This month, Philip Cashian, composer and Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, explores Georg Friedrich Haas‘ in vain. Performed in white light and pitch black, in vain transforms the concert hall into a mysterious new landscape where you must trust your ears and relinquish your sight. Written in protest to the rise of the far-right Freedom Party in the 1999 Austrian elections, in vain hints at a frightening world where any hope for social progress feels increasingly out of reach.
We’ll be performing the London premiere of in vain on Friday 6 December at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. We’re also performing the UK premiere of the work on Saturday 16 November at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Read on to discover more and join in by posting any comments or questions you have for Philip in the comments box.
Georg Friedrich Haas in vain (2000)
for 24 instruments
in vain is a monumental piece of music lasting 70 minutes. The title alludes to the spiral structure of the work ‘returning to a situation believed to be overcome’ (Haas). The frenetic descending figures of the opening minutes return at the end of the work having travelled through countless transformations and explorations of timbre, harmonic manipulation, shifts of tempo, throbbing rhythms and pure sonic ingenuity.
Light and dark
For me, in vain is so relevant and forward looking as it questions the whole experience of what listening to live music in a concert hall should be. It stretches the listener’s attention for a single span of 70 minutes’ worth of music and twice plunges the concert hall into complete darkness. If lighting is employed to great effect in musical theatre and live rock and pop concerts why shouldn’t it be used in contemporary classical music?
Haas builds the piece out of very clear musical ideas. There is no melodic material in the work and all pitch material grows from an investigation of the notes and partials of the harmonic series. This allows Haas to construct music that integrates quarter tones seamlessly into the musical fabric giving the work a highly individual, other worldly character. The endless manipulation of pitch and rhythm stretched over relatively long spans of time gives the music an almost primal quality. Haas is digging down into the very nature of how what we are hearing functions. He also thinks of the music in layers giving the piece a geological aspect.
The overall structure of the work is surprisingly simple considering the sophisticated and detailed musical grammar. Here are some defining moments to listen out for:
05:22 This marks the beginning of the second section as the scurrying descending scales of the opening minutes disappear. The music freezes on a chord that has extremely high notes played on the accordion making the music sound electronic.
15:04 At this point, Haas introduces pulsing, static chords underpinned by subtle changes of orchestration. Quarter tone glissandi twist and stretch the surface of the music. This kind of writing gives the ‘bar to bar detail’ that engages the listener’s ear over such slowly transforming spans of time.
24:20 The four horns descend down through the notes of the harmonic series – a fundamental building block of the work.
28:31 Tremolos in the percussion, accordion and wind are the first hint that the music will return to its scurrying opening material.
44:15 Repetitive figures introduced in the percussion and strings begin a climactic section of the piece.
53:42 Does the piece have a climax and, if so, is this it?
59:00 A return to the opening music of the piece.
The influence of French spectralist composers such as Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey is very much in evidence, as well as that of György Ligeti, Steve Reich and Morton Feldman. Here are some links to these composers and a few others:
- Tristan Murail: La Barque Mystique
- Listen out for scurrying scalic figures from 02:00 – 02:50 in György Ligeti: Chamber Concerto
- Slow unfolding musical material prevails in Steve Reich: Music for Eighteen Musicians and in Morton Feldman: Piano and String Quartet
- Another example of a spiral structured piece: Harrison Birtwistle: Silbury Air
- Three very different approaches to using quarter tones in a piece: