in vain
Fifty Modern Classics I’ve added an extra entry to the Fifty Modern Classics list on the recommendation of Sir Simon Rattle, who makes the claim in this YouTube video that In vain is “one of the only already acknowledged masterpieces of the 21st century” – and because the piece is about to receive its London premiere (next Friday, December 6th at the Royal Festival Hall with the London Sinfonietta conducted by André de Ridder). Georg Friedrich Haas – an Austrian composer born in 1953 – writes music that employs microtones rather than conventional “tuned” intervals. He’s one of the spectral school of composers who use computer analysis of sound and overtones as source material. In vain, written for an ensemble of 24 instruments, runs for over an hour of continuous music, which sounds daunting to say the least. But as Rattle points out, it has become something of a cult wherever it has been played. And there’s an element of theatricality. The music is structured through a series of oppositions between tuning systems, and light is used to highlight changes in the music – with 20 minutes played in total darkness.

Beginning with a flurry of unfocused notes (like a snowstorm, says Rattle) the music gradually winds down as the lights turn lower and lower. Suddenly it’s completely dark, and pure single notes are fighting against others just slightly lower or higher. Then a harp is introduced, playing the harmony of natural overtones – evoking a halo of sounds that existed long before our compromised modern harmony. As the horns and trombones enter, Rattle memorably describes the result as “like hearing the music that could have been in Wagner’s sub conscious”. This ten minute climax is also reminiscent of some of Ligeti’s late music. Then the lights go down again, and the musicians play memorized snippets of notes that focus into the key of C major. Again a kind of “natural” harmony seems to be established, only to dissipate again as the lights gradually come back up. The music winds up again (as it wound down in the beginning) and we no longer know where we are. It’s stops in mid air, and all has been “in vain”.

There is a recording of the work on Kalros from 2003, but it’s not that easy to get hold of. Rattle somewhat controversially endorses Youtube as an immediate way of getting to know the music, if you can’t get the recording or make the performance next Friday. And there’s a short extract of his own performance here.