Unbounded by Art

In the velvety darkness I slowly extend my right arm, feeling my way to the point of the bow, praying it won’t fall off the string into the void beyond. Suddenly my hand encounters resistance and there is a tiny tussle in the inky blackness as I struggle to disentangle my bow from an invisible counter force.

It’s alive. My legato line hiccups for an instant and I hear a small but definite snort next to me. I’m not alone.

My attention turns to my left hand which is creeping down a semitone over 12 seconds. All around me other tones in other timbres are doing the same until finally all resolve on a hushed chord of B major, a blissful relief-drenched coming home in which time is momentarily suspended, a ridiculously satisfying sensation.

This is the world of Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas (right) and his piece for 24 instruments In Vain, given its UK premiere a couple of weeks back by the London Sinfonietta* at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

(*henceforth referred to as “the Sniffers”, named for their propensity, as with all modern music bands, to sniff in the rests during complicated pieces of new music.)

Premiered in 2000 and just over an hour long, In Vain pits forces of tempered intonation against the natural harmonic series, and light literally against dark as extended sections of the piece are performed in blackout, punctuated by occasional flashes of light. Our wonderful conductor Emilio Pomarico, who has conducted the piece many times and knows it backwards, describes it as a kind of Nordic Saga.

Here we all are amidst the sumptuous Victorian swagger of Huddersfield Town Hall, replete with Masonic symbols on the organ console. An unlikely setting, when all said and done.

Indeed, there are several ecstatic brass moments in the piece that sound as though they’ve come straight out of Rhinegold, and the huge scale and almost orgiastic celebration of triadic harmony is as 19th century German Romantic as you can get.

Reminding me of line in a Raymond Chandler novel I just read:

“She was worth a stare. She was trouble. … The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim with enough melodic line for a tone poem.”

This referring to the character played by the staggeringly sleek young Lauren Bacall in Howard Hawks 1946 film noir, The Big Sleep. Until this week I’d neither read a word of Chandler (and now almost agree with Auden’s comment that Chandler’s books “should be read and judged not as escape literature, but as works of art”) nor seen the movie, which made me gasp at the extraordinary construction that is Humphrey Bogart.

It’s hard to comprehend 1940s taste in sex symbols with this round-shouldered, dried up dwarf with ludicrous snarl and palpable nervous tic. He must have been directed to atoms to carry it off. Imagine him playing opposite Sandra Bullock in Gravity.

“Hey Sugar, what’s a nice girl like you doing on a lousy rocket like this?”

She’d crush him and his space suit with one flick of her NASA screwdriver.

But for the descent into Hollywood sentiment, this would surely be a landmark masterpiece of early 21st cinema. Its 3D technological brilliance makes you wonder what our films of the future will be like. Doubtless we’ll all be interacting with holograms that we can touch, a completely convincing virtual world invented to distract us from the real one, whatever that will be.


George Clooney and Sandra Bullock tethered together in terrifying orbit above the tantalising glow of Earth shortly after the space station they’ve been repairing has been decimated by hurtling space debris in Alfonso Cuarón’s new and technologically groundbreaking sci-fi film Gravity.

In the meantime, you can check out this steamy scene from the Big Sleep:

“I’d say you like to get out in front,” breathes Bacall through lazy smoke across the table to an equally ciggy-bound Bogey. “Open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch and then come home free.”


Anyway, back to our conductor Emilio Pomarico and an entirely different kind of tone poem.

Born in Buenos Aires of Puglian parents, Pomarico (below) comes across as a gentleman of the old world with exquisite manners, many languages, top notch musical brain and ears and a refreshingly heartfelt approach to new scores. His definitive recordings of Castiglioni are worth checking out (here).

I asked him if the programme notes were correct in saying that In Vain was a response to the 1999 Austrian elections when former Nazi Jörg Haider and his extreme right wing Freedom Party got in. “No no no!” said Pomarico, who has worked closely with Haas on the piece. “This is about harmony versus serialism, a reaction against Schoenberg and his 2nd Viennese school.”

Really? Really??!   If so, YAWN. Have we still not got over this?

If “this” is ultimately the business of our reaction to the natural overtone series versus moves away from it, “Sound unbound by nature becomes bounded by art” as Slovakian author/philosopher Dejan Stojanovic puts it in his marvelous novel The Creator, then perhaps it’s an argument that will continue as long as human beings remain on the planet. It would be nice to think that at some point they could stop bringing Vienna into it though.

“The history of harmony” said Nadia Boulanger (left), “is the history of the development of the human ear, which has gradually assimilated, in their natural order, the successive intervals of the harmonic series”

In the days since playing this piece, I’ve become far more aware of the constant presence of harmonic urban rainbows around me, radiating from the drone of a distant drill or train or fridge or plane, spanning a vast sonic spectrum only a fraction of which I can hear.

American author and mystic Corinne Heline has this to say:  “There is a scientific statement to the effect that this earth is a vast harmonic wave system that is built and sustained by unheard music.”  I’m sure she’s right.

Computer generated image of sound waves shaking the Earth’s upper atmosphere during the devastating 2011 Japanese tsunami.

Low frequency sound waves at ground level expand as they rise upwards, amplifying many thousands of times as the air becomes thinner.

From within the sound bubble of In Vain I have to admit that its most gratuitous untempered overtone moments – heightened by a few crude LED tricks – do have a palpable physical effect on me.

I can’t help it. My bod is 90% water which vibrates with sound waves. Have you ever seen those incredible photos made by Japanese scientist Dr. Masuro Emoto whilst studying the behaviour of frozen water crystals when exposed to different kinds of music?

a)  water crystals formed when listening to heavy metal (left) and Mozart 40 (right). 

I wonder how the little loves would cope with Boulez’ Derive II?

German physician, physicist and general meta-brain Hermann von Helmholtz‘s classic 1863 study of hearing On the Sensations of Tone, demonstrates how certain combinations of pitches, including “Schoenbergian” faves the major 7th, minor 2nd and minor 9th, create “beats” whose vibrations are perceived as an irritation within the basilar membrane, as opposed to “soothing” consonant intervals such as an octave or perfect 5th.

And yet at the beginning of the 21st century, Schoenberg’s music doesn’t sound anything like as shocking as it did 100 years ago, evidence perhaps of Boulanger’s evolution of the human ear. Someone who’s heard tons of say, Ligeti, or horror movie scores, is likely to have developed an ability to move far beyond the protestations of his auditory cortex and have a completely different psychological response to atonal music than someone who’s only been exposed to Gregorian chant or Donny Osmond. However, the extent to which this phenomenon is purely physiological as opposed to cognitive is a monster issue this blog can’t begin to resolve.

Der Rote Blick (The Red Gaze) by Arnold Schoenberg (1910), oil on pasteboard.

I’d say his basilar membrane was most definitely irritated in this pic.. 

However, I can urge you to check out this marvelous story of an unidentified spooky wailing rumble recorded by petrified housewife Kimberly Wookey somewhere in British Columbia this very summer. According to this hilariously rendered 1 minute local TV news report, it’s also been heard in parts of Russia, the US and the UK.

Scientists have been consistently baffled as to why only two percent of the population can hear these unearthly noises, which on these recordings sound to me like the trumpets of the apocalypse. Or a pod of incensed, meta-amplified blue whales. To date it’s been posited that the sound is “electromagnetic noise emitting from the auroras’ (northern and southern lights) radiation belts” or, more simply, “aliens”.

There are “chakra chants” and “aura cleanser” tracks not a million miles away from Haas’s utopian overtone world. Celebrated sound healer Jonathan Goldman has made an art of his “harmonic choir”, based on Mongolian and Tibetan throat singing techniques, for facilitating both physical healing and deep meditative states.

Dramatic Mongolian moment. Add Kimberly Wookey’s sounds and you’re there.

Here’s one of his numbers, full of trancey transformational tones derived from mathematical proportions he found buried within Hebrew symbols for one of the otherwise unmentionable names of God.


I’m not saying Haas’s music is on a level with acupressure spa waiting room muzak, or that returning to a primitive spectral tone flotation tank existence is better than a weekend at Darmstadt (although it does have its plusses), but simply that we living organisms can’t escape our sonic vibratory roots.

According to Syrian Neoplatonist philosopher (245 – 345 AD) Iamblichus, Pythagoras, that timeless king of music as mathematics, said that

“the first important lesson to learn is that which subsists through music…for it possesses remedies of human manners & passions that is able to restore pristine harmony and faculties of the soul.”

He performed “soul adjustments” using music created using specific mathematical formulae. According to this rather interesting article on Pythagorus, he taught that if it was utilized correctly, music can also compose and purify the mind and heal the physical body, thus restoring & maintaining perfect health.

(Above) Detail from Raphael’s spectacular fresco series Stanza Della Segnatura, in the Vatican’s public papal apartments, showing Pythagoras at work. I somehow doubt he was this butch in real life.

And we haven’t even got started on his famous tuning systemwhich occasionally crops up even now in hardcore “brown rice” early music groups. One dreads to think how that works in rehearsal…

Incidentally, Pythagoras, along with Leonardo, Socrates and Shakespeare, is on my greatest  personal heroes of all time dinner guest list. I’d love to have met them, along with JC (there’s no smoke without fire), although would probably have been too overawed to do anything except pass the salt, and just listen (via a Hitch Hikers Guide babel fish) to whatever they had to say. Mae West and Cleopatra are also on the list as interesting conversational and visual foils to all the beards.

Esoteric Pythagorean principles of music and colour. Check out the divine Hand tweaking the cello peg.

Anyway, back to Huddersfield.

Suddenly there is a blinding flash of light and the sounds around me transform to pulsing shifting chords. There are precisely 40 seconds to fit in my allotment of four untempered C tonality dyads with their accelerating and decelerating tremolando figuration before the next flash, at which point the pattern shifts by a chord and couple of seconds duration. Until the next flash when it transforms again, and so on for about 14 flashes.

It’s useful to know how to count precise seconds, an art improved for me by the following bit of incredibly useful advice recently acquired from two ambulance men called Adam and Steve (I kid you not).

Up til now I’ve always used the Colonel Bogey march theme for 120 bpm, here demonstrated (slightly under speed it must be said) in its best known whistle version as part of the 1957 WW II film, The Bridge on the River Kwai

Steve told me that in training for resuscitating  cardiac arrest patients, St John’s Ambulance now officially teach two tunes as a guide for remembering this most useful of tempi:

1) Queen – Another One Bites the Dust  

2) Bee Gees –  Staying Alive 

As Steve says, in emergencies you have to be very careful which song you mouth the words to…

For any of you completely out of touch with the world, that’s the Bee Gees above. Who needs a metronome when you have these boys to get your heart going?

Memorising long stretches of music and then performing them in total blackout within an ensemble of independently moving parts is no easy task, and not one that crops up that often. Ensemble Modern took seven days of intensive rehearsal to learn this piece, as did Klangforum Wien, whose excellent performance of In Vain is worth a listen.

The Sniffers got two and a half days, rehearsing in an unheated room in the middle of Regents Park, part of the open air theatre (a beautiful spot, by the way). Although too proud, cynical or career savvy to admit it, I know that many of the players were quietly stressed out of their heads.

From Google’s sea bed I dredged up this infra-red pic of a mystery cellist during a performance of In Vain going through the flash sequence described a couple of paragraphs back. If you recognise him, do let me know, and we can compare notes.

And yet, as British players do over and over again, thus earning their unbeaten rep as the fastest-learning musicians in the world, the concert went off without hitch to a sold out hall of ecstatic hardcore Huddersfield punters, whose taste in jumpers and beards remains reassuringly unchanged over the decades.

There was, for me at least, an incredible yet unacknowledged sense of camaraderie, even love, whilst playing as an equal part of this hierarchy-free whole – perhaps also a part of Haas’s political vision – contributing to the showers of harmonic rainbows from within the homogenous sound cloud.

The Hass (no relation, same pronunciation) avocado. When was the last time you saw one that was truly ripe and ready?

And yet at the same time quietly battling, not absolutely in vain, against the economic realities  and cultural pressures facing so much of our serious art music today.

Simon Rattle has called this piece “An astonishing work of art that has become a cult wherever it is played. One of the first great masterpieces of the 21st century.”

I’m not sure I entirely agree with him, about the masterpiece bit at any rate. Large chunks of Ligeti’s Melodien and San Francisco Polyphony, unquestionable masterpieces, are uncomfortably close to much of the material of In Vain and vastly superior in content in my view.

The structure of In Vain is a sort of rondo in which tempered and spectral sections are interspersed with returning multilayered flurried scale sections that starts and end the piece mid flow, as if in a continuum, thus never reaching resolution. Ultimately, for Haas, neither darkness/Nazism/serialism or light/democracy/the harmonic series wins. In a traditionally German Wagnerian/Schopenhauerian nihilist sense, it’s all in vain.

Arthur Schopenhauer, 1788 – 1860. Not on my dinner guest list.

All this talk of Nazism, forces of good and evil, radical tonal language and reaction to the 2nd Viennese boys can’t go without mention of the Sniffers recent performance, in tandem with students from the Royal Academy of Music, of Stockhausen’s seminal 20th century masterpiece, Gruppen, to a full and radiantly appreciative Festival Hall a couple of weeks back.

It’s the kind of piece one writes worthily about in tedious undergrad essays in complete ignorance of how spine-tinglingly thrilling it is to experience live. From the depths of cello 2, buried somewhere within orchestra 2, tucked away under some of those dated 60s white box balconies at the side of the festival hall, this extraordinarily powerful piece of music felt like an profoundly emotional rather than coldly technical outpouring, most definitely part of the German symphonic lineage rather than airlifted from Sirius, as the composer might have it.

Karlheinz Stockhausen. Also not on my all-time dinner guest list, although I wish I’d had the chance to work with him.

The precise delicacy and lightness of the ensemble writing is almost Haydn-esque in places, the raw emotional gestures and savage brilliance reminiscent of Strauss, with shades of Beethovenian and Mahlerian existential conflict.

For me Gruppen is German through and through, assimilating and reinventing history both musical and political. Child of Nazi Germany, what more cogent statement of protest could Stockhausen make than this artwork of genius, creating a radical new order from the wreckage of the past.

His vast vision is underpinned by breathtaking technical invention, with a completely new conception of musical time. The row is used to generate both the temporal and structural ratios of the piece, but in a completely different way from the 12 tone boys.

The interval created between the first and last note of the row, for example, becomes the vertical pitch range within which the opening orchestra 2 gestures operate. The mathematical proportion between each note of the row creates the tempo indications for each section. And so on.

Paspels, the village where Stockhausen began work on Gruppen  in a rented parsonage attic room in 1955.

In Gruppen, says Stockhausen, ” … whole envelopes of rhythmic blocks are exact lines of mountains that I saw in Paspels in Switzerland right in front of my little window. Many of the time spectra, which are represented by superimpositions of different rhythmic layers—of different speeds in each layer—their envelope which describes the increase and decrease of the number of layers, their shape, so to speak, the shape of the time field, are the curves of the mountain’s contour which I saw when I looked out the window.”

If you want to go the full analytical Gruppen geek hog, Jonathan Harvey (may he rest in Nirvana)’s book The Music of Stockhausen is generally considered to do a pretty good job.

While we’re in tone row territory, I have THIS SECOND come across a fabulous bit of unlikely Schoenberg goss c/o the marvellous Jane Manning who has posted some of her fascinating research for her important book on Pierrot Lunaire, Voicing Pierrot. One of Schoenberg’s last surviving pupils, Richard Hoffman, told Jane in this fascinating interview that the master of serialism came up with the following:

Five categories of people to avoid

1) Oboists (pressure on the brain leads them to madness)
2) Bassoon players (as above)
3) Tenors (especially Richard Tauber)
4) Cellists (they are never satisfied with the secondary melody)
5) Jewish conductors over 6 ft tall  (meaning Klemperer, with whom Schoenberg had a love-hate relationship).

Perhaps Schoenberg could join my dinner guest list for coffee…

Soprano Jane Manning (above), rightly described by Michael White in the Indy as “the irrepressible, incomparable, unstoppable Ms. Manning – life and soul of British contemporary music.”

Back to Gruppen, and beyond the number crunching.

Oliver Knussen, (mysteriously NFI to conduct this particular show) worked with Stockhausen on performances of Gruppen, has conducted a number of his other works over the years, and perhaps knows it better than anyone now around except Boulez and Eötvös.

He explained to me that there are several free sections where Karlheinz abandons his rigorous structural procedures altogether: eg the violin concerto-like section near the beginning, and the huge percussion and brass build-up sections later on. Amazing though his superstructure was, Stockhausen was able to recognise when the music simply required a bit of theatre.

From left to right our Gruppen conductors Geoffrey Patterson (who learnt the piece in the super scary Boulez and Eötvös conducting class), Martin “Brabbo” Brabbins, and Baldur Brönnimann.

“For a piece that sounds as though it has no conductor”, remarked a friend of mine, “it’s amazing it needs three.”

And theatre it is. Check out this orgiastic brass pile up from about 15 mins into this excellent performance given by Ensemble Modern. It’s hard to get a sense from a mere recording of the sheer scale and show-stopping effect of the sound sweeping in circles around the audience (ideally) placed between the 3 orchestras.

Incidentally, Harry Birtwistle included this bit in his 1994 Desert Island Discs session with Sue Lawley, along with Schuberts’ Unfinished, Mozart’s clarinet quintet and Sherry by Frankie Valli.

The influence on this – meaning the brass pileup from Gruppen, not Franki Valli – and other sections of the piece including the wild piano cadenza (thrashed senseless by the Sniffers’ inscrutable John Constable in our show) is widely reputed to be that of Stan Kenton.

I remember reading somewhere how transfixed Stockhausen was on first hearing jazz in the clubs of Harlem on a visit to New York. He simply couldn’t figure out how improvising musicians could play unison themes with such precision amidst the free jazz chaos.

At one moment in the piece I could feel something like a vast breath whizzing in circles around the hall, created by a sequence of wind flutter tongue notes, and this (right) Renaissance image obstinately and somewhat weirdly popped into my head every single time it came around, even in rehearsals.

God of the west wind, Zephyr with gentle breeze Aura in his arms, blowing Venus into existence along with the winds on the first day of creation in Botticelli’s 1486 masterpiece “The Birth of Venus”.

“In their disorder”, this (badly translated yet interesting) article on the painting says, “they (the wind gods) represent the original chaos from which Venus was born which thus pushed her to take over the world.”

An apposite metaphor for a megalomaniac composer bent creating his own new order.

Do admit, it does rather put In Vain in perspective.

Until the next Z Blog, which finally faces the Benjamin Britney centenary situation along with poor Nigella’s ghastly trial by media, may you live unbounded.

CODA: You can catch another performance of In Vain this friday Dec 6th in the QEH at 8pm if you’re up for it, or fancy spooking your neighbour in the dark. Haas himself is giving a pre-concert talk on the piece, which may prove my ruminations on his motives wildly off track.

You may also be interested in hearing me attempt to discuss the future of contemporary music with a panel of new music bods at the Southbank this Sunday lunchtime, and take part in the Sniffer’s cutting edge New Music Show 2013 day, part of the Southbank’s Rest is Noise festival, comprised of four sets of brand new music in a day, including my bit with chamber works by Samantha Fernando, Geoff Hannan, Matthew Kaner and Tristan Rhys Williams.