HCMF 2013: London Sinfonietta

by 5:4

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 Haasin vain, and 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, and approach the work cold. What i haven’t been able to avoid, and 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, and 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 and 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, and so disorienting—and, in time, so unsettling—and, in more time, so uplifting—is that they seem endless. Lines rise or fall in the manner of Shepard tones, climbing to impossible heights and 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 and ever deeper, new shapes and 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 (and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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, and 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 (and 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 and the ever-shifting states that must require large amounts of concentration and accuracy. i’ve no doubt it’ll be one of those concerts remembered and talked about for a long, long time to come.

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Interesting to read a review of this piece by someone who approached the work cold. I recently saw a webcasted performance with Rattle conducting the Berlin Phil doing this work (complete with blackouts on the webcast), and I felt I was able to appreciate the work on quite another level. However, I had already known the piece for a while (and was already a fan of Haas’s music). I think this is some of the most immediate and striking (without selling out) contemporary music today. I’d love to see a performance of this live someday.


Hmm… I come from the opposite perspective, I’m familiar with some of Haas’s music and find what I’ve heard to be safe, comfortable rehashes of things that were done much better by Grisey and Ligeti and others in the 1960s and 70s; mainstream, middleground music for people who don’t really like contemporary music but want to say they do, et cetera. This review has me wondering if I’m missing something important by not hearing it live, though.

(The darkness thing is also interesting, though I’m not sure how much it would do for this piece in particular vs say multi-channel electronic music, which is often similarly “diffused” in darkness and with speakers surrounding the audience. I don’t know if In Vain has a spatial component; assuming not.)

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