by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Nov. 29, 2010.
It has been a good year for weird music in New York. Works from the avant-garde end of the spectrum, long deemed a ghastly mutation of the great classical tradition, have lately made some headway with the public. In May, Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic sold out three performances of György Ligeti’s absurdist opera Le Grand Macabre, which bears about the same relation to Puccini as Francis Bacon does to Norman Rockwell. The same orchestra played an all-Varèse program at the Lincoln Center Festival in July, to an exuberant crowd. A few weeks earlier, Make Music New York presented Iannis Xenakis’s percussion sextet Persephassa on and around Central Park Lake, with several hundred listeners drifting about in rowboats. And last month Gilbert’s Philharmonic delivered an explosive rendition of Magnus Lindberg’s 1985 piece Kraft, which raises a din not only from conventional instruments but also from discarded auto parts. (Edkins Auto Scrap, on Staten Island, was the chief supplier.) A few people fled the hall at the first brightly screaming chords, but the vast majority stayed and, in a scene seldom witnessed at Avery Fisher Hall, lingered to discuss what they had heard. Zarin Mehta, the Philharmonic’s president, was sitting behind me, and afterward an elderly woman approached him, wagging her finger. “Fan-tas-tic,” she said. Perhaps audiences are finally beginning to approach twentieth-century music with the same open-mindedness that they have long accorded twentieth-century painting.
I can’t think of another explanation for the fact that the JACK Quartet—a youthful group that has made its reputation almost entirely with avant-garde fare—routinely fills halls for performances of Georg Friedrich Haas’s Third String Quartet, which makes such extreme demands on players and audience alike that at one concert in Pasadena listeners were required to sign a waiver absolving the venue of legal responsibility. The work is subtitled In iij. Noct., a reference to the Third Nocturn of the old Roman Catholic Tenebrae service for Holy Week, which marked Christ’s sufferings and death with the gradual extinguishing of candles. Haas, who grew up in Tschagguns, a Catholic village in the Austrian Alps, asks for total darkness during performances of his quartet, the score specifying that even emergency lights should be covered.
In September, I saw, or didn’t see, a JACK performance of In iij. Noct. at the Austrian Cultural Forum, on East Fifty-second Street. When the blackout began, I initially felt a fear such as I’ve never experienced in a concert hall: it was like being sealed in a tomb. No wonder the members of JACK usually try out a brief spell of darkness with each audience, to see if anyone exhibits signs of distress. (Indeed, one young man sheepishly got up and left.) Yet the fear subsides when the music begins. The performers, who are positioned in the corners of the room, seem to map the space with tones, like bats using echolocation to navigate a lightless cave. They have memorized the score in advance, and it is an unusual document: Haas sets out eighteen musical “situations”—with detailed instructions for improvising on pre-set motifs, chords, and string textures—and a corresponding series of “invitations,” whereby the players signal one another that they are ready to proceed from one passage to the next.
Often, the music borders on noise: the strings emit creaks and groans, clickety swarms of pizzicato, shrill high notes, moaning glissandos. At other times, it attains an otherworldly beauty, as the players spin out glowing overtone harmonies. Toward the end comes a string-quartet arrangement of one of Carlo Gesualdo’s Responsories for the Tenebrae service (“I was like an innocent lamb led to the slaughter . . .”). That music is four hundred years old, and yet, with its disjointed tonal language, it sounded no less strange than the contemporary score that surrounded it. Weirdness is in the ear of the beholder.
In the past decade, Haas, who is now fifty-seven and living in Basel, Switzerland, has emerged as one of the major European composers of his generation. He is allied with the French spectralist school, which draws musical material from a close analysis of overtones and other properties of sound. Haas also esteems various American experimental composers, particularly those who are concerned with microtonality, the division of the octave into more than the usual twelve pitches. In this way, he bridges a gap between American and European musical communities that historically have had little to say to each other. What sets him apart from many of his European contemporaries is that he is not afraid of theatrical gestures, opulent expanses of sound, landscapes on an almost Wagnerian scale. Not for him the studiously fragmented modernist discourse that Ligeti once defined as “event—pause—event.” He is an esoteric Romantic, dwelling on the majesty and terror of the sublime.
On November 12th, I went up to EMPAC—the dazzlingly high-tech performance complex at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York—to hear Haas’s in vain (2000), a work for twenty-four instruments which unfolds in a continuous seventy minutes. The performers were from the Argento Chamber Ensemble, which, under the direction of Michel Galante, has become an essential source of adventurous new music in New York. (The JACK’s September rendition of In iij. Noct. was part of a Haas mini-festival that Galante curated.) The Rensselaer hall, which has warmly precise acoustics, is ideal for Haas: his whispers and roars came across with extreme clarity.
In vain is a narrative of oppositions, setting light against darkness, dissonance against pure intervals, modern tuning against natural resonances. It begins with rapid, swirling patterns, like snow in high wind. Toward the end of the opening section, Haas asks that the lights in the hall be gradually turned down, signalling a shift into a different realm: the instruments abandon equal-tempered tuning and follow the overtone series. (If you pinch a stretched rubber band exactly in the middle and twang it, the tone goes up an octave; if you pinch it according to smaller fractions, the remainder of the harmonic series results.) Horns and trombones eventually take up a cascading theme that has an open-air, Alpine quality: Wagner, in the prelude to Rheingold, unfurls a similar sequence of intervals. Piercing chords on an accordion also hint at the premodern world.
Yet Haas is no nostalgist or sentimentalist. Just when the music seems to attain a state of primordial tranquillity, trembling sounds lead to a recurrence of the “snowstorm.” There is a huge slowdown, as if a computer simulation were malfunctioning. From an almost total standstill, the halo-like overtones reëmerge, with the lights again going down. Then comes one of the most animally thrilling episodes that any composer has created since Ligeti was at the height of his powers. As in the Third String Quartet, players cannot see the score, and so they work from memorized modules. At the climax, all these shimmering fragments are derived from a fundamental C, meaning that the music accumulates a glorious sheen, like a new dawn of tonality. Repeated gong strokes add to the sense of elemental ritual. A revelation is at hand. But it all goes awry: notes bend from their “natural” paths, the lights come back up, the frantically scurrying figures return, and, after several herky-jerky accelerations and decelerations, the music abruptly switches off. And you finally understand the title: a new kind of beauty seems ready to come into the world, but in the light of day it falters, and we end up back where we started.
Haas wrote in vain in the wake of the rise of the right-wing Freedom Party in the 1999 Austrian elections: the piece conveyed, in part, his despair in the face of decaying hopes for social progress. The title also bears a trace of Biblical injunction, a warning of the wages of pride. Yet that exalting glimpse of a nocturnal paradise of sound lingers in the mind. This modern masterwork transforms the concert hall into a place of shuddering mystery, suggesting that the way of truth goes through the dark.
Footnote: Audio excerpt.