2/12, 4.30pm Cobb 219 Max Silva, Music, UChicago
“Heard Utopia vs. Utopian Hearing: G. F. Haas’s in vain and Political Ambivalence in New Music”
This paper is a case study bookended by some material that I think will eventually expand into a larger project. This project will look at two ways that composers of recent aesthetically modernist music can follow ethical imperatives and political agendas: on one hand, they can write music intended to be about or represent some issue or reality—conveying a message, telling a story, winning over hearts and minds through the sensual; on the other, they can write music intended to challenge complacent musical practice, affording a kind of disciplined training in being more perceptive and open-minded—that is, music that encourages ‘critical thinking,’ to make a connection with the rhetoric defending the value of a liberal arts education. Both imperatives can be followed simultaneously, with some success, but they can also conflict when the latter imperative challenges and complicates the very conventions of signification needed by the former imperative for successful representation. Such sites of conflict can become traces of modernist anxiety over its own ethical and political efficacy.
This case study has two primary objects: Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain (2000), an hour long chamber orchestra work written to express futility as a response to the neoconservative victory in the Austrian election; and a brief article he wrote eight years later in which he claims no longer to believe that composers have a ‘social duty’ and that in vain was musically successful but ideologically a failure. The point of the latter criticism seems to be that good art must be open to interpretation, must invite contemplation of mystery, in a way that good propaganda should not.
But in vain’s expressive narrative is actually rather straightforward. It is structured by an opposition between threatening music in equal temperament (i.e., the modern tuning system, with twelve equally spaced discrete steps) and the auratic, ethereal, utopian sound of chords based on the overtone series (the ratios of vibrations produced by natural objects that blend together into a single sound, which require notes that are ‘in between the cracks’ of the steps of equal temperament). The sense of futility comes from the continual loss of the latter to the former. (I’m providing some interactive materials on the workshop site that you can use to teach yourself to hear these different types of tunings, if you’re interested or want to be able to follow the arguments in detail; for the purposes of this workshop, though, you don’t have to worry much about hearing the difference.)
The ambiguities and nuance seem to come from those aspects of the piece that aim towards defamiliarization. The most obvious aspect is the performance of two sections of the piece in total darkness: not only is darkness rich with an abundance of connotation in itself, but it also takes on a special significance for Haas: the elimination of one sensory medium is intended to intensify our awareness in other ways. Moreover—as I show in a series of interpretive passes through the piece, each informed by different music-theoretical writings by and about Haas and contemporaries—the meaning of the overtone chords themselves is complex because they serve to challenge our habitual sense of ‘in tune.’ In the first interpretive passes, this potential for the overtone chords to train us in a kind of ‘utopian hearing’ enhances their representational function as ‘heard utopia.’ But insofar as appreciating the sound qualities of these signifiers in themselves requires blocking their signification, the aims of representation and defamiliarization conflict, even to the point where some of the most important moments in the narrative flip their affective valence if viewed in terms of intonation aesthetics.
Thus, to the extent that Haas is right that in vain is unclear in its political message, it is only because of an apparently much stronger ethical impetus. Why, then, disavow a sense of social responsibility? It appears to be a sleight of hand: he distracts us from his ethical commitments to defamiliarization by disavowing an ethics of communicative clarity. What anxieties might this sleight of hand betray? What does Haas have to hide? Perhaps it is a secret desire to be overtly expressive and political, a tendency he hides for fear (or perhaps internalized shame) of being dismissed as indulgent agitprop. Perhaps he is in denial over the possibility that—precisely because of the complications introduced into its black-and-white narrative—in vain speaks a truth that he doesn’t want to hear, that moral absolutes are impossible in an age of relativism. And, most importantly, Haas may be hiding his ‘real’ ethical imperatives out of some repressed worry that he is naïve to follow them. Perhaps, buried in in vain and Haas’s later critique of it, is a worry as to whether modernisms defined by an aim to improve us by aesthetically challenging us can thereby justify their continued existence.
Max’s materials are available for download here. Email Aleks or Marcy for the password.