Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark with Argento/Haas (preview and review)

If you’ve ever felt in the dark while listening to contemporary music, Friday night at EMPAC you won’t be alone. For a portion of the concert the orchestra will also be performing — literally — in the dark, without the aid of lights on their music stands or even a spotlight on the conductor.

“In Vain” is the name of the single piece on the program. It’s about 75 minutes long and was written about 10 years ago by the Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas.  It will be performed by the Argento Ensemble from Manhattan, conducted by its founder Michel Galante.

Along with an array of instrumental effects and some unusual tuning systems, the score also has lighting cues.  According to Galante, there are passages where flashing lights add an additional rhythmic layer to the piece.  And then there are two extended sections of the piece — one of them almost 15 minutes in duration — where all of the lights in the hall go out and the 24 players on stage must perform from memory and without site cues to synchronize their efforts.

“The darkness makes for a very intense experience and changes the mode of communication,” says Galante. “The musicians have to communicate aurally and they become an orchestra whose antenna are hyper-alert. This affects the audience as well because you are in the same dark space, the same predicament.”

Galante’s conducting duties cease during those dark passages, but he’s found the over arching experience of the piece fatiguing, to say the least.

“I remember walking off the stage and saying ‘what the hell happened?’” he recalls. That was after a performance in 2009 at Columbia University’s Miller Theater. The event was named by critics in The New York Times and Time Out New York as highlights of the entire season.

The ten-year old Argento Ensemble is dedicated exclusively to contemporary music and Galante is something of an expert in the experimental composers of Europe.  He says that Haas’ title “In Vain” has several meanings, though it’s not a reference to the futile challenge of playing in the dark. Instead, it’s about the juxtaposition of different tuning systems (equal temperament and just intonation) and also a comment on the political climate in Austria when the piece was coming composed.

Haas is known as an exponent of a composition technique known as spectral, a primarily French practice which is based on exploiting the colors of the overtone series.  With the integration of light and dark with this and other pieces, Haas has expanded the sensual reach of concert music.

“There’s a musical discourse in the piece that’s separate from the lighting,” adds Galante.  “There are these huge raw gestures in the music. It’s a very psychedelic and intoxicating sound.  It can remind one of orchestra works of Bruckner and Debussy with big columns of sound.  There’s also a level of sensitivity in the way he uses the harp and string harmonics that corresponds to French impressionism.”

Geoge Friedrich Haas: “In Vain”
The Argento Ensemble, Michel Galante, conductor
November 12, 2010,  EMPAC, RPI Campus, Troy

The contemporary music programming at EMPAC continues to tilt toward the European.  Friday night’s concert featured a 26-six piece orchestra in a single, hour-long work, “In Vain” by Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas.  The Argento Ensemble from New York performed under its founder Michel Galante.

Paul Griffith’s program notes describe the 2000 composition as “one of the great pieces of the last decade.”  A couple of Manhattan critics went pretty nuts for it when the same forces offered it there a couple of years back.

All this, plus the composer’s unusual inclusion of lighting cues in the score, led one to expect a stronger statement, but the piece burbled along more than anything.  Though highly detailed in articulations, tunings and all manner of other affects, it often felt aimless.  The mass scale of it all — and there were tons of rising and falling scales, by the way — made it insistent, and yet it was elusive at the same time.

Like a heavy mist or a stream of passing clouds, the music never held still.  While there may have been no set chords or clearly articulated rhythms to grab a hold of, some associations still came to mind. These include the earthy side of Mahler and the hazy mysticism of Ives in his “Central Park in the Dark.”

Haas is associated with the spectral school of composition, which is primarily a French thing.  It’s based on highlighting effects from the overtone series.  Haas goes a step further in this and other pieces by adding lighting effects.

Twice during “In Vain,” the hall went dark — mostly.  Exit lights and the little lamps on the aisles stayed illuminated, so the darkest part of the room was the stage, where the musicians kept playing.  This robbed the eyes of the diversions of looking hither and thither at the different musicians and instruments.  What it provided instead was a greater sense of the unified, single effect the players produced.

During the second darkened passage, gentle flashes of golden light eventually began to appear at intervals of roughly 20 seconds.  This was while the music built to it’s grandest with thunder sheets, roaring brass and a harsh rhythmic strumming of the harp.

Originally appeared in the Times Union.

Leave a Reply