Auftragswerk des Münchener Kammerorchesters, gefördert von der Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung.
Location: Kulturhaus Dornbirn / Austria
Orchestra: Münchener Kammerorchester
Conductor: Alexander Liebreich
The yearning of an outsider
Georg Friedrich Haas talks to Florian Olters about “Unheimat”
“The love of the reverberating sound, the love of the notes that unfurl in space and time like living creatures is, for me, one of the fundamental prerequisites of my work,” explains Georg Friedrich Haas. His latest work, Unheimat – music for 19 strings, was commissioned by the Münchener Kammerorchester with the support of the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation and is now receiving its first and second performances by the chamber orchestra. In this piece, the Austrian composer, who was born in 1953, uses micro-intervals and harmonic series. The concert halls where the piece is performed also require a particular layout: the three groups of musicians sit separately from one another on the stage. The double bass, which plays a special role, is positioned between the first and second groups. The new work is also about the Alps in the Austrian state of Vorarlberg.
Florian Olters: Mr. Haas, do you feel as though you don’t have anywhere to call home?
Georg Friedrich Haas: Well I was born in Graz, but from 1955 to 1971 I lived in the south of Vorarlberg. Right in the Alps, in the winter sports resort Tschagguns. The title of the piece, Unheimat (non-home), more or less reveals how I felt there. There are a lot of memories in it.
FO: What kind of memories?
GFH: I grew up there as someone who never learnt the language – the people there speak an Alemannic dialect – and I belonged to a kind of religious community. I was brought up as a protestant, but it’s a very, very catholic place. The title of the work expresses two aspects: the longing for somewhere to call home, on the one hand, and the fact that this home does not exist.
FO: How does one compose this kind of “dialectic”?
GFH: The work isn’t based on a specific programme. But if you look at the passages which are written microtonally around a single tone, where one individual tone is performed very expressively, something of this lost world is captured – just an undercurrent. And then there’s the double bass part: in a piece for string orchestra, the double bass is always an outsider.
FO: Why is that?
GFH: There are historical reasons. The instrument is built differently from the other string instruments and has a different sound. The double bass may be more at home with the wind instruments than the strings – just think of jazz music. The double bass doesn’t really belong there, but is somehow still a part of it.
FO: In your piece, the double bass has a lot of rests.
GFH: Exactly. That’s true. It plays the first note and then the cadence at the end. In between, it barely has a role. In a tonal piece, the solo double bass definitely has a role but, as a composer, it’s hard to know how to integrate the instrument if the tonality is lost. That’s why the double bass is an outsider.
FO: Have you found somewhere you can call home now?
GFH: There’s a nice documentary that was produced by ORF [Austrian broadcasting corporation]. We travelled to Tschagguns to make it and sat in the same cable-car I’d ridden in as a child. During the ride, I was asked about my home. It was very suggestive, of course – asking that particular question in that particular place. There are different homes; there isn’t such a thing as one home. I believe that only an ever-decreasing minority will have somewhere they can really call home, as the 21st century progresses.
FO: On the other hand, for us Europeans the EU could give rise to a new home – at least a new understanding of the concept of home. Do you see yourself as a European?
GFH: Well my wife is from Japan. (Laughs) I don’t think the European idea you’re talking about really holds water. I lived in Ireland for a year, but I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as home – even though the country belongs to the European Union. Of course Europe is extremely important, but I suspect I’d feel a lot more at home in New York than in Crete, for instance.
FO: Would you feel more at home in Japan? After all, the microtonality that you work with, including in Unheimat, is the musical heritage of the Far East.
GFH: You’d have to talk to my wife about that. If you asked her whether my microtonality has a Japanese influence, she would say: “definitely not”. I value the Japanese tradition of microtonality, but mine is typically European. I use the same concepts that have always existed in European music. If you look at the eighth-tone variations in the music, they are simply a slightly expanded version of what the Vienna Philharmonic does anyway – just not written down. My microtonality is definitely not an exoticism – I’d feel very uncomfortable if it were. And the harmonic series I use does not occur in Japanese or Indian music theory at all.
FO: There were various different approaches to microtonality in 20th century Europe. The Czech composer, Alois Hába (1893–1973), was one of the first composers to use micro-intervals. How important is his work for you?
GFH: It’s wonderful that you’ve mentioned Hába; he’s often forgotten. For me, Hába plays a great role as far as form is concerned. The separate parts of his works are not connected at all, and are not permitted to be either. He moves freely from one point to the next. On the other hand, his harmonic theory has two laws which are the only ones in music to be universal, in my opinion. Firstly: any tone can be added to any other tone to create a meaningful harmony. Secondly: any sound can be placed in a meaningful context with any other sound. The rest of his harmonic theory is slightly more related to the era in which he lived.
FO: Are you pleased that Unheimat will be performed during the current “Alpine” season of the Münchener Kammerorchester and that it will be part of this project?
GFH: You could say that the title of this piece wouldn’t have come about without the concept of the Alps. However, I have to say that the title only came to me once I’d finished composing the piece. That’s the same with all my works: I don’t want to feel restricted by the language of the title. It’s also helpful for the concertgoers – in modern music, in particular, listeners should be offered some kind of association.
Argento Chamber Ensemble