Music from anger and powerlessness – Georg Friedrich Haas in November Music

Georg Friedrich Haas is one of the central composers in the upcoming edition of the newmusic festival November Music. Last year the Austrian created a sensation in the Holland Festival by openly talking about his master-slave relationship with his wife Mollena. Possibly even more spectacular was their joint production Hyena.

Mollena Williams-Haas told a blood-curdling story about how she got rid of her addiction to alcohol; her husband provided the hypnotic music. For November Music he wrote the brand new Solstices; the Dutch premiere of his Ninth String Quartet can also be heard.

In modern music circles, Georg Friedrich Haas is regarded as one of the most important composers of our time. However, he is still largely unknown to the general public in the Netherlands, despite his frank outcry about his sex life. However, slowly more and more people gradually learn to appreciate his colourful, iridescent compositions. This is in part thanks to his often performed ensemble piece in vain, which is partly performed in complete darkness.


Haas composed it in 2000 out of a feeling of anger and powerlessness. A government coalition had just been formed between the right-wing extremist Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs and the Österreichische Volkspartei. In vain is inspired by the infinite steps in the lithograph Ascending and Descending of Maurits Escher. Just as the people walk aimlessly in circles, the music also circles around its own axis. A fine symbol of the futile resistance against right-wing extremism.

As clever is how Haas allows different sound worlds to collide with each other during the passages played in the dark. Harmonic, pleasant chords come up against terrifying structures of microtones. Because these notes differ from the twelve semitones of the common scale, they sound ‘false’ to our ears. The already threatening atmosphere becomes stronger when the light is extinguished. Together with the musicians, the audience descends, as it were, into the impenetrable darkness of right-wing populism.

No visual stimuli

An additional effect is that you experience music more intensely if you are not distracted by visual stimuli. This may be diametrically opposed to the current trend of using images and creating installation art, but Haas uses it to good effect. Solstices and the Ninth String Quartet are even performed in pitch-black darkness from start to finish. Solstices premiered last February and received rave reviews.

A grand piano plays the leading role. It is in the so-called ‘just intonation’, which means that all intervals are microtonal. The ten musicians have to listen intensively to the piano and to each other, to be able to react without any visual support. The piece opens with turbulent, acerbic chords from the piano, intersected with shrill screams of trombone and other wind instruments. The exciting swirls at times evoke the atmosphere of in vain.

After about five minutes Haas shifts to a lower gear. The musicians build harmonies of elongated lines, the piano places loose tones in the space. This creates a process of in-depth listening, in which we are almost literally sucked into the wonderful microtonal sound world. This reminds us of the minimalist pieces La Monte Young composed in just intonation in the 1970s.

Unbearably delayed dawn

Haas divides Solstices into segments, which he himself considers to be games and which are introduced by the pianist. The other musicians play fragments learned by heart, but are also allowed to improvise. Together they work towards an immense climax. Building on this, they hold on to a chord for almost five minutes towards the end. Then the light gradually returns; the stronger the light, the softer the music, after which it dies out into thin air.

‘It was as if dawn was about to announce itself, but the music slowed it down in an unbearable way’, one critic wrote after the premiere. ‘The mind moves to strange, sometimes sinister places when it is placed so isolated in the dark.’ Another critic simply referred to an ‘unforgettable listening experience’. Solstices is in any case an experience you won’t easily forget.

The Ninth String Quartet that Haas composed for the Jack Quartet in 2016 is also microtonal.  In this quartet he combines the extraordinary tuning with sizzling arches of tension and a great sense of musical drama. The Italian Quarteto Maurice guarantees a glowing performance.

– So off to Den Bosch it is!

2 November Riot Ensembles Solstices
8 Novemer Quarteto Maurice String Quartet nr. 9

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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1 Response to Music from anger and powerlessness – Georg Friedrich Haas in November Music

  1. shoreclaregmailcom says:

    Thank you, Thea, for introducing me to more works by Hass.


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