String Quartet No. 2, Georg Friedrich Haas

Luo Bonian
In the spectral music of the Austrian composer, floating harmonies are smeared through with suspended rapture, to create a ‘flickering sound picture’.

The charge of academic isolation is perennially lobbed at contemporary classical music, and serialism in particular. For the serialists, the rigidity of twelve-tone composition was a tool to smash the lure of tonality, but by the same token it could – and did – become a stricture of its own. Moreover, the modernist rupture with the ‘excesses’ of late romanticism had not been meant only in musicological terms. A new asceticism of style was beginning to predominate: smaller ensembles, shorter pieces, a shift to the austere, and an aversion to the spectacle. That inheritance persists (although there were always dissenters) – but it is beginning to erode.

Spectral music, pioneered mainly by the French IRCAM institute founded by Pierre Boulez, uses computer analysis of sound to identify and mould the ghostly harmonies that emerge at the level of microtones. Its practitioners often compose at the level of the quarter tone – barely perceptible to the human ear. In one sense the origin of these spectralist techniques are the height of academicism. But for the Austrian-born Georg Friedrich Haas, they are tools to deliver intense, emotional blows. “One of the first times I fell in love, I just went to the piano and played one chord,” Haas told one interviewer. “I felt that this chord explained much more clearly what I wanted to express than language.” The primal power of sound is not lost on Haas – as he says, it can express human feeling “in such a way that other human beings can embrace these emotions and states of the soul as their own.” Nor is Haas averse to the grand statement: his third string quartet is played in total darkness – with the score notes mandating that even the concert hall’s exit signs must be obscured.

Microtones are easy enough to conjure up on software, but their complexity presents practical problems of notation and performance. Haas gets around these by tuning his instruments above or below their normal register. In tandem, they can produce chords of microtonal separation, with striking harmonic results.

In his second string quartet (1998), Haas writes that he “combines tonal, apparently historicising sound elements with microtonal adjustments, temporal expansions and compressions” in the single movement. “Tradition shines through again and again, but it appears as something lost, distant, clouded.” From the deep and grainy rasp of the cello at the very start, the piece contrasts a sense of suspended rapture, totally outside time, with the airily beautiful harmonies of the upper strings. In the midst of what Haas calls the “flickering sound picture,” there is a sense of both ecstasy and existential dread, as if these states sat on a knife’s edge – or even, Haas seems to suggest, as if the difference between them was inconsequential.

Listening notes: Note the low/high string contrast from the start, with the cello as brooding lynchpin, punctuated by its foray into harmonic notes. The bridge from 4:26 brings us to a new section at 4:45, with still frequent glissandi creating an otherworldly sense of inner tumult. At 10:10, the quartet begins to build a mounting, bowed intensity, until its returns at 15:30 to variations on the opening theme. Within the rising and falling chord swells from 17:00, we reach a kind of emotional, though not melodic, resolution – itself questioned, perhaps, by the unnerving glissandi at the close.

Image by Luo Bonian