in the music of Georg Friedrich Haas: darkness and light, politics and art, tradition and experimentation. Like many of his Austro-German compatriots, including Helmut Lachenmann and Wolfgang Rihm – but in a way quite his own – Haas writes music both defined by and defiant of his classical past.

Haas has experimented extensively with light and dark in his work. His Third String Quartet, ‘In iij. Noct.’, is performed in total darkness, with the four musicians spaced out around the room – ‘It’s like being buried alive’, wrote Alex Ross in The New Yorker. But out of this sinister premise emerges something remarkable. Ross continues: ‘What begins as an experience of deprivation becomes one of radically heightened awareness’. As in many more of his pieces – the piano trio ins Licht; his ‘concerto for light and orchestra’, Hyperion, in which a lighting installation acts as a kind of conductor – light, or the lack of it, becomes an intrinsic compositional element, like another instrument.

The widely acclaimed in vain twice submerges the auditorium in complete darkness, gradually reintroducing light in the closing stages. Audiences not only see the effect, but also hear how the darkness changes the music: having to play from memory, the musicians are given very different material. There is also a political dimension to in vain. Partly motivated by the disturbing rise of the far right in Austria, in vain pits the traditional tuning system against microtonal systems, creating a dense web of unresolvable contradictions that arguably reflects the fraught political climate in which it was written.

Haas’s engagement with politics is evident elsewhere as well. I can’t breathe is written in memory of Eric Garner, who died of suffocation at the hands of a New York police officer. In this piece for solo trumpet, the conventional 12 notes of the chromatic scale gradually constrict – the intervals tighten and the sound becomes muffled in a searing evocation of suffocation. Harrowing and sombre, it is a typical example of Haas’s ability to draw abstract compositional techniques into a debate that stretches far beyond music.

His song cycle ATTHIS, which sets texts by the ancient Greek poet Sappho, arose from a desire to write a cycle like Schubert’s Winterreise – with a happy ending. This isn’t the first time that Haas has looked to Schubert for inspiration: His orchestral piece, Torso is written ‘after’ Schubert’s unfinished Piano Sonata in C major, D 840 – it is a transcription (and completion) of this beautiful sonata fragment using the full gamut of contemporary compositional techniques. Haas has also turned to Mahler, whose Ninth Symphony provided the impetus for the orchestral work dark dreams, given its premiere by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle in 2014 – but, as the final piece shows, he took this Mahlerian inspiration in a wholly new direction.

Haas is often linked to the ‘spectralist’ school of composition. The connection is fair: spectral music, like that of Haas, is deeply involved with the study of sound and the integration of microtones into composition. But it is more than his technique that defines Haas: he is a composer whose music shines a bright light on the world it inhabits.
Morgen und Abend runs 13–28 November 2015. Tickets are still available.

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