The Premieres Lost to COVID-19
Georg Friedrich Haas’s new orchestral work opens at the void. A solo contraforte—a sort of improved contrabassoon with a more focused, melodic tone—holds a low F#. A solo violin looks down on it from far above, playing close, dissonant intervals in the high reaches of the harmonic spectrum. Slowly, the violin descends. The orchestra begins to expel the emptiness, adding the rest of the notes of the overtone series. This process lasts about four minutes in chronological time. It could feel like an instant, or an eternity.
Haas then introduces the Wyschnegradsky chord, a dissonant conglomeration which avoids the octave repetitions of the harmonic spectrum. The contrast shakes the brain awake. In between these poles are small, intricate microtonal melodies in the two solo instruments. The shifts in scale between these lines and the spacious chords are dizzying. Gradually the breadth of the microtonal melodies expand, and the Wyschnegradsky chords rise and shift, and the strings pulsate into a jarring climax.
After roughly the first third of Haas’s piece—titled “Was mir Beethoven erzählt” (“What Beethoven tells me) and commissioned by the Kammerorchester Basel—something unexpected happens. A four-note motive, its pitches changed, its surroundings dissonant, emerges from the texture—and it’s familiar: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 “Pastoral,” fourth movement (“Gewitter, Sturm”). A rising violin motive. Across time, utterly different music has wormed its way inside of Haas’s piece.
What follows is a cacophonous, touching collage. Beethoven, in tiny motives or large swathes of music, altered to the limits of recognition or transparently orchestrated, enters in dialogue both with himself and with the language of Haas, whose musical calling-cards can only briefly reassert control. For some 16 minutes, the ear is pulled between sound worlds, incapable of rest. The work ends with the shortest of quotes from “Fidelio” in the solo instruments—a Bb major chord, labeled with the word Freiheit, or freedom—and a soft, unsettling accordion cluster. The ending of the piece could hardly be more different from its beginning, except for the common atmosphere of emptiness.
But all this is speculation. “Was mir Beethoven erzählt” has never been performed.
Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has nearly eliminated performances of newly composed music. Most concert halls have shut down. Ensembles are rehearsing remotely. Institutions that remain open have largely chosen to focus on crowd-pleasing standard repertoire, or to share videos and recordings of older performances from their archives. As the music publisher Christiane Albiez told VAN, “This year will go down in music history as a year without new works.” The occasional streaming concerts of new music that do exist often feel like pale reflections of our previous concert life.
In March 2020, while Europe went into lockdown, Haas got stuck in Essaouira, Morocco, where a brief vacation had morphed into an extended stay thanks to sudden travel restrictions. Then, he told me of his frustration: Feeling that he had made great strides in his latest batch of pieces, he has since only been able to hear a few scattered rehearsals and recordings.
Haas finished “Was mir Beethoven erzählt” on April 2, 2020. A text accompanies the piece, but it isn’t meant to be read aloud (like the Hölderlin quotations in Luigi Nono’s string quartet “Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima.”). One passage, which accompanies a combination of (among other pieces) Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Fidelio,” Piano Concerto No. 5, and Violin Concerto, toward the end of the work, sees a precedent for the barely-precedented aesthetic bereavement of this year in Beethoven’s biography:
He, who invented, crafted, suffered for these sound worlds, never had access to that sensual perception, it was utopian to him—a utopia that didn’t become reality in his lifetime….Beethoven goes and leaves me behind, alone.
Not having a chance to hear “Was mir Beethoven erzählt” was painful, Haas told me this January. But, he continued, “let me be honest: I’ve gained enough experience to survive this hungry time. The situation is completely different for young composers. The situation is catastrophic for them. My premieres are delayed, theirs are canceled completely.” In 2022 and 2023, ensembles would have to double their schedule of premieres to catch up, Haas added. That would be wonderful. It is also unlikely.
In July 2018, Sarah Kirkland Snider received an orchestral commission as part of the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19, which asked 19 women composers to write pieces in honor of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment (which guaranteed American women the right to vote). Snider finished her composition, titled “Forward Into Light,” in February 2020, the last month of a now-unimaginable normality.
Scored for orchestra with piano and tape, the opening of Snider’s work is just distinguishable in the murmur of an expectant auditorium. The flutes play soft whistle tones on the overtone series of their lowest C. The harp enters with broken chords, material which is nearly always present in the piece, like a familiar pleasure taken for granted. String ricochets expand into short melodic cells—“groups of notes endowed with a sort of melodic fairy dust,” Snider said—which are intricately layered, then turned by the Gestalt process of our perception into texture.
The piece builds and abandons climaxes. It crossfades between sonic situations. It makes diversions, but is undergirded by a sense of progress. Then, toward the very end of “Forward Into Light,” Snider, like Haas, introduces resonant music from the past. Her quotation is Ethel Smyth’s “March of the Women,” a protest chorale from the Suffragette era. Snider sets the hymn above a dense melodic canon in the strings, who bustle in triplets against the simple quadruple meter of the chorale. In Snider’s imagination, the harmonies of these separate musics also clash satisfyingly, but she can’t be sure. She has yet to hear “Forward Into Light.”
When Snider was a child growing up in New Jersey, she dreamed of composing a piece for the New York Philharmonic. With “Forward Into Light,” she hoped to use the opportunity to make an aesthetic leap: sharpening her orchestration; experimenting more with texture than with melody; subjecting her usually linear forms to interruptions. It’s rare for composers to get the chance to write for orchestra, and every piece yields a rich vein of insight into the form. “What’s really valuable about writing an orchestral piece is learning experience. You only learn by doing it,” Snider said. “That’s the frustration of having to wait to hear your piece.”
Snider’s frustrations are also professional. To be commissioned by Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic was an honor, and a big break. “Forward Into Light” was supposed to be performed three times. It was also going to coincide with performances and the CD release of her “Mass for the Endangered,” for singers and chamber ensemble. None of that happened. “It felt like this big arrival moment, and all of that was gone,” Snider said. Other orchestras have shown interest in performing “Forward Into Light,” but because the New York Philharmonic has the right to the premiere, and the premiere hasn’t taken place yet, additional performances will have to wait—probably for years.
This purgatory feels especially endless because Snider worked obsessively on “Forward Into Light.” She prepared by studying scores by Stravinsky, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and others, then spent a full year composing the piece. She made a MIDI mockup to get a rough sense of the pacing, and took frequent walks in the forest, listening to the mockup or trying to imagine the totality of the piece in her head. After the concerts were canceled, there were no rehearsals, no responses on the basis of which to revise the work.
When it was done, Snider put her new score in a cabinet and tried to forget about it. “I just closed it off and didn’t think about it,” she said. “I was afraid to think about it. I was afraid that it would just devastate me.” When she agreed to talk to me, it was the first time in nearly a year that she had looked at “Forward Into Light.” Holding the score in her hands, she cried. “It was too much. It’s like birthing a child. You put so much into something…and then you don’t have a relationship with it anymore.”
The pandemic has given urgency to an old philosophical question: Can music exist that has been imagined but never played? Can describing it, like I’ve done above, force it into at least an intermediate state of being? Andrew Crossley’s “If you meet Bach on the road, kill him: Strategies and provocations towards a speculative non-music,” from 2020, explores this concern. Crossley’s work is a piece of music in the broadest terms. It’s part video installation, part lecture, part drawing, and part instrumental duet that also has things in common with Haas’s and Snider’s pieces. Text and quotation are central to each of these pandemic works, as if the enforced loneliness of the time has made the three composers want to compose but also need to speak, in more direct dialogue with audiences and the past.
“If you meet Bach on the road” opens with a video screen divided into four quadrants. The upper left and lower right show Crossley at his home in Mahlsdorf, a suburb in eastern Berlin. On the left, he plays a mouth harp in his studio, sounds which mix with the gentle rolling of a far-off thunderstorm. On the right, he plays a self-designed instrument called a monolin. (It is 4:30 a.m. Birds chirp. Crossley is the only human making sound.) These are two distinct pieces, titled “Koan #2” and “Koan #6,” simple sonic meditations that, when overlapped, seem to converse in a fragile dialogue across time and space. On the upper right of the screen, Crossley records himself drawing an ever-thickening circle, a simple visual gesture which marks the slowly passing time.
On the bottom left of the screen is Crossley’s “Bardo #2,” titled after the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the transitional space between life and death. In this work, Crossley describes in words the sounds of Johnathan Harvey’s “Bhakti,” which Harvey composed in 1982 for an ensemble of 15 players and quadraphonic tape. There is a light sense of humor here: Crossley is poking fun at the often melodramatic textual descriptions we read of classical pieces (a sin I’m probably guilty of in this article). But Crossley is also valuing intangible, imaginary music. In other versions of the “Bardo” pieces, he asks friends to verbally narrate musical pieces they know well, and then composes brand-new musical works based on these narrations.
This video work—rather, an amalgamation of different pieces into a single video—accompanies a lecture given by Crossley, which is by turns philosophical, personal, and deliberately “nebulous” (his word). There is a trace in the lecture of those stories by Jorge Luis Borges in which the narrator takes on the tone of erudite literary critic or academic, analyzing non-existent texts with a dry wit and scientific disinterest. This approach makes sense for Crossley, who studied both composition and philosophy. “In the end, making philosophical thought into a daily sonic practice was as imperative as it was to make my thinking about music more rigorously theoretical,” he said. “For me, the text scores I write are just the sweet spot between those two sides of my brain.” The result is a bewitching composition: “If you meet Bach on the road” is at once conceptually dense and meditatively simple. (It premiered digitally during a series of Zoom events for Latin American composers during the first lockdown in 2020.)
When the first COVID-19 lockdown hit Berlin, where Crossley had moved in the summer of 2018, he felt a sudden, unfamiliar freedom. “The pandemic provided me with space, stillness, and the excuse to lean into” more mediative, experimental works, he said. There was no pressure to produce new compositions at a given pace: “Psychologically, that was the big burden that was lifted for me.” “If you meet Bach on the road” was one of the first pieces he composed in this new vein. He was surprised to find that musicians with whom he’d worked previously on more traditional pieces were excited about the new development. They were just as keen as Crossley was to work on music that felt more profoundly his.
This pandemic has been brutal for composers, robbing them of the most tangible form of their intangible art. It is beholden on the institutions of classical music to make sure this tear in the fabric of artistic creation doesn’t get much bigger. Still, there is solace in Crossley’s approach, which admits that music can also take place purely in the imagination. Right now, the concert hall is silent. In our inner ears, the music—different, but no less potent for it—plays. ¶