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Georg Friedrich Haas: in vain

10 Apr 2017

As part of our Cue the New: How to Listen to the 21st Century online resources, we caught up with composer Georg Friedrich Haas ahead of our performance of in vain to discuss his musical influences, creative processes and more – with playlists, a Q+A and audio guide.

Step 1


Listen to a selection of music chosen by Haas which has inspired his work. From Mozart, to Billie Holiday, to Ligeti – we get a glimpse into the composer's eclectic taste. 

Georg Friedrich Haas


We hear from the composer about the creative decisions behind in vain, its political significance and more about Georg Friedrich Haas – including his first ever record purchase. 

Q. The element of darkness is particularly significant in in vain, did you always envisage a section of darkness when you first sat down to write this work?

A. No, it happened almost by chance. In Berlin, when I was invited by the DAAD in 1999/2000, I had a discussion with the stage director Bettina Wackernagel. We spoke about my opera Adolf Wölfli, which I had composed in 1981. There were sections in complete darkness, and light flashes which replaced the conductor. She encouraged me to continue. I was not sure whether it is correct to use darkness in a composition about enlightenment. But I felt a strong instinct driving me to do it. I was not consciously aware of my reasoning, however eventually I received the answer via the words of the music critic Marco Frei. On reviewing my opera KOMA, which also has passages of darkness, he said the following: "Indeed, this pitch-black requires a special manner of both playing and conducting […] Through close listening and a heightened awareness of each other, Haas creates a sense of shared humanity in the room that is often lacking in society. Here, Haas has created a solution in sound – a beacon of hope." Marco Frei

Q. As in vain was written in protest to a far-right regime, would you say that it also resonates with today’s situation in your adopted home of the United States?

A. No. The message of in vain is my sorrow, my fear, my anger, that the right-wing nationalists are back. The current situation in the US is different. Nobody and nothing came "back" again; the far-right are now merely empowered to show their true face. Furthermore, in the United States there is a strong democratic tradition. Much stronger than Austria. 

Q. What do you regard as your greatest artistic achievement?

A. Maybe to communicate emotions.

Q. Which piece of music has had the biggest effect on you as a composer?

A. Today's answer – Alban Berg, Wozzeck. Tomorrow my answer might be different.

Q. What was the first recording you ever bought?

A. When I travelled through France with my friend Michael Konzett in 1974, I found an old Vinyl by Boulez, conducting his Le marteau sans maître

Q. Describe your compositional style in three words.

A. I am free.

A. If you could have any other profession, what would it be?

A. Teacher (but maybe this is the wrong answer,  because today I am also a teacher) -– when I was 16, I planned to become a priest. But later I lost my faith.

Q. Who has been the biggest influence in your life?

A. Two – my first (platonic) love, Elisabeth. When we met at high school, we discovered the energy of love and of humanity. We decided to do 'something' with our lives. I became a composer. She founded a hospital in western Africa. And the love of my life – Mollena Lee Williams-Haas.



Philip Cashian, composer and Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, gives an in-depth guide to Georg Friedrich Haas‘ 21st century masterpiece in vain



    in vain is a monumental piece of music lasting 70 minutes. The title alludes to the spiral structure of the work ‘returning to a situation believed to be overcome’ (Haas). The frenetic descending figures of the opening minutes return at the end of the work having travelled through countless transformations and explorations of timbre, harmonic manipulation, shifts of tempo, throbbing rhythms and pure sonic ingenuity.

    Light and dark: For me, in vain is so relevant and forward looking as it questions the whole experience of what listening to live music in a concert hall should be. It stretches the listener’s attention for a single span of 70 minutes’ worth of music and twice plunges the concert hall into complete darkness. If lighting is employed to great effect in musical theatre and live rock and pop concerts why shouldn’t it be used in contemporary classical music?

    Structure: Haas builds the piece out of very clear musical ideas. There is no melodic material in the work and all pitch material grows from an investigation of the notes and partials of the harmonic series. This allows Haas to construct music that integrates quarter tones seamlessly into the musical fabric giving the work a highly individual, other worldly character. The endless manipulation of pitch and rhythm stretched over relatively long spans of time gives the music an almost primal quality. Haas is digging down into the very nature of how what we are hearing functions. He also thinks of the music in layers giving the piece a geological aspect.


    The overall structure of the work is surprisingly simple considering the sophisticated and detailed musical grammar. Here are some defining moments to listen out for:

    05:22 This marks the beginning of the second section as the scurrying descending scales of the opening minutes disappear. The music freezes on a chord that has extremely high notes played on the accordion making the music sound electronic.

    15:04 At this point, Haas introduces pulsing, static chords underpinned by subtle changes of orchestration. Quarter tone glissandi twist and stretch the surface of the music. This kind of writing gives the ‘bar to bar detail’ that engages the listener’s ear over such slowly transforming spans of time.

    24:20 The four horns descend down through the notes of the harmonic series – a fundamental building block of the work.

    28:31 Tremolos in the percussion, accordion and wind are the first hint that the music will return to its scurrying opening material.

    44:15 Repetitive figures introduced in the percussion and strings begin a climactic section of the piece.

    53:42 Does the piece have a climax and, if so, is this it?

    59:00 A return to the opening music of the piece.

    Step 4


    In this section we get a glimpse into Hass' working space and an insight into his process as a composer.

    Photos by: Beatrice Behn/René Gebhardt

    Step 5


    Follow us on Instagram to get a glimpse into rehearsals on the day of the concert at Southbank. In the meantime, here's a peak into this morning's rehearsal in Bethnal Green with conductor Brad Lubman. #HowToGetBackstage