Writing Music That You Can't Put on YouTube: Georg Friedrich Haas Interviewed
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You Can’t Put on YouTube:
Georg Friedrich Haas Interviewed, Georg Friedrich Haas, photo: KAIROS, center, #000000, friedrich_haas_portret.jpg
What does ‘beauty’ mean for one of the most important composers alive today? What does he think of people who perform his pieces? Culture.pl’s Filip Lech talks with the world-famous Georg Friedrich Haas, as he begins to work as a juror for the Adam Mickiewicz Institute’s competition The Science of Fiction.
The Science of Fiction is a competition to compose a piece inspired by Stanisław Lem for Klangforum Wien to perform. The winning composition will debut at the centenary concert in honour of the writer, to be held in Vienna in 2021. The jury is made up of Klangforum Wien, Agata Zubel and Georg Friedrich Haas. Participants must be Polish citizens and under 40 to enter. The deadline is 1st July 2020.
Filip Lech: What is beauty to you? I’m not asking just about music, I’m interested in your general definition of beauty.
Georg Friedrich Haas: Beauty is a very general term. I really love what Franz Schubert said: ‘Whenever I attempted to sing of love, it turned to pain. And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love. Thus were love and pain divided in me’. It is the same case with beauty. Beauty is something wonderful to watch, but it’s also a kind of pain. It’s a kind of... Sehnsucht – desire of something exterior, which is not here. To me, Schubert’s work is one of the best examples of beauty – the beauty of his music is terrible and painful. This is what I try to achieve in music.
FL: So beauty is important to you in music?
GFH: If we understand beauty as a desire for an object which one can never fully obtain, then I would say yes.
FL: Contemporary music is usually very secretive and avoids personal themes. You are one of the few composers who talks freely about every aspect of your life. I saw the piece ‘Hyena’ in Huddersfield, it was very moving. Why do so many composers avoid personal and real-life themes?
GFH: Well, you’d have to ask them, not me. What I think is that music gives an opportunity to speak extremely honestly without putting things into words.
In my music, I always wish to express something. Express fears, hope, desires, desperation … It might be impossible to ‘translate’ my music into language. But it is possible to share emotions and even the spiritual fundament of deep and existential experiences.
FL: In 2015 you wrote a piece called ‘I Can’t Breathe’ which was dedicated to Eric Garner, a black man filmed being killed by police in New York. Now this nightmare has happened all over again. What’s the significance of such artistic gestures? What did you hope in composing this piece for Garner?
GFH: First of all: this nightmare is not new. The slaves and their descendants were and are forced to live in this nightmare for over four centuries.
Some years ago, my wife and I watched a protest march reacting to the murder of Eric Garner. This march happened right under the window of our apartment. For a moment I was planning to go out of the house and join the march. But then I remembered that famous anecdote about Chopin learning about the revolution in Warsaw. First he wanted to turn back and fight as a soldier in the war. But then he decided to fight as an artist and he composed the revolution etude. It is the artist’s duty to ‘fight’ within their art.
Your question shows you are now recalling Eric Garner. Maybe you would not have done so, had I not composed this piece.
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FL: What topics would you like to present in your music in the future?
GFH: There was a wonderful speech by György Ligeti about the future of music. He was invited by the festival European Forum Alpbach in Austria to give a lecture about it. What he did was say nothing. He just recorded the reaction of the people and didn’t say a thing.
I think this is the only possible way of speaking honestly about this topic. Honestly, if I knew what I was going to do in the future, I wouldn’t wait and I’d do it now… For myself, I know, as long as my mind is able to do it, I will be composing.
I really have no idea about the future of music. Nobody has. However, I’m positive that music will exist and develop in the future. There will always exist human beings who have the desire for expressivity within new sounds.
FL: You mentioned in an interview that music is a spiritual act for you. How do you develop your musical spirituality?
GFH: Spirituality is the one thing that makes us human. The desire for spirituality has been abused for ages – by corporations, emperors, organised religion, priests, sects, …
Look at that wonderful poem The Song of Songs. In this biblical text, a comparison is drawn between erotic and religious feelings: ‘By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not’. This is an experience every religious person and every composer has had. It’s the feeling of trying to find connection with the universe.
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FL: Do you enjoy listening to religious music?
GFH: I have spent the last four months in Morocco, three of them under quarantine. Here it’s very clear that religious music is not separate from everyday life. A muezzin does not define himself as a musician. He defines himself as a messenger between God and the people. In Essaouira, where we are, there’s a fascinating musical tradition called ‘gnawa’. It’s a blend of two traditions – South Saharan African music and Arabic music.
I’ve had the chance to experience this music. It wasn’t spirituality the way it’s done in Europe: OK, now we’ll go to some church or a concert hall, open ourselves to religious stuff, and listen to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or Schubert’s Mass No. 6 in E-flat major. No, gnawa is just a structure of sounds, rhythms, virtuosity – and spirituality happens.
Regarding European traditions, I’m fond of Schubert, he’s one of my favorite composers. In the Middle Ages, Christian scholars tried to prove logically why God exists. For me, the beginning of Schubert’s unfinished Symphony No. 8 in B minor is one such Gottesbeweis (proof of God). If I compare it with the Mass in E flat major D 950 – the latter is much less religious.
It might even be considered blasphemous: the brutality of the beginning of the Sanctus (with all six sounds of a complete wholetone scale in bass). The Agnus Dei which copies the motif of his desperate love song Der Doppelgänger – several times consciously disregarding the rules of how to treat dissonances and parallel fifths. Then there’s the uneven metrum of the words ‘Dona nobis pacem’ – later there is a solo which could be interpreted as a parody of a Gregorian chant, a male solo lacking all the qualities of Schubert’s cantabile: ‘Dona nobis pacem. Pahahahahacem.’ The credo uses a kind of idée fixe – the passus duriusculus, just the naked material, is bare of all the emotions which he adds to this rhetoric gesture in his other works [normally this so-called ‘chromatic fourth’ is specifically used to convey emotions, but Schubert uses chromatics here in a purely technical way – ed.] But one moment is full of deep expressivity: ‘Et incarnatus est.’ He repeats this sentence later irregularly. You’re not allowed to sing this Schubert mass during a Catholic ceremony without changing the lyrics towards the liturgical canon.
He became flesh.
When you analyse this piece, you start to understand why he threw the priest out of his room when he was dying.
Performing Mediaeval and Renaissance religious music in a concert hall is very problematic. Clearly, it’s the only way we can do it nowadays, but we should understand that religious music was part of everyday life. I know I’ll never be able to understand the music of that time. I can enjoy it and admire it, but if I were to understand it, I would have to spend all my life singing Gregorian chants at least six times a day. Afterwards, each combination of pitches would have meaning, and only then could I truly understand the music of the great masters of that time. Perhaps some musicology professors could decode it, but even so it would merely be some purely rational insight rather than the automatic emotional understanding that people had ages ago.
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FL: You’re a teacher. How is your students’ approach to music changing? I mean, for instance, their approach to music craft, respect for tradition, interest in music history… It seems that in every area of art these things matter less and less.
GFH: Frankly, I really don’t see that. Of course, easy access changes the approach to the music. In comparison: when I was a student, just to get a recording of something – not to mention the score – that was an adventure! It was such hard work to get these things.
I’ll never forget the moment I saw a score by Salvatore Sciarrino for the first time during the Darmstadt Summer Course. Today students can get a recording and a copy of the score within a few seconds on the Internet. I’m sure they derive their own aesthetic language from this experience.
In, say, 1890, a person who was into music knew more or less all of the important pieces: the symphonies of Beethoven, the symphonies of Mendelssohn and so on. But since 1890, in every decade the number of important pieces has increased. There’s always more and more… I think it was already my generation that reached the point where it’s simply impossible to have an encyclopaedic knowledge about all the ‘important’ music being performed… We have to decide: I’m very interested in Mahler, but not so much in Strauss. If someone in 1890 wasn’t interested in Beethoven, he would’ve been completely ignorant. Nowadays, if I said I wasn’t interested in Strauss, I wouldn’t be ignorant, it would just be a decision on my part.
And there is a huge tradition of music not influenced by the canon of Western music.
Nevertheless, I feel very sad when people think such changes are bad. No, there is nothing bad: it’s just new. And students need to find a way to operate under these circumstances. But what I try to teach them is to be aware of the medium. For instance, YouTube doesn’t give you the true experience of a particular piece. It only gives you an illusion of the acoustic surface.
One possibility for dealing with this situation is something I myself find really fascinating: trying to write music that you cannot put on YouTube (or any other Internet page), because it won’t make any sense. For example: I wrote pieces which have to be performed in complete darkness. It is impossible to ‘record’ the experience listening to this, to ‘record’ the feeling of being a part of this performance.
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FL: What role can new music play in the contemporary world?
GFH: It’s necessary that a number of human beings exist who dedicate their lives to creating new emotions, new art. I think people who are focussed in creating new emotions and new art are like yeast in society. Let us have a look to the younger history of Poland. New art – not only music, also literature, for instance Stanisław Lem – was a strong contributor to the death of ‘real socialism’. Well, it’s not that everybody in the streets hummed melodies written by Penderecki. But these artists demonstrated publicly that it’s possible to create a new world – just by trusting your own imagination.
If you looked into today’s politics in Austria, the FPÖ (die Nachfolger der Vorläufer der Nazis – the heirs to the forerunners of the Nazis) have lost their power. This is the result of many reasons. One these reasons is that artists stood up, and kept standing up, and never tired of exposing Nazism. Of course, that doesn’t mean Elfriede Jelinek writes one of her disturbing, shocking and incredibly beautiful texts and immediately some stupid guys change their minds. No, not at all. But it’s important that many people who are sensitive, who are conscious, that they try to dedicate their lives to the general idea of humanity – Elfriede Jelinek, Olga Neuwrith, Bernhard Lang, Johannes Maria Staud, me, and hundreds of others – saying: no, this is wrong, this is inhuman. The existence of a great number of these individuals can change things.
FL: Who are the performers of your pieces to you?
GFH: I’d like to start my answer with an anecdote. In 1979 I had my final exam in composing, I composed a cantata. The singer who was supposed to sing the cantata was quite famous and specialised in contemporary music. During the rehearsal, she sang it and nothing was right. I showed her her mistakes. I sung the melody. She was shocked, closed the score, and said: ‘What??? You are able to HEAR what you have written? In that case, I can’t sing it.’ This anecdote says a lot about the history of performances of new music. There were hundreds, thousands of performances like that. Artists who just pretended to do what is written in the composer’s score.
But this singer’s reaction was a problem for me, not her. I had to adapt this cantata to a concerto for viola and chamber orchestra and asked a good friend of mine to play the solo part. I loved discussing music with him, it was so important to me. He taught me many things about Schubert, Schumann and so on. He lived in Salzburg (I lived in Graz), but he visited me to perform my piece – and we didn’t have the chance to speak about our beloved music of the 19th century, because he had to practise the damn score that I had written! I never will forget myself listening to him, spending his precious time to study these ‘weird ideas’ I had in my mind. Ever since that experience, I’ve realised that everybody practising my music is giving me a great gift – their time and their abilities.
When I compose music that requires the expenditure of a lot of time on the behalf of the performers, the performers must get the chance to receive something in return. For example, in many of my pieces I ask for these very difficult intervals in ‘just intonation’, which are really hard to achieve. They are ‘out of tune’ – but within the other world of my intonation, they have to be perfectly in tune. When they get them right, it’s overwhelmingly beautiful. And in this moment, musicians have the chance to enjoy the results of their hard work (if they want to…)
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FL: How has your compositional life changed during the isolation period? I suspect it’s a strange feeling not to participate in the rehearsals of your pieces for so many months.
GFH: For me, as quite an old composer with plenty of experience, this isolation is not a problem. As long as I’m healthy, everything is fine. But for the younger composers, this isolation can be really dangerous. Let us please focus on the younger generation. They need new performances, not me. If a piece of mine is cancelled because of the pandemic, it will be performed next season because it’s Haas. Pieces by unknown young composers may never be performed. This is a shame.
There are plenty of very gifted students in my class. Each of them has had to have the painful experience of their performances being cancelled. Their commissions have been recalled. This is not only an emotional shock. It’s also damaging by preventing them having essential experiences within the developmental curve of their individual artistic journeys.
I’m in Morocco right now. It’s beautiful. However, I hope I don’t get sick because healthcare is not at the highest level here. We have everything we need. The nature here is great – sunset, moon, stars! Most important: very little light pollution, NO AIRPLANES. The sky has got its old mystic qualities back. It’s an important experience for me – to see that sky which poets praised for thousands of years.
FL: What does it mean for you to be a composer?
GFH: I wanted to be a composer since I was a child.
Composing is for me a substantial element of my life.
Like eating, drinking, breathing, having sex.
Without it I would be really miss something.
Interview conducted via Zoom, June 2020
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