05 03 2015
#3825

Georg Friedrich Haas "In Vain" for 24 instruments (2000)

For listening to music, melodic lines, well-tempered pitch rasters and the metric measure Akzentstufentakt are comparable, for walking a staircase, to banisters, handrails, and usual size and placement of steps. The standard staircase relieves you from thinking about your walking movements; in music, the usual proportions of pitches and tempi are not calculated for the purpose of drawing the listener’s attention to their peculiarity. The regular pulse and the twelve-tone division of the piano octave are generally something just as unexceptional as the chairs in a concert hall or the spotlights on stage.

One way of approaching Georg Friedrich Haas’s composition in vain is to start right off with the spotlights. In one of the piece’s two versions the lights are taken out of their usual unobtrusiveness—the light’s intensity is part of the score; it ranges from concert lights on rostrum and desk to full darkness. The music that must be played in the dark not only puts audience and ensemble in an unusual situation but, at the very start, is also a challenge to the composer. First of all, the parts need to be easy to learn by heart; secondly, all the music played must be controllable by ear; and thirdly, it is futile to expect an invisible conductor to perform his usual function. When the lights gradually vanish only a few minutes after in vain begins, the brisk interwoven downward lines of the beginning come to a standstill—what remains are low, lingering tones, evading one another in microtonal steps by a semitone. Even in the version without light direction (to be heard at Wien Modern) the music moves in jet blackness, seems to get its bearings anew, gropes its way.

March forward, to call it marching, to call it forward. Should I one day, and now it starts, just have remained where, instead of following an old habit of going out in order to spend day and night as far away from myself as possible, it was not far. Perhaps this is how it started.

(Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable)

“There is no tradition of microtonal music.  Far into the twentieth century all composers who compose microtonically have begun anew. Nowadays it is considered unusual to use microtones.  It is necessary to show cause why one is using tones outside of the tempered system.” (Haas, ÖMZ 6/1999). 

Often precisely this unfamiliarity is for Georg Friedrich Haas the starting point for his compositions. He does not maintain that he has invented microtonality anew (quite the contrary: he lets the experiences of the—extremely diverse, incidentally—harmonic concepts of Ivan Wyschnegradsky, Alois Hába, Giacinto Scelsi, James Tenney and Harry Partch seep into his compositions). Just as little does Haas intend to “improve” the tempered system, say for example, in the direction of the obviously beautiful pure pitch of Just intonation. The differences between what is usual and what is possible become audible in his music; the focus lies on what is trapped under listening habits. The astounding reduction of his String Quartet No. 1 – there is virtually nothing in it that corresponds to the common concept of melodies.  The rhythmics are limited to accelerations, retardations and dead stops. The pitches relate to no more than four fundamental tones, and there are but few ways of articulation. Almost inevitably the rhythmics refer the audience to sound and form—they make the shades audible.

then before I find myself at the same point and in about the same condition, I will one after another be the following (Samuel Beckett, How It Is)

Some examples of the use of microtones in in vain: at the beginning, single (high) partial tones slip almost unnoticed into the “normal” tempered intonation. The more densely the partial tones are fitted to spectra, the more the even half-tones find their counterworld in the natural partial tone sequence, with their intervals becoming ever smaller as pitch increases. Just as in hisConcerto for violin and orchestra, two harmonic source materials are facing one another—on the one hand excerpts from rows of overtones, on the other hand chords from Tritonus and from musical fourths and fifths (as can be found with Wyschnegradsky). The first are based essentially on the wind section’s playing technique—the fundamental tones are often played by the lower strings. The harp is also microtonally tuned—only the piano and vibraphone have no access to the overtone rows. At the end of the second phase of darkness the tempo acceleration is driven to such an extent that the difference between the two systems finally starts to vanish in the density of the tone series.

It is during the transition to this last dark phase that combinations of different overtone spectra emerge and with them audible friction. Horns and trombones, for example, simultaneously play the interval C-sharp-E. This minor third, however, belongs one time in the spectrum of the primary tone A, one time to the primary tone F-sharp—both from the tempered scale; this means that both minor thirds are of different sizes and can in a way be boxed into one another with respectively 1/6 and 1/12 tone “air”—and with corresponding harmonic friction. Just as Haas had used this construction method in a similar way in Nach-Ruf ... ent-gleitend ..., with microtonally staggered primary tones, the primary tones in in vain are taken from the tempered system—and thus allow nothing else to be heard but those in this hidden microtonal system. 

I had already made a good ten steps, if you can call them steps, of course  not dead straight, but in a rather sharp curve, which, without leading me back to my exact starting point, seemed suitable to let me drift past him in a razor sharp way, if I’d only stick to it. I might as well have gotten entangled with an inverse spiral, I believe, the snail lines of which instead of becoming wider, needed to become tighter and tighter, until they could not be continued, because of the kind of room I was to move in. In that moment, facing the practical impossibility of proceeding, I might very well be  forced to stop—at the risk of starting out right away in the opposite direction—or much later, getting kind of unscrewed after having got tightly stuck.

(Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable)

To repeat: for listening to music, melodic lines, well-tempered pitch rasters and the metric measure Akzentstufentakt are comparable, for walking a staircase, to banisters, handrails, and usual size and placement of steps. Even subtle deviations from  normal dimensions, or perspective distortions as are found in some stairways in the Vatican or in Odessa, give rise to irritation.  In his famous lithograph, Maurits C. Escher links the upper and lower ends of a stairway to form a sort of spiral staircase with only one turning, thus presenting an unreal microcosmos of aimlessness. (Escher’s strange illustrations seem to bear an etymological likeness to in vain; Salvatore Sciarrino points out that “Vanitas” was once a common denotation for Still Life as a painting genre.) In in vain such treacherous spirals can be found in several respects. Even within its almost imperceptible details a large part of the piece is molded by interwoven “infinitely” descending pitch rows similar to Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich (not without reference to the encapsulated upward glissandi in James Tenney’s “For Anne Rising”).  At the end of the piece an extensive accelerando leads back into itself. Such spiral forms already existed in the String Quartet No. 1; a tremolo is decelerated to such a degree that the single tones attain the intervals of the original tremolo impulses. In in vain prolonged, extended processes with gradual transformations, treacherous spiral formations—as much in the organization of pitch as in the time structure—as well as “returning to a situation believed to be overcome” (Haas) become the principle of form.

...I absolutely could not explain how it could have occurred that I had followed my own tracks. Later on I understood. What I had taken to be another’s horse-trail had been my own. Without a landmark or signpost I had been making a circle; while I believed I was riding forward, I was riding backward. (Charles Sealsfield, A Scamper in the Prairie of Jacinto)

What is in vain’s relationship to the “Musique Spéctrale”? I must start by saying the following: in contemporary Parisian musical life even declared loners join together in composers’ groups; in Austria this has been unusual for many years. Critical disagreements (with the genealogical table or with colleagues) are more widespread than manifestos; in our country isms are avoided more than equidistances.

In Darmstadt (Germany) Georg Friedrich Haas learned to hold in esteem Gerard Grisey’s and Tristan Murail’s worlds of sound.  The detailed computer analysis of real sounds as source material, used by these two for instrumentation, stand in opposition to the hearing experience of the global sounds in Haas’s work: “I trust sound analysis just as little as I trust sequential tables,” he says, and refers to the fact that the translation of analytically-detected partial tones (of a trombone, for instance) into instrumentation leads to entirely different sounds anyway. The comparison with sequential tables leads to a rather important aspect of “spectralism”, as serialism is one of the major points of reference for Hugues Dufourt’s manifesto-like 1979 text Esthetics of Transparency. Spectral Music, and to a certain extent as a conflict with the genealogical table. Georg Friedrich Haas is definitely fond of figures—the implicit symbolism of numbers in in vain is far- reaching: the number of players (24 instruments in the dark plus a director in the light) is in correspondence with the microtonal interval 24:25. In spite of all its rigorous structure, Serial Music is by far less significant in Georg Friedrich Haas’s musical thinking than for example Alois Hába’s ideal form—free roaming without thematical coherence. And as a source for instrumental overtone sequences, Haas refers first of all to Franz Schubert and not to Tristan Murail. 

it snows, then rains downpour,
it snows, it rains, it snows;
then rain and rain it goes,
it rains, then snows once more

(Ror Wolf, Wetterverhältnisse)

The piece is dedicated to Sylvain Cambreling

(Bernhard Günther, 2000)

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