To see the work of this year’s Composer in Residence, Georg Friedrich Haas, described as ‘spectral’ might conjure up the image of an artist working in rarefied, abstract realms, poring over graphs and mathematical formulae in search of the most intangible sonic traces.
Tonally meticulous and grounded in a detailed study of sound the Graz-born composer’s music may be – he credits the influence of the Russian composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979), who explored third-, sixth- and twelfth-tones, while an early Haas composition for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart pays explicit homage to Ligeti. But like a painter striving to select the exact hue to capture the bloom upon a cheek, Haas’ precisely helmed journeys through overtones and microtones are created as a parallel to the full range of human experience. For him, dissonance and the ‘beats’ produced by the clash of frequencies are as true a reflection of emotion as harmony, an approach which led critic Alex Ross, perhaps mindful of Haas’ childhood in a mountain village in western Austria, to describe him as ‘an esoteric Romantic, dwelling on the majesty and terror of the sublime.’
It’s true that over the past 35 years Haas’ work has tended towards the sombre end of the emotional spectrum, with themes of suffering and futility, war and death. Although initially celebrated for his operatic works, which include Nacht (1996) and Die schöne Wunde (2003), his profile was elevated considerably by in vain (2000), which represented the culmination of a move away from mathematical and computer-aided compositional methods to a more intuitive style of writing.
Hailed by Sir Simon Rattle as ‘one of the first great masterpieces of the 21st century’, Haas’ 75-minute meditation on the struggle to overcome moral frailty was composed as a reaction to the success of the far-right Freedom Party in the Austrian elections. Its quest for beauty and balance in a flawed world was evoked through a disconcerting movement between equal temperament and overtone tunings, harmony and dissonance, light and darkness – both symbolically in the music and literally in the concert hall’s transition from brightly lit to pitch black.
Now living in New York, where he teaches at Columbia University, Haas has continued to tackle injustice in his work: the 2015 solo trumpet piece I can’t breathe was composed as a memoriam to Eric Garner, whose final words before his death in a chokehold at the hands of NYC police became a slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement.
By his own admission, however, Haas is not the same artist who wrote in vain. Currently enjoying an upswing in productivity, in recent interviews he has attributed his creative flourishing to the happiness brought by his marriage to the American writer and BDSM educator Mollena Lee Williams-Haas, his relief at finally being able to acknowledge a hitherto-suppressed side to his sexuality and, more practically, the support offered by his willingly submissive spouse, enabling him to compose for 14 or 15 hours per day.
With Haas suggesting in interviews that composing no longer needs to serve as psychotherapy for him, hcmf// provides a key opportunity to discover first-hand how that will manifest in his music. Two key new works receive their UK premieres here: Hyena, a large work for Klangforum Wien, features narration by Williams-Haas based on her own experience of fighting alcoholism, while Haas’ String Quartet No 10 promises to build upon the exacting and exquisitely delicate microtonal soundscapes of his eighth quartet.
Whether born from dissonance or harmony, it seems that Haas’ mastery of the territory beyond the tempered 12-tone scale remains as challenging for musicians and as thrilling for audiences as ever.