Harmony of Futility
The latest music of Georg Friedrich Haas
If there is anything that can be viewed as the essence of his music, then it is experimentation with sound: Georg Friedrich Haas, who was born in 1953 in Graz and has quietly risen to become one of the most important Austrian composers internationally, always felt severely limited by the sonic and harmonic possibilities of the established system of equal temperament. Notes shaded by startling microtonal deviations, such as in his ensemble piece Nacht-Schatten (1991) or in his Hölderlin-based chamber opera Nacht (1995-96), have therefore been determining factors in his compositions since the beginning of his career. Intensive experimentation with floating constellations of overtones has lent a new quality of radicalism to Haas’ sound since his First String Quartet (1997): by way of intricate, filigree sonic structures, his music sheds light into the darker reaches of a society which shows an increasing tendency to shut out that which is foreign or strange.
Works like the First String Quartet make particularly high demands on their performers’ sense of ensemble. Rooted in an utterly eccentric tuning of the four stringed instruments which is derived from four independent four-note chords, the piece drifts off in natural harmonics, bowed only on the open strings, despite which a number of different frequencies can be produced by virtue of the microtonal tuning system. A work of gliding transitions and of slowly developing and abruptly ending processes, the First String Quartet functions thanks only to a high level of precision in tuning and coordination on the part of the performers.
This dialectic between individual parts and the resulting overall sound had already been illuminated by Haas in two earlier works: in the 1994 piece with the unpronounceable title ”.…“, the individual parts of the accordion and the viola only gradually merge with the ensemble sound, which they then influence and from which they, in turn, draw their own inspiration. The process was then made even more radical in …Einklang freier Wesen (1994/96), which refers directly to the Hölderlinian Utopia of the title, artfully weaving together stand-alone parts for between two and ten soloists.
Haas continued his overtone experiments in the sextet Nach-Ruf…ent-gleitend (1999); its intervals, which are based on the semitone row, are not produced by way of scordatura tuning, but are entrusted completely to the control of the six performers – in contrast to the First String Quartet. These tantalizing oscillations are again and again infiltrated by strangely familiar-sounding melodic impostors. These vague reminiscence, however, are set in half and quarter-tone scales, in order that their inherently romantic impressions drift off into the realm of alienation. A memorial to music history and, at the same time, a premonition of a fascination with decidedly futuristic sounds.
Haas’ most radical statement in overtone sonority is embodied by the structurally daring ensemble piece in vain (2000): in this 75-minute work, harmonic forms derived from the overtone rows collide with tritones or fourths and fifths, much like in his Violin Concerto (1998). This action produces coarse microtonal surfaces that Haas repeatedly allows to give way to circling, spiraling forms: looped sonic wisps that seem to be cautiously searching, groping and feeling, but never leading anywhere in particular, like the endless staircases in the drawings of Maurits Cornelius Escher. A touch of futility hangs over this music, quietly bemoaning the impossibility of ever achieving perfect harmony, let alone the harmonic co-existence of human beings. Without a doubt, through its integration of the overtone spectrum, Haas’ music, which has always involved sound experimentation, has now taken on totally new, even more independent qualities.