Truth be told, it isn’t often i find myself lost for words. About 40 minutes ago, the London Sinfonietta finished their performance of the UK première of Georg Friedrich Haas‘ in vain, & i’m still trying to force some coherence about the experience. A few weeks back, i procured a recording of the piece, but ultimately decided not to listen in advance, & approach the work cold. What i haven’t been able to avoid, & retrospectively i think it’s unfortunate, is some of the discussions that have been circulating in recent times about this performance. It certainly seems to have put the hype in hyperbole.
For those unfamiliar with the piece, & until tonight i was just such a person, in vain was written in response to a resurgence in the far right in Haas’ homeland of Austria. In that respect, it’s interesting to be confronted by it after having heard Cecilie Ore’s Come to the Edge a few hours before. Like Ore’s piece, i don’t think in vain can be described as a political work, rather an attempt to frame the reality of Haas’ perception of the situation. Unlike Ore’s piece, there is an overwhelming engagement with futility in in vain; there’s encouragement to be found, but of a different kind & arrived at from very different means.
Cast as a single, 70-minute slab, in vain is largely constructed from material that is in flux, constantly transitioning from one state to another. What makes these transitions so special, & so disorienting—&, in time, so unsettling—&, in more time, so uplifting—is that they seem endless. Lines rise or fall in the manner of Shepard tones, climbing to impossible heights & depths. Rhythms speed up or decelerate, becoming silences filled with new pulses or tremolandi that become part of a new accelerating texture. It’s like moving into a fractal, ever deeper & ever deeper, new shapes & details revealing themselves at each new level, yet with an infinitude of scope left to continue.
Twice in the piece, the lights go out, leaving the audience in absolute darkness (& it really was absolute; they’d even switched off the Fire Escape lights). This blatant act of theatre has a profound impact on the way one engages with the music; without being able to see players & instruments, it attains a kind of purity, as though happening unbidden; put another way, it seems to throw emphasis away from the mechanics of music-making & composition, bestowing on it a more direct, emotionally-charged quality. The first darkness brought a kind of placidity to the piece, of a kind not really heard at any other point. The second seemed to suggest an entity—call it a machine if you like, but it felt more organic than that—attempting to recalibrate itself, trying to reboot. These twin darknesses, despite their marked differences, came across very positively (it brought to mind closing one’s eyes in a relaxed or meditative state), throwing the lighted episodes, literally, into stark relief. It’s here that the futility & hopelessness finds its acutest expression, the music feeling endless, repetitive, mindless. This, indeed, is how Haas leaves things at the end, the piece stuck in a rut of descending scales, travelling down into infinity with any point or purpose.
Walking away from in vain, sitting here (now) about an hour later, i’m still grappling with it. That’ll continue for some time, no doubt, but i can’t help feeling both better for having heard it, & that i glimpsed something in Haas’ flailing textures that seemed unequivocally hopeful.
It’s impossible not to comment on the performance by the London Sinfonietta. Directed with great subtlety (& stamina) by Emilio Pomàrico, the Sinfonietta demonstrated what a tour de force of skill they’re capable of, not just in the memorised portions of music played out in the darkness, but in the intricacies of the polyphony, the convoluted harmonic kinks & the ever-shifting states that must require large amounts of concentration & accuracy. i’ve no doubt it’ll be one of those concerts remembered & talked about for a long, long time to come.