HAAS: 'IN VAIN'
Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London, Fri 6th Dec
Performed by the London Sinfonietta
Though a mere seventy minutes long, this work by contemporary composer Georg Friedrich Haas carries such a dramatic and tonal range that it's hard to frame, let alone analyse. No less a fellow than Simon Rattle, writing in the programme, asks not at all rhetorically “how to describe it?” In short, there's not much chance of comparing this one to Question Mark and the Mysterions. I am doubtless setting myself up to fail. But let's push on regardless...
Hass is often described as a Spectralist. Like all genres of music, people argue over what precisely it might mean. But a working definition for me would be blending the sonic adventurousness of Modernism with the emotional heft of Romanticism. Which seems pretty much win/win. Though this work apparently never succumbs to such a thing a conventional tuning, it at no point feels challenging or difficult, like being set a mental exercise. Many times it feels richly melodic. In the same programme Jo Kirkbride find it “grounded in a deeply Romantic tradition of swirling sentiments and long, languorous lines.”
It's chiefly famed for two things. First, written back in the millennium, it was a riposte to the election of far-right politician Jorg Haider in Haas' native Austria. (Which, alas, turned out to be a toehold for his fellows boots to return to Europe.) And, perhaps not unrelatedly, its known for the way sections are performed in total darkness. (Where the musicians must surely play by feel alone.)
Absolute music is the general term for music which is non-representational, the equivalent of abstract art. When such music comes appended with a political message, we might want to ask where it isn't just one big Rorschach blot? If we were told the message was that New England is lovely this time of year, that the rate of profit has a tendency to fall or that Everton have been playing rubbish all season – would our brains reorient and our ears just start to hear that?
Perhaps not, because despite knowing the anti-Haider stuff my ears still picked up quite a different sense from the piece. Rattle says “this piece is all about opposition of all types, about light and darkness.” Most obviously manifest in the literal light and darkness, of course. (One of Haas' other pieces is performed under constant darkness. Here the light is as much a symbol as its absence.) My simple ears may merely have been reductive but what I heard was an inherent dualism – the mournful, trailing fanfares of the brass against the low murmurations of the strings, made up not of individual notes but something closer to sound fields - something almost on the edge of hearing.
The structure of the piece also seemed to bear this out – which is actually a kind of anti-structure. Despite the great musical variety there's no division into movements, everything ultimately flows into something else. Rattle's take seems to be that it visits the primordial roots of music and climbs out again. Perhaps, but it worked best for me not pinned to any particular dualism (the seasons?, life and death?, creation and entropy?) but as more of a universal statement. It's black and white is like the shifting black-and-white of a yin/yang symbol.
Now Haas, present in the audience, rose to take applause at the end. And he seemed a most sensible chap. And I doubt he wants Haider and his noxious xenophobe cronies to be part of some endlessly recurring dynamic. He'd probably rather they were consigned to the dustbin of history, just like the rest of us do. The political statement, thereby, kind of went by the wayside for me.
But then, does that matter? Beethoven's third symphony was originally written about Napoleon, but we don't let that dominate our thinking when we listen to it now. Hass may simply be more absolute in his music than he knows. You're better off listening to it in the metaphoric dark, letting your senses pick up on what they will. Haider and his ilk will hopefully become a footnote of history, while people still listen to this work.
You can hear the whole thing on YouTube should you so wish. But let's link to a sampler for now...
MIRA CALIX: 'THE SUN IS THE QUEEN OF TORCHES'
Dome Studio Theatre, Tues 10th Dec
I first saw Mira Calix in this very venue several years ago, as part of the sadly-defunct Loop festival. Her unorthodox approach to electronics was almost indescribable and simply awesome. I later took in the 'Brainwaves' piece, inspired by her taking an MRI scan. Which was intriguing and highly inventive, but left me mildly agnostic.
In short, I've liked her less each time I've seen her.
This piece chiefly involved her creating sound through what was presumably a contact mike, either striking the floor or tearing at a black curtain behind her. A violinist and dancer were also involved.
I would concede I am not the most receptive person in the world when it comes to contemporary dance. But I couldn't help but feel the other two were there not to complement the performance but act as a kind of fallback – to fill things out if the electronics didn't strike up as well as intended.
Certainly the high points were where the electronics did strike up, layers of processed noise building into a kind of wall of sound - as if Calix was playing the very building. And the violinist worked best when complementing the elecroacoustics, and least when detracting from their purity with conventional notes and melodies as if he'd ambled in from some recital.
Dubbed a “sculptural art performance” it did contain a cool visual element. As Calix tore more into the backing sheet the stage lights correspondingly dimmed, and thicker and thicker shafts of light poured in from behind. Presumably this is where the title of the piece comes in. I was reminded of the shamanic ritual where paint is blown across a hand placed on a rock, then the hand taken away to reveal the handprint as a negative image – used as a symbolic gateway to the spirit world. And at it's best the performance did have something of a shamanic feel, using as tools the very basics of sound and sight but mixing them with modern technology. (There was also a theme about the new technology of photovoltaic cells... well, there usually is with this sort of thing, isn't there?)
But overall the highpoints were not frequent, and the piece felt overlong for it's contents. It was conceptual in the wrong sense, a vaguely interesting idea rattling around in the hope it might at some point land on something. In essence, it was differently successful.
No vidclips of the night (and I doubt they'd display the better elements of it anyway). So here's something more reminiscent of the first time I saw her, 'NuNu', based around the amplified sounds of insects and (IMHO) splendid stuff...