Saturday, 7 December 2013

Invisible Theatre : Georg Friedrich Haas In Vain London Sinfonietta

The London Sinfonietta are back on form with Georg Friedrich Haas's In Vain, with conductor Emilio Pomàrico.  Not in vain ! At last, seriously good serious music performed with the verve the London Sinfonietta was famous for.  In Vain  dates from 2000, but has entered the mainstream. Simon Rattle conducted it with members of the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2013, proving that sophisticated music can communicate with non-specialist audiences.  Tonight's concert is being rebroadcast by BBC Radio 3 on 14th January, but it's a piece that really needs to be experienced live.

Haas's In Vain is Invisible Theatre, no less. Just as we got used to complex, sparkling sounds, the auditorium was suddenly plunged into total darkness. This is no gimmick.  We're so used to 247 visual stimuli that it comes as a shock to the senses. "Darkness isn't nothingness", to paraphrase the composer. Suddenly, you feel thrown back in time before houses, traffic and electricity. This might be how our ancestors experienced nature in its awesome might. Gradually your eyes adjust and you see how dense darkness is, like a physical presence. Then you realize you can "see" tiny fragments of colour, as blind people sometimes do. Bereft of visual signposts, we listen more intently, just like blind people develop stronger aural skills.  How do the players follow each other, far less follow notes written on paper  The music becomes eerily intuitive. Trombones blare long, exploratory tentacles out into the void, as if feeling their way. Rich resonant sounds seem to emerge out of the kind of primordial soup from whence the universe was created. Distorted horns, metallic percussion, suggest hunters and cow bells. Haas grew up in the mountainous Voralberg where nights can get very dark indeed, and people navigate by sound. We are also not listening merely to sound, but processing what we hear.  Do the bright, microtonal harmonies suggest stars.  Or are we listening to the pulse of the planet itself?

As a boy, Haas lived near electricity pylons which emit unvarying signals. "Natureton is not natural tone", says Haas. Throughout In Vain, there's an inner pulse, which barely varies. The sound is vaguely electronic, yet it's partly achieved by "natural" instruments  Accordion, harp and double bass function as continuo. Quite eccentric, but it works. Strings and winds play tiny fragments of sound which oscillate higher and higher in pitch, then gradually descend downwards again,. Metallic sounds, like gongs, cymbals and bells crash against the line, and tempi spin recklessly, but the basic vibrations are so strong that your body follows it intuitively. I "read" the Buddhist chant o-mi-to-fu, but everyone else will have their own interpretation. One could, perhaps, imagine stars in the sky and great geological forms. Yet there is also darkness in the conventional sense in In Vain. There is something malevolent in those metallic sounds, which looms encroaching upon the free-flowing fragments of brightness.

"People in the street don't think, 'what lovely microtones!' when they listen" said Haas, meaning that we respond emotionally on many different levels.  There are no words and no singers in In Vain but it is invisble  theatre because it communicates by sound and operates on the psyche.

Once I lived in a dangerous time where one political group was trying to jam the other's radio transmissions. One night there was a curfew and the city descended into silence. At 3 am I heard strange oscillations booming across the park, with fragments of vaguely recognizable sound, like broken voices. Later I was told that it was something to do with bending soundwaves. I don't know the science but it was am amazing experience and the memory flooded back when I heard  Haas's In Vain.

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