flute, bass flute, oboe, 2 clarinets, saxophone (tenor and soprano), bassoon, 2 horns in F, 2 trombones, percussion, harp, piano, accordion, 3 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos and double bass

To Sylvain Cambreling

When listening to music, melodic lines, well—tempered pitch intervals, and shifting accents tally with the railing, handrail, accustomed size and arrangement of steps when climbing a staircase. A standard staircase disengages the mind from thinking about the walking movements; the accustomed proportions of pitch and time in music do not intend to direct the listener’s attention to their texture. The regular pulse and the division of the piano octave into twelve parts are usually perceived as nothing special, just as the seats in a concert hall are not, nor spotlights on a stage.

To approach Georg Friedrich Haas’ composition In Vain, one can begin directly with the spotlights. The light intensity in the concert hall is annotated in the score and ranges from “concertlighting as for podium and lectern” to complete darkness. It is the music, to be played in complete darkness according to the score annotations, that puts not only the audience and the performer in an unaccustomed position, but above all the composer himself. Firstly, the vocals should be easy to memorize, secondly everything that is played must be controllable by ear, and thirdly it is futile to expect an invisible conductor to perform his usual tasks. When the light gradually fades, only minutes after In Vain begins, the quick, interlaced downward lines starting from the outset cease, while soft, lying tones remain, dodging each other by way of quarter—tone intervals. This peculiar “sound without light” is not only easily made out on the CD, but, theoretically, is much easier wrapped by the darkness of a living room, as originally intended, than in the concert hall with its required emergency lighting. The music dips into the pitch—black darkness of the night, finds its bearings anew, and gropes its way forward.

“Microtonal music has no tradition. Until late in the 20th century, all composers writing microtonal music had to begin anew every time. Even today, using microtones is considered out of the ordinary. You need to justify the use of tones from outside the tempered system.” (Haas) This lack of familiarity is often the starting point for compositions by Georg Friedrich Haas. Not that he purports to having reinvented microtonality; quite the contrary: He allows the experiences of — incidentally, rather varying — harmonic concepts of at least Ivan Wyschnegradsky, Alois Hába, Giacinto Scelsi, James Tenney, and Harry Partch to flow into his compositions. Similarly, Haas does not intend to “improve” the tempered system by moving toward the obvious euphony of “Just intonation”, of pure mood. His music often turns to make hearable the differences between the usual and the possible, moving what is buried below our listening habits into the focus of attention. The reduction the ear often discerns in the music of Georg Friedrich Haas — the absence of ordinary melodies, the melting away of rhythm in acceleration and deceleration, the limitation to only a few pitch levels and modes of articulation — unfailingly refers listeners to the sound and the form, allowing in—between tones to become heard once again.

Some examples for the use of microtones from In Vain, for the record: In the “normal” tempered intonation the piece sets out with, individual (high) tones initially sneak in nearly unnoticed; the denser these sound spectra are formed, the more the counter—world emerges with the natural series of partials and their intervals, which increasingly contract as the pitch rises, contrasting these wonted regular partials of the tempered mood. As in Violinkonzert, two harmonic starting points are contrasted: on the one hand, extracts of pure overtone series, on the other hand, chords in the tempered piano mood made of thirds, fourths, and fifths (as often encountered with Wyschnegradsky). The difference between these two tone systems blurs after the end of the second dark phase with a renewed acceleration of the tempo in the increasing density of the sound.

Right at the transition to this second and last dark phase a combination of various overtone spectra sets in — and thus audible friction. For instance, horns and trombones play the third C#—E simultaneously — however, from the overtone spectrum of A, on the one hand, and from F sharp, on the other, implying, in this case, that the two small thirds are of different sizes and can virtually be fitted into each other, with 1/6 th or 1/12 th of a tone difference respectively — and with abrasive friction resounding together. While Haas used this manner of construction in a similar way in Nachruf — entgleitend… using fundamentals set with microtones, the fundamentals of In Vain are derived from the tempered system — and let nothing but the microtonality hidden within be heard.

Once again: When listening to music, melodic lines, well—tempered pitch intervals, and shifted accents, tally with the railing, handrail, accustomed size and arrangement of steps when climbing a staircase. Mere subtle deviations from the standard, distortions in perspective, as with the stairs of the Vatican or in Odessa, cause irritation. In a now famous lithography, Maurits C. Escher combines the upper and lower ends of a staircase and thus presents a microcosm of aimlessness. The curious pictures of Escher also seem related to In Vain etymologically: “Vanitas” as a former common description for a certain type of still life in painting. In Vain contains such delusive spirals in several ways. Large parts of the piece are characterised by mutually interlaced, “infinitely” descending pitch levels, even the hardly perceivable details. Near the end, an extended accelerando withdraws into itself. Vast, extensive processes with gradual transformations, deceptive spiral formations — both in the organisation of pitch levels and in the time structure — and the “return to situations deemed to be overcome” (Haas) are the form principle of In Vain.

The hearing experience of the overall sound is decisive for Haas: “I don’t trust in sound analyses nor in row charts”, he explains, examining the detailed computer analyses of real sounds as those found at the beginning in Gerard Grisey’a and Tristan Murail’s music, which also have recourse to the upper tone spectrum. Georg Friedrich Haas really has a bent for numbers; the implicit symbolism of numbers in In Vain applies even to the relation between the size of orchestration (24 instruments in the dark, plus the director in the light) and the microtonal 24:25 interval. Over and beyond construction, Georg Friedrich Haas tends to cultivate Alois Hábas’ ideal concept of form, described as “free rambling without thematic context”. And Haas does not refer to contemporaries such as Tristan Murail as the source of instrumented overtone series, but rather to the repetitive sevenths of Franz Schubert.

(Source: Bernhard Günther. Thanks to Universal Edition that allowed us to reproduce the entire program note included in the CD box.) [English translation: BrainStorm translations & interpretation]

Performance

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