Bachtrack is asking the same six questions to many composers this month as part of its focus on contemporary music. Here’s what Georg Friedrich Haas had to say.

1. What influences are important to you and your music? Do you choose them, or do they choose you?

Art can only exist on a higher level when it fuses together with life. I am a person of the 21st century, a rich present with a stifling past. All of this influences me.

2. What (if anything) do you want listeners to take away from your music?

Sensitisation. Emotional affect. Ideally: shared sorrow and shared happiness.

3. Is there a composition of yours which you are most satisfied with? What makes it successful?

I compose a lot. I don’t love it all equally. It’s not success that makes me happy, but the belief that the work is artful, that it has weight, and that there is a strong message inherent. There are compositions I think are important, but have not yet achieved the success which I believe they deserve, such as my Schubert adaptation Torso or my opera Melancholia.

4. How important is new technology to you as a composer?

In all areas, there is the question of how one uses new technology. It can be a great tool that makes things easier or even just possible. The moment that technology is no longer used as a tool but takes control, it becomes dangerous. That’s true in life as well as art.

5. What music do you enjoy listening to?

The deeper I penetrate into my compositional work, the more I concentrate on the music that’s being created, the less other music I can (and want to) hear.

6. How is composing changing, and where do you want new music to go in the future?

The question of how “composing” is changing does not interest me. I do what I want. If it is the same or different from earlier composition is for others to decide. And I do not think about the future. If I had any idea how it would continue, I would be realising it already. But then it wouldn’t be the future, but the present. And again, I would have no idea how to continue.

I am, however, resolutely sure of one thing: in the future, there will always be people who want to hear and construct new sounds, that will search for and find new methods for musical expression. It’s not my job to fret about this today.

Georg Friedrich Haas was born in 1953 in Graz, a city in the east of Austria. His childhood was spent in the mountainous province of Vorarlberg, on the Swiss border. The landscape and the atmosphere of the place have left a lasting impression on his personality. The atmosphere was marked not so much by natural beauty in the accepted sense of the word. Rather, Haas experienced the mountains as a menace; he felt closed in by the narrow valley where the sun rarely penetrated. Nature for him represented a dark force. The composer adds: “Just as important for me was the experience of being an outsider: unlike my younger siblings, I never learned to speak the local Alemannic dialect. Also, I was a Protestant in a predominantly Catholic society.”

To study music, Haas returned to his native city where his professors were Gösta Neuwirth and Ivan Eröd. Later, he continued his studies in Vienna with Friedrich Cerha. Haas: “For all our apparent differences (and probably mutual personal disappointments) I learned from Eröd – apart from many things about the craft of composition – one principle above all else: that the measure of everything is Man, that is, the possibilities inherent in human perception”.

Haas holds Friedrich Cerha in high esteem, something that the older composer (born in 1926) returns in full measure. When the occasion arises, they demonstrate their mutual appreciation unstintingly. In 2007, it was Cerha, the doyen of Austrian composers, who proposed his former pupil for the Great Austrian State Prize, which Haas duly received that year. Until then, however, Haas had had a thorny path to traverse. He speaks openly of the years of “total failure” in trying to make his mark as a composer – another experience to leave its imprint on his development, aggravating his pessimistic leanings. Success, when it did gradually emerge, only mitigated his pessimism but could never wholly eliminate it. It is no wonder, then, that night, darkness, the loss of illusions should have played such an important role in Haas’ oeuvre (such as in his Hölderlin opera Nacht, 1995/1998). It was not until quite recently that his music has been illuminated by light.

Light effects, as integral components of a range of his compositions, have featured prominently for quite some time now, designed by artists specially for the music. (in vain, 2000, which has its UK première later this year, and particularly Hyperion, a concerto for light and orchestra, 2000). However, light as opposed to darkness first emerged as late as 2006 in Sayaka for percussion and accordion as well as in the piano trio Ins Licht (2007) written for Bálint András Varga.

Georg Friedrich Haas is known and respected internationally as a highly sensitive and imaginative researcher into the inner world of sound. Most of his works (with the notable exception of the Violin Concerto, 1998) make use of microtonality, which the composer has subjected to thorough examination in the wake of Ivan Wyschnegradsky and Alois Hába. He has taught courses and lectured on the subject in several countries; in 1999 he was invited by the Salzburg Festival to give a talk under the title “Beyond The Twelve Semitones”, with the subtitle “Attempt at a Synopsis of Microtonal Composition Techniques”.

The Cello Concerto, just as Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich ..., 1999, for percussion and ensemble, reflects Haas’ political commitment and his bitter realisation of his helplessness as a composer: there is no way his music could serve to better the world. The percussion concerto was written at the time of the Balkan war; when Haas heard aeroplanes flying overhead carrying their deadly burden, he asked himself whether anyone could hear him, if he were to cry out in protest against the war. The concerto begins with a scream in unbearable pain, followed by a section where the drumbeat conjures up the march rhythm of the Prussian army: a plea against fascism.

A daringly innovative composer of rich imaginative power, a homo politicus aware of his responsibilities as a citizen, Georg Friedrich Haas is one of the leading artists in Europe today. Among the prizes he has won are the SWR Symphony Orchestra Composition Prize 2010, the Music Award of the City of Vienna 2012 and the Music Award Salzburg 2013.

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