The Living Beings of Sound

An interview with Georg Friedrich Haas

Excerpt from October 2014 interview between Robert Enright and Georg Friedrich Haas.

Robert Enright:

I feel your music has an organic quality, which I associate with Nature rather than with culture. Is there something organic in the overall structure of your compositions?

I would absolutely agree with the term organic but I would not say I have learned these organic structures from watching Nature. The way I work is that I listen to myself. Because I am a human being, as are those who perform the music, and those who listen to it. So if I see something that seems organic, then it will be perceived the same way by someone else. If I would take some fact of Nature, let’s say the rings in the wood of a tree, and transform them into music, it would work the same abstract way as if I would use some serial construction.

Georg Friedrich Haas. Photograph: Mollena Lee Williams Haas.

There is a convention in epic poetry called in media res, which means the poem starts as if it were in progress. Sometimes your compositions seem to have already started.

First of all, I hope that I make a lot of different compositions but I very often am conscious to start, not in media res, but exactly the opposite. For example, Limited Approximations is a concerto for six pianos and orchestra. The fundamental idea of the piece is the relationships between different overtone chords. When I compose microtonally I use all the pitches between the keys of the keyboard. An overtone chord is a chord where some of the intervals are outside the traditional 12-tone system. It is possible for musicians to play, but it is extremely difficult if the fundamental of this chord is outside the conventional system. But if I have six pianos tuned this way, it makes it easier for the other players to find these pitches. I wanted to compose the collections of these chords but it needs about seven or ten minutes before I can achieve that. It is the same thing with the Concerto for Alphorns and Orchestra, of course what the alphorns can play are these wonderfully intonated consonant chords and they are what I focus on. But I need ten minutes until this arrives, so I start with the side effect of this tuning because these alphorns are able to get very clear beatings, very clear vibrations, between two pitches which are a little bit out of tune.

Do I have to develop an entirely different way of listening to music to respond to your compositions? I hope you don’t have to learn a new way of hearing. Just open your ears and enjoy.

You have said that you cannot compose without using microtonality, as if some kind of compositional evil sits on your shoulder and won’t let you do otherwise.

Well, I am currently writing an opera with very few microtones. But I would say it is the opposite of the devil. In 1986 I went to a symposium and there was an American composer from Boston, Ezra Sims, who composed a lot of 12-tone music. He was asked why he composed using this range of complicated intervals and his answer was, “I ask myself, what is it that I really hear, and if we really listen to what we hear—these two or twelve pitches of an octave which we can annotate and play on the piano—and if I ask myself, what do I want to hear, then these are automatically microtones.” Our world is full of microtones and so for me it is absolutely necessary to work with these pitches.

You noted that at the end of Dark Dreams the solo for the bass bassoon created a direction for itself. You gave a sense that composing is not simply an application of your musical knowledge but somehow the instruments tell you what they want you to do.

It was not the case that the instrument gave me the idea; it was because I love the sound of the instruments I use and love the extreme situations of the instrument. I wanted to hear this melody in that extreme register and in that extreme colour. Orchestra musicians are able to play all the characters and melodies in the range of their instruments. I just ask them to do what they are able to do. After more than two-thirds of the duration of Dark Dreams there enters suddenly a new musical element, a melody you can sing, performed by a bassoon. Up until this moment there were only sound developments and, at the end, these melodies are in the lowest register and the contrabassoon starts again. Then later you will hear the contrabassoon solo, followed by a double bass solo and the beginning of a solo of the bass tuba—which suddenly is stopped—this is the end of the piece.

You compose for some very interesting instruments. What compels you to use them?

There are different reasons. The Alphorn Concerto had been a dream since I met these amazing four musicians in the hornroh Quartet. I simply wanted to write a piece for them and orchestra. Then I got a commission, which was originally a Concerto Grosso for an ensemble specializing in Baroque music and contemporary orchestra. For a while this seemed to be a nice idea, but then I asked the man who commissioned it, “what do you think about an alphorn quartet,” and he agreed. The Quartet for Four Guitars was a commission and then I had to ask myself, “how shall I create music for these instruments?” I decided that the guitars should be tuned a little bit differently, each guitar a 12th of a tone lower or higher than the other, and each of them in a microtonal system of overtones.

When I listen to your work I become conscious of two things: time and space. At the end of the String Quartet No. 7 there is a sound like some elemental force that builds in the distance, but it is far back in space. Then there will be moments when the music seems to be foregrounded. Are you interested in pushing the aural quality of sound into a spatial component?

I’m very interested in space but there are two different types of space in music. One is the real space where the instruments are playing. Normally in an orchestral situation they are in front; you have the first violin and the second violin in different places and the position where the sound is coming from is important. If you have a string quartet, for example, you can decide that the musicians can be at the four edges of the room, or in some string quartets there is a traditional setting of the instruments but you may include electronic speakers which can be distributed around the audience. The other side involves natural spaces, which you perceive if you hear different types of sounds within the orchestra; I compose for these virtual spaces, too.

To read the rest of Robert Enright’s interview with Georg Friedrich Haas, order a copy of Issue 132 or subscribe.

To attend the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Haas’ and Tenney’s works and to catch Haas in Winnipeg in a series of events, see the WSO’s New Music Festival programming and order tickets.