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Georg Friedrich Haas

“...there is sorrow in my music, there is fear, the feeling of being driven, of implacability…”

    Born in 1953 in Graz, Austria’s second largest city, Haas is among the most remarkable composers of his generation. His fascination with quarter-tones and other marginal, outsider sonorities was quickened by his contact with the spectral music that was coming out of Paris in the 1980s – music in which natural overtone spectra provided models for building sounds. At the same time, in revisiting media and sometimes specific works of the past, he has shown how diverse, strange, and alluring their shadows may be.

        He studied at the conservatory in his home town with Gösta Neuwirth and Ivan Eröd, and began teaching there before graduating. Two years of postgraduate study with Friedrich Cerha in Vienna followed (1981-3); he also attended courses at Darmstadt and at the computer studio IRCAM in Paris. He published very little until he was into his forties, but during the last two decades he has produced a prodigious quantity of music, including four full-length operas, numerous big orchestral scores, and seven string quartets. Among his dialogues with the musical past are Torso for large orchestra (1999-2000), based on an unfinished Schubert sonata, and Sieben Klangräume (2005), devised to be interleaved with the movements of Mozart’s Requiem. Some of his works have required special lighting – or absence of lighting. His third quartet, “In iij Noct.” (2001), is to be played entirely in the dark, and episodes of darkness enfold the ensemble piece in vain (2000), which was performed here in 2009 and is now established as a modern classic.

    His return to Miller Theatre coincides with his arrival at Columbia University as professor of composition.

tria ex uno for sextet (2001)
    Scored for the standard sextet that adds a percussionist to the line-up of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano), this twelve-minute piece exemplifies Haas’s reworking of historical material, based as it is on the second Agnus Dei from a mass by Josquin, his Missa “L’homme armé” super voces musicales, i.e. mass on the much used “L’homme armé” tune, transposed in each movement to a new, higher degree of the scale C–D–E–F–G–A. Admired in its time, this was the setting chosen to open a volume of Josquin’s masses that was printed in 1502, the music’s most astounding feature being its control of harmony under fearsome conditions of polyphonic complexity.

    The section that appealed to Haas was one that Renaissance theorists quoted regularly with approval, for it is a faultless “mensuration canon,” a canon whose voices go at different speeds. This example has three voices and so three speeds, the tenor being the slowest, the bass, a fifth below, twice as fast, and the third voice, an octave above the bass, three times as fast. The melody is the same for each voice, but, of course, the slower voices have less of it than the fastest. Three-part counterpoint comes from a single line: three from one, or, as Haas’s title has it, “tria ex uno.”

    Haas takes the three-from-one principle a step further, to create a work in three sections. The first straightforwardly assigns Josquin’s vocal parts to instruments: bass clarinet for the tenor, with cello below and violin above. In the second, going on from the example of Webern’s Bach arrangement, Haas distributes the parts around the whole sextet, “with the purpose of making clear the motivic relationships by differentiating the sounds.” Thus, for example, the first melodic interval, a rising minor third, is given to the woodwind instruments: alto flute for the first voice (D–F), being the fastest and uppermost, then bass clarinet (D–F an octave below), then alto flute again (A–C).

    “The third part,” Haas writes, “is a new, freestanding composition, in which the music of the Agnus Dei is paraphrased, transferred, and painted over.” This is a very much longer installment (180 measures to the 25 of the Josquin, whether straight or Webernized), and it takes us a huge step further into Haas’s personal world of fragility and half-light, of microtonal deviations and uneasy permanences — also, at times, of startling vehemence. Like the Josquin, the movement begins with the sonority D–A–D, but now extended to make a whole slow, generally quiet introduction, where the notes tremble and rotate in color while their pitches are deformed (re-formed, one might better say) by quarter-tone departures that carry them toward their chromatic neighbors. It is by this process of creeping distonation that the next note of the Josquin is reached, F, but not until measure 22. From there, with growing drama, the piece develops interference patterns between just intonation (the kind Josquin probably expected) and equal temperament. The repeating notes of the original also have their consequences.

de terrae fine for violin (2001)
        “At the end of the earth.” Haas wrote the piece at a house in south-west Ireland, looking out at the Atlantic, but the sense of the title is more than geographical. The violinist, and the violin, are under limit conditions, pressed to extremes. Intervals involving quarter-tones are the norm; there are also sixth-tone intervals and even eighth-tone fluctua- tions, as well as intervals to be played in just intonation. Meanwhile, the music sets out within cramped spaces. There is a line that budges at first just within the instrument’s bottom register, and occasional alternations to pizzicato do not widen the scope. High harmonics seem no more than punctuation marks, and a sudden luminous sound — a just-tuned major third — soon gives way to intense discords of a seriously minor second (i.e. two notes a quarter-tone apart). However, more light comes from arpeggios, and the line starts to rise and goes on rising. There are also new events, including, about two-thirds of the way through the seventeen-minute piece, a flow of just-tuned thirds, “as if coming from another world,” as the marking has it. The intervals tighten as before, but the music has been set in a new direction, and there is no stopping it — not even with a noisy recollection of its original line — until it is done.

ATTHIS for soprano and octet (2009)

        An extraordinary forty-minute solo scene, ATTHIS is among Haas’s most powerful recent works. It is named for a character in several of the numerous fragments that survive of Sappho’s poetry, such as: “I loved you, Atthis, once long ago.” Other fragments supply the soprano’s text, but not this one, which is, however, omnipresent in its themes of love and loss, of union and separation. These are very often Sappho’s themes, but loss and separation are implicated, too, in how her poetry has come down to us, largely in lines and sections quoted by later writers. The disconnectedness — the shreds that have to stand for wholes, and the holes — have fascinated contemporary artists, among whom Anne Carson and Harrison Birtwistle might be mentioned. In the case of this Haas piece, the singer may be enfolded by the ensemble, which is that of Schubert’s Octet, or isolated from it. On the planes of harmony and instrumental timbre, too, there is fusion and frustration, and a long oscillation between the two.

        It is with a moment of fusion that the work begins: a major third, A–C sharp, played by the string quartet in four registers without vibrato. The winds join and take over this sound, as much of it as they can, and the soprano also enters, on a poised upper note, to start a line of Greek:

no honey for me, no bee

        The line emerges only very slowly, in three stages, summoned by different intervals: major third, minor third, tritone. Then a low G is held, to become the bass of a new interval, a major seventh, but now with a first microtonal discrepancy, in the horn, which plays a lowered G flat that is the eleventh partial of a low C sharp. Using the resonance properties of the instruments, Haas often calls for “out-of-tune” harmonics, besides quarter-tone and sixth-tone tunings. Here, the new sonority calls forth a new vocal contribution, quite different. The words — now in German, as they will be for most of the rest of the piece — come faster and alternate between two kinds of delivery: almost spoken and melodious, accompanied by new harmonies:

The moon has set with the Pleiades

        Quite soon, at the instigation of the strings, a third vocal style is introduced, of rising glissandi, still with changing or sliding harmonies from the ensemble. Tension mounts, to the point where the soprano turns to new words, all the time mixing her styles:

from the depths of the night
        only I
        falls incessantly
        in the dark
        I sleep

        These words the singer redelivers in different orders as the music becomes more excited, with vocal glissandi up into a high register, fortissimo. Then a new word is added to the phrase “I sleep”:


        At this point, the voice rests awhile. The instruments, however, do not. For a time they all settle on and around middle D, with quarter-tone tunings, from which they return to separate paths in loud waves that take them to different places in the harmonic spectrum of the double bass’s D. From there, they move to a fixed chord, pulsing dynamically, that invites the singer to re-enter with a new Sappho fragment:

me you’ve forgotten

        Double bass, horn, and bassoon join on the low D, while the other instruments climb to ever higher harmonics. Then comes a change of harmony into a short passage whose wildness calms down:

my face stares
        into the abyss of midnight

        With a return to something like the mood and material of the opening, the soprano repeats her first line, now in German:

no honey, no bee

        Big crescendos then underlie a mostly sung passage:

icy the frost lies
        on the solidifying heart
        dead hang the wings

        From here the instruments continue until they find a plateau, a harmonic spectrum on E flat, turning through others as the singer comes back, repeating words over and over:

nevermore am I coming
        back to you

        The ensemble then discovers the movement’s still center in piled fifths, D–A–E, which start to vibrate and so lead the music into a long section of heated quivering harmonies that slide and shift around the soprano’s aria, to words from one of the longest Sappho fragments, a poem whose record of emotional intensity has echoed through western culture:

and my broken tongue
        swims heavy in my mouth
        and under my skin
        gruesome fire smolders
        and to my languishing eyes
        the world disappears
        and a high roaring
        buzzes in my ears
        and from every pore
        seep pearls of sweat
        trembling and weak
        my limbs waver
        and sulphur-yellow my skin
        paler yet than withered grass
        I fall and in its black grip
        death takes my soul

        The final line, incomplete, pointing toward vacancy, stares out to end the work’s first part:

and yet

        In fragile calm the second part opens, becoming more vociferous and virtuoso as the singer repeats a new Sappho fragment:

as the storm moves in
        on the oaks on the hillside
        so Eros drove into me

        After a sequence of bold gestures comes a new trilling, slow-sliding calm from the strings, within which the soprano returns to Greek:

spring’s messenger, the sweet-voiced nightingale

        With an abrupt super-low note she then returns to forthright song in German as the string texture continues with widening glissandi and winds reappear:

you, I was looking for you
        yes, you set my heart alight
        and in full longing it stands in flames

        There is a short noise-interlude before the voice goes on in broken song against continuous instrumental polyphony, coming to a fragment recently heard in Greek:

your figure soft and tempting
        desires desire
        your eyes dark and damp
        and your face lit
        by overflowing love
        nightingale, spring’s messenger

        The singer falls silent and the polyphony begins to stall, in preparation for a new phase, where the voice, in its separated words, is echoed and pre-echoed within the instrumental music, toward a tutti unison, on treble-register D:

pink-armed gilded purple flower

        But soon the soprano tears the rapture and sends the instruments shivering again in changing harmonies:


        Having reached high D, she goes on with her invitation:

come deep inside the holy temple
        hidden in the apple grove
        where incense smokes from the altar

        The voice then quells all this, and moves into slow-moving ensemble harmonies in declaiming from another fragment in Greek:

on the breasts of your tender companion

        There is a pause, after which the singer begins her last song alone, then gathers instruments around her:

quiet now here, with her,
        with her lover

        A wide upward slide adds the final words to the preceding Greek fragment:

you will sleep

        Then the love song goes on, over the D–A–E chord, until this dissolves into quartertone harmony from the string quartet:

quiet now here with her lover

at her tender breast