Interview: Miranda Cuckson on G. F. Haas

Interview: Miranda Cuckson on G. F. Haas

Miranda Cuckson talks about Jazz, Folk Music and Georg Friedrich Haas’ second violin concerto, which she premiered together with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ilan Volkov in Tokyo on September 7, 2017. 

When did you first get in touch with G.F. Haas and his music? 

I first heard Georg Friedrich Haas’ music around 2008. I was the violinist of the Argento Chamber Ensemble from 2003-2011, and we heard about Haas’ music from colleagues in Europe, in particular about “in vain” which had been performed there but not yet in America. In 2009 we gave the US premiere of “in vain” at Miller Theatre, and the New York music scene was thrilled. Georg was there to work with us. On a concert of his smaller chamber works I played his violin piece “de terrae fine” - it was my first performance of many of that piece. 

I was enthralled with his music from the start, its great specificity and nuance but also its very direct communicative impact. His melodic/harmonic language - his use of micro-tonality - awakened my ears and imagination to these small intervals and their new dimensions of meaning, the astonishing richness of expression conveyed in distances between notes. I was excited by its profoundly moving impact and the deep psychological and emotional sources that he connects to with his music.

While the language is certainly sophisticated and requires a new level of technical control and sensitive listening, I found it also comes to feel and sound remarkably organic. This is because it’s based in the physical properties of sound, the overtone series and the throbbing of vibrations that we can feel in our bodies.

Aside from the microtonal aspect, I feel his music is not especially complex, rather he arranges his ideas with such a remarkably sure sense of dramatic pacing and the accumulation of color. His handling of time and speed is masterful, and he creates vivid drama with both massive textures and spare lines, and with haunting melodies and vibration-saturated chords.

You performed the premiere of Haas’ second violin concerto in Japan, a piece that was composed for you. How did you collaborate with him? 

I recorded Georg’s piece “de terrae fine” on a solo album released in 2013. At the album release concert, Georg suddenly said, to my great delight, “I would like to write a violin concerto for you”. I had the sense that he had ideas for the piece already in mind. Thinking on it now, I realize that Georg and I have not communicated verbally much at all about his music. I think he and I understand each other’s artistry - personality maybe - closely but in an intuitive, unspoken kind of way. This is the basis for our rapport and the naturalness with which we work together as composer and interpreter. 

How would you describe Haas’ second violin concerto to somebody who has not heard it before? 

Haas’ new concerto is a work of over 30 minutes for violin and full orchestra. In atmosphere it’s quite dark and turbulent. The music seems to yearn for a calm, gentle mood but is disrupted by threats of violence, and the interaction between solo and orchestra conveys the shifting dynamic of disturbing forces. The piece is somewhat in the vein of the Romantic concertos, but also ventures into experimental territory with its unusual form, harmonies and use of the orchestra.

The violin sometimes plays sweeping gestures that ride on top of the texture, ranging from low outbursts to the violin’s extreme high register. It has some exposed, poignant melodies, as well as fast passages of arpeggios and scales. Though essentially idiomatic, these sometimes involve microtones, creating modes less familiar than the scales and arpeggios Western classical musicians grow up practicing! The degree of microtonality is unusual in a concerto, and it’s a tuning and ensemble challenge. Haas sometimes has the strings playing divisi, one player per part. 

The concerto’s nine continuous sections are Praeludium (1), Kadenz (2), Resonanz  und Feedback (3), Dreistimmige Invention (4), Sgraffito (5), Sotto voce (6), Interludium (7), just intonation (8) and Aria (9). Haas experiments with the conventional relation of soloist and orchestra. The piece erupts near the beginning into a solo cadenza, which breaks out with intense desperation. In the third and fourth section, the orchestra takes up the violin’s notes and phrases like a reverberation. This morphs into a legato passage in the strings which the soloist joins in unison: the music distinctly refers to the transcendent Bach chorale “Es ist genug” section of Berg’s concerto. 

In “Dreistimmige Invention” each “line” of counterpoint is a strand of microtonal clusters. At “Sgraffito” the violin enters muted and is initially inaudible under the orchestral layers. It emerges into “Sotto voce” where the orchestra then also plays extremely softly. The suspended “just intonation” presents a sound world of shimmering sustained harmonies, with the violins trading high pitches with the solo part. Following a sweetly hopeful melody in justly-tuned thirds by the soloist, the volatile Aria hurtles to the end.

You founded the non-profit organization Nunc. Please tell us more about it.

As the artistic director, I work on Nunc projects intermittently - maybe a couple, a few events a year. I enjoy having ideas about interesting programming, arranging premieres and bringing musicians together to play, so Nunc is a tool for doing that. My concept has always been for Nunc to be very flexible, so it can develop any kind of piece or program, and unlike an ensemble, there isn’t a set roster of musicians. I’ve organized chamber concerts, school residencies, visits to Argentina and around the US, and a staged chamber opera. Coming up are university residencies in Texas and Massachusetts, with concerts, composition readings and masterclasses

The year 2017 is coming to an end. To which projects in 2018 are you particularly looking forward to?

I’m of course hugely looking forward to play the Haas concerto again, in July 2018 with the Staatsorchester Stuttgart and Sylvain Cambreling, and then the Orchestra of the Casa da Musica in Porto and Baldur Brönnimann. I also look forward to perform concertos by Michael Hersch in New York and by Ligeti in California this spring. There are exciting new pieces being written for me. And I have collaborations with terrific groups in New York and a new collective, to be announced, that will be kicking off with events at the Park Avenue Armory and Harvard. 

To which music outside of classical music do you listen to? 

I often listen to jazz and I check out all kinds of folk music. I savor the inflections and interactions and personal expression. Sometimes I am just in the mood for a Haydn Symphony or Beethoven sonata, other times noisy and electronic stuff.


Photo: J. Henry Fair