I was extremely fortunate to have the experience of leading Georg Friedrich Haas’ In Vain this past February (You can read about the concert HERE). I’m very happy to say that that performance stands as one of the most personally meaningful for me so far. As many of you likely know, Haas is deeply interested in the relationship between light and the aural sense, and so a number of his works have periods of complete darkness. I mean “complete darkness” literally: the performance space should be so dark that nobody can see anything except black. As you’ve probably surmised, the musicians have to commit these portions to memory, and perform without the usual aid of seeing each other. I’ve frequently been asked many questions regarding the composition and execution of these sections. This article is intended to address those queries, and hopefully further elucidate this music for those who are interested in the work and may be performing it in the future.
Typically, performances of In Vain have two sections of complete darkness: one close to the beginning, and one toward the end in which the climax of the work is contained. In the performance I led, we played in very dim light during the first of these sections, and in complete darkness for the second. This procedure is permitted by the score: the first section bears the indication: dunkel bzw. wenig Licht (dark or low light; see example at left). Contrastingly, the second section demands völlige dunkelheit (complete darkness; see example below). My feeling is that doing the first section in complete darkness dilutes the drama of the later section, and the climax of the later section contains the loudest and most turbulent music of the piece. In other words, when one experiences the first section in darkness, he has the idea of “ok, we’re doing this again” at the onset of the second one. Of course, this is just a matter of opinion; both are acceptable, to say the least.
I’d also like to briefly expand the previous point into a broader one: the markings concerning the lighting effects in In Vain are very clear, yet “open” in terms of execution. Take, for example, the moment when single strobes of light begin: optisch wahrnehmbares Signal (z.B. kurzer Lichtblitz) dann wieder völlige dunkelheit (a noticeable visual signal (e.g. a short flash of light, then, total darkness). Considering that Haas is a particularly scrupulous craftsman, I would assume that these markings are deliberate in what they indicate and what they don’t. In the aforementioned example, Haas mentions flashes of light as merely an example, yet in the piece’s 12-year life it has already become customary for these visual cues to be only flashes of white light, as suggested. In this and other instances, it strikes me that there are other options, potentially richer and varied. If I’m lucky enough to lead In Vain in the future, I hope to explore a wider visual palette.
Find below a recording of the work and some useful time markers to orient yourself. Please note that the lights are very slowly dimmed and illuminated, and so the beginning/ending times are the points at which the room arrives at the final level of darkness or luminosity.
first “dark” section: 5’30”
first “dark” section ends: 11’02”
Second “dark” section begins: 42’15”
strobe flashes begin: 48’20”
second “dark” section ends: 56’35”
The beginning of the first dark section surprises the listener with an amorphous, murky soundscape; it gives the impression that the terse, fleeting music of the opening of the piece has become submerged deep in water, where one’s senses are slowed and dulled. The section is primarily comprised of a series of duos (one string instrument and one wind instrument), whose entrances are overlapped and chained together. The duos begin on a unison pitch, but the string instrument immediately slide the pitch up or down by a half step, concurrently overtaking the corresponding woodwind in volume. The first example page earlier in this article will clarify this construct; it is the first page of this section. My own markings in the middle of the page indicate what instruments are playing with each other, and what pitch the duos begin on. Take note that the dotted lines indicate where the duos begin. When executed accurately, the dovetailing should create a constant ebb and flow, so there is no moment of stasis.
The cadence of duos increases steadily in speed (yet not volume) for circa 4 minutes; each “event” played by a duo is marked to last 6″ to 7″ at the outset and speed up until they last 3″ to 4″ at the end. Like much of In Vain, this process evolves so slowly, and by so few parameters, that the notion of “increasing intensity” creeps up on the listener only after most of the music has been played. Haas is a master of pacing, and it is just at this moment that the formula of the “chain of duos” becomes apparent that he introduces the brief, yet ingenious, transition to the following harp solo. The transition is essentially 12″ long, and can be found at the end of the example page below. In it, the sustained sonority of the strings, which has been acting as little more than a diffuse “cloud” over which activity occurs, becomes the primary material without arising from its ppp dynamic level(!). The strings begin sliding glacially from their chaotic, indistinct harmony, and slowly approach a glimpse of profound harmonic resolution: a pedal B1 along with F#, C#, and A-one-sixth-flat, i.e. a a small, delicate collection of lower partials of B. However, Haas only hints as this moment of relief. The majority of the strings glissando very slowly over the 12″ duration against B and F# pedal tones in bass, cello II, and accordion (a common-tone harmonic relation that Wagner would be pleased with). So, in the last few seconds, the listener anticipates the arrival of the B-based resolution, yet at the actual point of arrival, the B1 in the bass part (the most fundamental to the sonority) slides microtonally higher to B-quarter-sharp! So, although the B+partials arrival is perceived by the listener, it does not appear in vertical alignment in the score, strictly speaking. This is only one of many varied events in which Haas plays insidiously with the aural and mental perception of the listener. For me, this subtle, fleeting transition stands as a deeply meaningful first exhale after 9 minutes of music. It’s poignant beauty is not only due to its musical content (brilliant as it is), but also to its arresting brevity.
The gentle, spacious harp solo comes suddenly and unexpectedly (the two example pages below contain the entire passage). The harp is tuned to an overtone series, and this tuning, in conjunction with the closed, knotted sonorities, creates a singular timbre that makes it almost difficult to recognize the harp as being the instrument it is, at first. Hidden far behind the harp is a turbulent murmur created by low strings playing sliding pitches a quarter-tone apart from one another. The effect is that of a distant storm cloud, which further highlights the crystalline, immediate voice of the harp. While the low strings recede, the harp states its last utterances without a decrescendo(!). The purposeful omission of a decrescendo at the end off this solo is – to me – a tiny masterstroke. Like the lack of a crescendo in the previous series of duos, the missing decrescendo here gives the listener a heightened feeling of uncertainty and expectation. Consequently, the silence at the end of the harp solo is alive with attentive anticipation, whereas if the harp did the obvious and dwindled to quasi-niente, the silence would feel flaccid and pedestrian. Then, the upper strings offer a minuscule sliver of light – the 8th, 11th, 12th, and 15th partials of B-flat2 – concurrently with the onset of the slowly illuminating concert lighting. The purity and simplicity of this moment is a fitting introduction to the honest, austere, and indefatigable central section of In Vain, which houses some of the most lovely and integritous music I’ve had the pleasure of conducting.