Georg Friedrich Haas: a new harmony

Currently enjoying a creative flourishing, the Austrian microtonal master is this year’s hcmf// Composer in Residence.

If you don’t already know the work of this year’s hcmf// Composer in Residence, Georg Friedrich Haas, then to see it 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, where dissonance coexists with harmony, an approach which led Alex Ross to describe him as ‘an esoteric Romantic, dwelling on the majesty and terror of the sublime.’ Our emotions don’t divide neatly into 12 pitches, so why should music? That said, 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. In 2013 hcmf// featured the UK premiere of in vain (2000); 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 then-recent success of the far-right Freedom Party in the Austrian elections, its quest for beauty and balance in a flawed world evoked through movement between equal temperament and overtone tunings, harmony and dissonance, light and darkness – both symbolically in the music and literally in the concert hall, to disconcerting effect.

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 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.

Co-commissioned by hcmf// and Wien Modern, two of the first fruits of this new partnership receive their UK premieres at hcmf//. The Hyena, a large work for Klangforum Wien, features narration by Williams-Haas based on her personal experience of fighting alcoholism, while Haas’ ninth string quartet builds upon themes found in his eighth and will be performed in the same concert by the Arditti Quartet.

With Haas suggesting in interviews that composing no longer needs to serve as psychotherapy for him, this year’s Festival provides a key opportunity to discover first-hand how that will manifest in his music. Based on the evidence of his 2015 Octet for Eight Trombones – dedicated to Williams-Haas and to be performed by the Hannover Trombone Unit at hcmf// 2016 – his mastery of the territory beyond the tempered 12-tone scale remains as challenging for musicians and as thrilling for audiences as ever.