Monday, January 17, 2011

Soundtrack of Thoughts

Sometimes of his work sounds like throwing a handful of nails into a metal bowl. Other times it sounds like a swarm of ominous bees encircling a man who is fatally allergic. It often brings to mind someone trapped in a field of thorn bushes. Turned off, right?
But why must these sounds be thought of as ugly?
Georg Friedrich Haas’s works, inevitably, are often met by grimaces and ears clamped tight by palms.  Some of his music, like “Solo for Viola D’amore,” certainly isn’t similar to what you would hear if you turned on your local classical music radio station. But it is music. Modern music can be met with exclamations similar to those of the man standing in front of an abstract painting—“My 5-year-old granddaughter could have painted that!” If that man were to hear Haas, he might say something similar relating to composition. But the thing is, his 5-year-old granddaughter didn’t compose it, and although he may not realize it, she couldn’t have (unless she is a musical prodigy, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here). Modern music deserves respect, whether we listen to it for pleasure or for more academic reasons. Most of Haas’s music isn't something one would pop in the CD player to listen to for fun. But it is music that is listened to; moreover, it is music that makes you think.
Haas is a European composer, born in 1953 in Graz, Austria. Until recently, he thought of himself as a “complete failure” of a composer, and was always an outsider as a child. He grew up in Vorarlberg, Switzerland, a mountainous valley that rarely let in sun. He didn’t think of nature as a part of him but more as an enemy, and those emotions are imprinted on his compositions. Haas studied composition at the University of Music and Drama in Graz with Gösta Neuwirth and Ivan Eröd and participated in multiple festivals. “I learned from Eröd – apart from many things about the craft of composition – one principle above all else: that the measure of everything is Man, that is, the possibilities inherent in human perception,” Haas told Universal Edition. He has been described as a “spectral” composer because of his nonconformity to traditional harmonic structures and tunings. Haas’s upbringing and overall personality affect his work tremendously, and permanently brand his name on all his works.
“String Quartet No. 2,” among other works by Haas, is dissonant and alien-like. What truly makes this a Haas work is its nonexistent structure (at least, to the naked eye). But it is not a meaningless span of notes—with some examination, it proves to be more of a stream of consciousness piece with organization. The phrases are constantly changing mood and form, like a growing plant or human. Some notes at times prevail over others, and there are consistent sforzandos, crescendos, decrescendos, and surprising accents. And yet the whole piece has a sense of unity.
 "String Quartet No. 2" starts out as a single note from the cello; a C. The violins and viola meet this dynamically unstable note with brush strokes of C's and G's, and for a while the instruments are dissonantly lamenting, almost. The cello hacks away at the strings after the first five minutes or so. This action is paired with quick cries from the other instruments and subtle tonally-climbing notes that one would place in parts of horror movies. After this, the instruments play multiple pitch falls that sound uncannily like a kennel of dogs whimpering after their departing owners. Some of the most mesmerizing passages are when the strings all begin playing different pitches and crawl their way together into homophony. Vibrato is rare, and one of the only times it happens is in the center of the piece played by a lone violin. Nearing the end of the piece, the instruments quietly agree, all playing notes that traditionally link together, such as an E-flat major chord and an F major chord. The piece ends on a unified B after many upward-rising notes, a half-step lower than the first note played.
Conventional harmony is atypical in the piece, and the listener is surprised when it happens. This seems to have been Haas’s goal, to expose his followers to so many different sounds that it makes them dive into the worlds of dissonance. He certainly succeeded.
In Haas’s world, there wouldn’t be “traditional.” There wouldn't be “pretty.” There wouldn’t be “normal music” or “different music.” There would be sound. And that’s all. 
Here's the first half of the piece. Click here to hear the second half. This piece is also very representative of Haas's string works.  


  1. the only problem i have with there just being sound is that sound could be cars, or chihuahuas, or other annoying things. the difference between sound and music is that music is composed and created, while sound is just the vibration of the airwaves. other then that, great post.

  2. Thank you Elena! It is a great pet peeve of mine that modern music is underappreciated because it sounds "weird". In reality we (culturally) are so narrowminded when it comes to music.