During the summer of 2009 I spent five weeks in Freiburg, Germany working on “Incubus III” at the SWR Experimentalstudio with Gregorio Karman. The premiere of this work took place during the Donaueschingen Contemporary Music Festival later that same year. Gregorio and I met after the concert and he said that Georg Friedrich Haas had found my piece fascinating, although different from everything he writes. Haas was already a familiar name to me, but his music was not; after his comments on my piece I was determined to know his music better. This is how I came to know “…und…”; it was love at first listen. I was living in Paris when I discovered this piece (composed in 2008) and I still recall taking my iPod and listening to it repeatedly while visiting some of the most iconic Parisian museums. But listening to it was not enough, so I decided to make an in depth analysis that would also serve as the centerpiece for my qualifying exams at UC Berkeley.
“…und…” exploits the relationship between electronics and chamber ensemble. The electronics serve as a hearing aid for the players when trying to achieve the intonation of microtonal pitches. The composer knows that the level of precision required to perform these microintervals exceeds human capacity, but the friction caused by those imprecisions is, in fact, desired. At first, the instruments are almost fully attached to the pitches of the electronics but in the end they break free from it.
What follows is a technical analysis of the piece. I cordially invite both, musicians and non-musicians to read it, although I should mention that the content of the analysis might be difficult to comprehend without prior knowledge of music theory.
This piece is scored for flute (+picc; alto fl) 2 clarinets, 1 horn in F, 2 trombones, percussion, piano, accordion, 3 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, 2 double basses and electronics. The composer divides the ensemble into two main groups. Both groups initially play a single harmonic field, but they are later divided into two independent harmonic fields, which are confronted against each other. Toward the end, both groups meet in unison.
– Group one includes flute, 1st clarinet, 1st trombone, 1st violin, 3rd violin, 1st viola, 1st cello and 1st double bass while
– Group two includes 2nd clarinet, horn, 2nd trombone, 2nd violin, 2nd viola, 2nd cello and 2nd double bass. In addition to these groups, we can distinguish three additional categories:
– Instruments with fixed pitch: piano, accordion, marimba, crotales, vibraphone, timpani (this last instrument has a movable pitch, but its glissando properties are not exploited in this piece).
– Instruments with indeterminate pitch: güiro, tam tam, gran cassa and cymbals and
– Instruments with exact intonation (in cents): electronics.
Spectral chords, if played properly, are almost entirely free of beating. Two juxtaposed spectral chords, however, generate some sharp beatings. Also, the group of instruments with fixed pitch cannot change their intonation, unlike strings and winds, which can bend their pitch. As a result, the world of equal temperament is set against that of spectral harmonies. At the end of the piece the melodic line moves entirely independent of the harmonic sound space.
The overall form of the piece is presented here in detail:
MOST SALIENT ASPECT
|I||1-50||Transition (T): 44-50||Sustained pedal notes in unison|
|II||51-95||T: 87-95||Single harmonic field|
|III||96-120||IIIa:96-111||Strong presence of fixed pitch instruments|
|IV||121-185||IVa:121-146 T: 143-146||Two clashing harmonic fields|
|VI||210-255||T: 253-255||Electronics come to foreground|
|VIII||256-307||Melody in unison|
Here follows a detailed description of each section:
I. Sustained pedal notes in unison. This section marks the beginning of the piece. A single sustained note (g quarter tone sharp) makes its first appearance in the cello (muted sul ponticello); shortly after that it also appears in the electronics. Other string instruments follow suit, always in unison, each one with its own dynamic fluctuations. Woodwinds get added to the texture in bar 10. The composer starts the piece, as it were, by presenting us with an empty canvas; we can perceive a texture (different sound sources and different modes of sound production) but he restrains from showing us the harmonic spectrum that is implied in this single sustained tone. Starting on bar 16 he makes an association between dynamics and timbre by associating ordinario with pp and sul ponticello with mf. In bar 23 the Tam tams make their first appearance, blurring the clarity by introducing their own inharmonic partials.
At bar 29 we see the introduction of a new tone (f) by the Timpani; electronics and low strings follow suit immediately after. Bar 36 sees the overlapping of two fundamental tones, thus anticipating a procedure that will be exploited to the fullest in section IV. The bells blur the clarity of the harmonic spectrum starting on bar 43 with their sound rich in inharmonic partials. The accordion makes a significant -almost subversive- gesture by playing a cluster (bar 45) in the low register, which creates a notorious disturbance in this context due to the presence of what could be understood as multiple fundamentals. Here we see how Haas apparently undermines his own structures, but in fact I believe he highlights his procedures by underlining the stark contrast between harmonic/inharmonic fields and between fixed pitch instruments and instruments with flexible intonation.
II. Single harmonic field. In a personal conversation with Gregorio Karman (who collaborated with Haas in the creation of “…und…” at the SWR studio), Haas said that this work is set out as an etude, presenting the partials of the harmonic series in a completely didactic manner (this explains the extensive numerical labeling present throughout the score). Haas is consequent with his words because in this second section we see the introduction of the upper partials of the harmonic series right after the introduction of the fundamental. The first double bass introduces the new fundamental at the end of bar 50, followed by other low strings and the electronics a few moments later. By this point in time, we are already very familiar with this procedure, but at bar 54 the woodwinds come in playing partials number 11, 8 and 6 as indicated in the score (the electronics play only the fundamental and partial 11). Haas changes the fundamental at bar 59 (which overlaps briefly with the previous one) and starts presenting the partials belonging to this new fundamental. In this section the division into groups hasn’t taken place yet, thus all instruments in the ensemble play the partials corresponding to a single fundamental. From bars 59 to 86, Haas makes a gradual ascending glissando on the fundamental (and therefore also in the whole harmonic field). This process is led by the electronics, which serve as a guide to the rest of the ensemble. Haas does not expect the musicians to be capable of producing such refined differences of intonation, in fact he wishes for the “inaccuracies” that come as a result. These slight differences of intonation between the ensemble and the electronics add an element of friction, contributing to the oscillations and beatings that occur when two close frequencies interact. This constitutes Haas’s world, particularly in this piece.
III. Strong presence of fixed pitch instruments. An apparently innocuous gesture in the piano at mm. 87-89 announces a severe disruption in the harmonic field. This disruption is perpetrated naturally by the fixed pitched instruments whose equal temperament tuning seems coarse in comparison with the refinement with which the electronics and the rest of the ensemble paints the harmonic overtone series. Haas underlines this coarseness by adding violent, repetitive chords in the piano (duplicated by the accordion), which seem almost unidiomatic. Starting at bar 112 Haas continues with the repetitive chords in the fixed pitch instruments while he dramatically changes the writing for the ensemble. Two things catch our attention: the reappearance of the initial gesture, that is to say sustained notes in unison, and the considerable shortening of their length, therefore leading to a greater amount of fundamentals (always triggered by the electronics) within a shorter period of time.
IV. Two clashing harmonic fields. This is the first time that Groups one and two make their appearance. Here the electronics play two simultaneous fundamentals while each group plays the harmonic field corresponding to each fundamental. This is one of the most aurally interesting sections in the piece. Haas helps us identify each harmonic field by writing different dynamic markings for each group. The range is considerably large (pp to ff ) and it helps the listener discern between both harmonic fields. Here too the fixed pitch instruments intervene, but as it can be observed on mm. 141-142, they now take part in the harmonic field of either Group one or Group two. Since they use the equal tempered scale, their participation can only be approximate. Let’s observe bar 142 where the accordion has an A natural as the lowest note, which corresponds to the fundamental of the first harmonic series. Its next note (Eb) however, cannot be found among the partials of the first harmonic series, but if we turn to the second harmonic series, we will notice that it starts in Eb. In the same fashion, the piano finds itself playing notes belonging to both harmonic fields. At bar 155 both fundamentals join and the division between groups disappears, but just briefly because fundamental number two changes in the following bar. The composer himself points out another curious effect at bar 157 where the B quarter tone flat (3rd violin) ends up belonging to both harmonic fields, as the 9th and 11th partial respectively. The same thing happens at bar 165 where the D quarter tone flat (3rd violin) is the 9th and 13th partial of each harmonic series. These procedures underline Haas’s refinement. He not only looks to create clashes between two sharply distinct harmonic fields but he also tries to intensify the friction between them by incorporating common tones among the upper partials. At bar 176 both fundamentals join but this time they do not separate anymore. At bar 177 all instruments of the ensemble form part of the same “group”. Bars 179-185 not only serve as a transition to the next section but they also help clear the ear from the saturation of the harmonic filed. The transition is goal oriented: we have a return of the bells and tam tam while all strings execute an ascending glissando; the piano and accordion play figurations reminiscent of those first heard in section III.
V. Thirds. What at first could be interpreted as two separate fundamentals being played together, ends up being something entirely different. The ratio (expressed by the composer where needed) gives us a hint. The electronics are separated into two staves, the upper staff indicates two sustained partials and the lower one contains a brief appearance of the fundamental tone. Only two partials are sustained at once and the distance between each other remains roughly within the range of a third during the whole section. Other partials appear briefly on the horn (4th partial), 1st double bass (6th partial) and 2nd double bass (2nd partial). Here Haas makes an increased use of sul ponticello creating a richer and noisier harmonic field. At the end of bar 204 Haas reintroduces the striking low cluster in the accordion, which we first heard at bar 45, but this time reinforced by the gran cassa. The build-up to the next section is masterful. Both instruments have alternating dynamic schemes, very much in accordance to earlier procedures, especially when dealing with two separate harmonic fields. The intensification by means of a written ‘accelerando’ leads to section VI.
VI. Electronics come to foreground. Until this point the electronics have successfully merged with all acoustic instruments, but at this point (bar 210) the electronics come to the foreground by performing a loud, short iteration of the fundamental. The ensemble is again subdivided into two groups, each performing a different harmonic field. Haas uses a different type of writing for this section and gives greater power of decision to the conductor. The section is subdivided into 19 small blocks whose duration is suggested by the composer, but which “may be greatly prolongued”. Each section sees the appearance of a new fundamental in the electronics as the composer suggests which partials should be brought to the foreground. The process of communication is brought here to another level of sophistication and the success of this section depends greatly on the capacity of the performers to stay synchronized. The ensemble fades away gradually and leaves the electronics fully exposed sustaining an octave (f#-f#). The recorded version of this piece includes a final appearance of the repeated notes in the piano right before bar 256, however this does not correspond to the available score.
VI. Melody in unison. In this final, moving section, the composer brings the electronics to a standstill. The rest of the ensemble unites in a single voice resembling a heartbreaking lamentation. This final melody is in fact a setting word by word of a poem by German poet Else Lasker-Schüler (1869 – 1945, a Jewish-German poet and playwright and one of the few women affiliated with the Expressionist movement. Lasker-Schüler fled Nazi Germany and lived out the rest of her life in Jerusalem):
This melody is in high contrast with the rest of the piece. …und… is built upon harmonic blocks, here however we have a melody with a clear contour that emerges out of the fundamental. Here the intervals are larger (we are basically constricted to quarter tones) but friction (beating) is present all the way due to the inevitable imprecisions in intonation by the players.
Finally, it would be interesting to note that the poet has another short poem called “…und…”.
“…und…” remains for me one of the most interesting pieces of the past decade, and certainly Haas is positioning himself as on of the most respected composers of today. I will continue to follow his work closely and I consider myself lucky for having worked with people such as Gregorio Karman and the members of the Jack Quartet, all of whom have worked and continue to work closely with Georg Friedrich Haas.