Heartbreak and Hallucination: Ensemble Dal Niente Performs in vain

Heartbreak and Hallucination: Ensemble Dal Niente Performs in vain

Ensemble Dal Niente performs in vain

Ensemble Dal Niente performs in vain
Photo by Chelsea Ross

From the moment that Ensemble Dal Niente announced that George Friedrich Haas’s widely admired work in vain would be the cornerstone of their 2012-13 season, Chicago has been buzzing about the performance. Ensemble members declared on social media that the piece was on their performance bucket list. Critic Peter Margasak of the Chicago Reader—which rarely covers fully notated contemporary classical music—described it as the concert he was most excited about this year. The performers, composers, and new music lovers that make up Ensemble Dal Niente’s audience seemed to feel the same way: that a very special and important work was finally coming to Chicago.

Eager to know what all the fuss was about, I delved into both the political and aesthetic contexts in which the work was written. I learned that Haas’s music is closely connected to the spectral school, but that it also contains shades of Ligeti, of Bruckner, even of Schubert.

As a newcomer to Haas, I wanted to interview Michael Lewanski, Dal Niente’s conductor, about why the ensemble had made Haas the center of its programming this year. I asked Lewanski why the piece was such a big deal, and he smiled. “I just love this piece. But there is a slightly mysterious, unknowable aspect to why it’s a masterpiece.”

“Accessible is a word I don’t like to use,” he continued cautiously. “I’m resistant to the notion that contemporary music is NOT accessible—but people nevertheless think that. If someone said to me, I hate contemporary music. What should I listen to? This is the music I would give them. It’s very viscerally beautiful. Somehow, it also seems to fit into this tradition that the Viennese have where they’re worried about two very different types of publics. There’s a lot of music that has the title, “For Connoiseurs and Amateurs,” because they really cared about doing both. They wanted to be able to appeal to both and speak to both.”

“I think it’s a mistake,” he continued, “to think that in vain is super original. It’s not Haas showing us a bunch of new sounds. It’s contextualizing all this stuff in new and unimagined ways. There is nothing less new than the overtone series. That is the least new thing in music. But the way he presents it—there’s this moment in the first dark section when the strings gradually coalesce into the harmonic series over B. It’s this riveting, spine-tingling, jaw-dropping moment. It’s the same thing you’ve heard for your whole life, but you hear it in this new way. You’re hearing it with new ears.”

One of the most important things I discovered during our interview was that Lewanski saw a key difference between Haas and the pure spectralists: while they write “music about sound,” Haas uses “sound as a metaphor.”

And this made sense, because in the course of learning about in vain, I had begun to construct elaborate metaphors around the piece. And I’m not the only one: in this video, Simon Rattle compares the music to the staircases of M.C. Escher, or to Sisyphus pushing his stone up the hill. In his column on Haas, Alex Ross identifies profound themes of truth, of human darkness, even of Biblical pride.

Why does in vain lend itself so easily to broad metaphorical brushstrokes? Perhaps because in the years preceding in vain‘s composition, the far-right Austrian Freedom Party was becoming increasingly reactionary and increasingly powerful. This surge was led by Joerg Haider, the charismatic and controversial son of Nazi parents who, in 1999, led the party to a 27% victory and a firm place in the coalition government. Haider said publicly that “the multicultural society is a fiction that cannot work”; Haider was virulently anti-immigration; Haider regularly attended the retirement parties of Nazi soldiers without comment.

This was the dark stuff that, according to everything I’d read, in vain would be “about.” The narrative arc of the piece—where an extended episode of equal-tempered scales yields to a darkened paradise of the overtone series, only to be vanquished by the tyranny of the scales once again—certainly seemed to resonate with Austria’s recent political history. For progressive Austrians and for observers all over the world, the electoral success of the Austrian Freedom Party indicated a terrifying backslide into the xenophobia and racism that characterized the worst period in European history. Haas described the end of in vain as “the return to a situation thought to be overcome.” And so my mind prepared the analogies:

equal temperament : the specter of history :: just intonation: a hopeful future

scales : political noise :: long tones : truth

Because my research had yielded such a compelling narrative of political history, I wondered if there was a layer of musical history in the metaphor, too. What significance does, say, a Schubertian seventh chord or a Brucknerian climax have for Haas? In this musical world of stark contrasts—light and dark, scales and long tones, chaos and unity—are Haas’s Austrian predecessors good guys or bad guys? I needed to know. Did the analogy look like this?

Murail : progress :: Schubert : dubious tradition

Or more like this?

Grisey : presence :: Bruckner : revelation

In the evening’s program note, there was an even more compelling idea: that in vain is a meta-narrative about the futility of composition itself. And indeed, the work is built from such elemental building blocks—scales, arpeggios, and long tones—that it very well could be music about music. At times the musicians, repeating their fragments over and over in long episodes, seem like 24 obsessive souls toiling alone in their practice rooms.

But as it turns out, there is nothing to compare this music to. As it turns out, I was grasping at straws. When the performance of in vain began, none of my research mattered. I scratched blindly at my paper in the dark concert hall, wondering if I’d be able to read a word. Or if I would care. If that isn’t an example of futility, I don’t know what is.


What I saw and heard at Dal Niente’s performance last Thursday was, for me, more than a political statement. It was more than a treatise on intonation. It was more than any metaphor could have prepared me for.

The opening musical landscape—the strings fussing anxiously at their scales, the horns portending doom—suggested the hyperactive loneliness of modern life. But then came the lighting change that Haas calls for in his score. Like a flock of unsuspecting birds, the musicians (and the audience as well) were plunged into complete darkness. Here, it seemed the players could finally speak with their real voices. In the dark, the instruments seemed to be living creatures, calling to each other across a chasm. When, after a great silence, the harp began to play its coaxing, gentle fragments, I was certain we had entered the underworld.

But I could never be sure where I was. Throughout the work, sound was in a state of transformation. Perfectly consonant harmonic-series chords evaporated as quickly as they had appeared. Long tones were passed from instrument to instrument in a slow-motion, timbre-bending relay. There was a pervasive sense of auditory hallucination: did I just hear what I think I heard?

When the second “dark section” began, and all the lights in the hall were again extinguished, the cascading tremolos felt like the music of religious revelation and ecstasy. Sudden flashes of light made the onstage ensemble flame, glow, and recede like an apparition. The music went on and on, the tension stretching like a rubber band. At some point, the percussion roared so loudly, the lights flashed so brightly, and the sound became so urgent that I leaned back instinctively, like a cartoon character who stands inches away from the open jaws of a lion. The brass sounded a kind of alarm and the lights flashed in panic. And it must have been my imagination, must have been another ghostly vision, when I caught a glimpse of Michael Lewanski’s face. Surely that could not have been the conductor, facing us, hands down at his sides, a powerless witness to this apocalypse of sound.

And then, with the excruciating cry of the tam-tams, heaven collapsed. The light returned, and we were left only with 24 exhausted creatures, dragging themselves through their paces once again.

A desolate emptiness settled into my body. I reached for my pen.

Heartbreak, I wrote. Whatever that was, it’s over.

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