Chicago based pianist Mabel Kwan (Ensemble Dal Niente) releases the premiere recording of Georg Friedrich Haas' Trois Hommages, a beguiling work for two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart and played by one performer. Dedicated to Steve Reich, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Josef Matthias Hauer, Haas' expansive work deconstructs stylistic elements of prominent modern compositional aesthetics as well as the central association the piano has with equal temperament and its impact on music history.
The historical influence of the advent of equal temperament and its manifestation through the mechanism of the piano keyboard cannot be overstated. In an effort to be able to modulate more freely between keys within the context of keyboard composition, a system of equal distance between twelve notes in an octave was devised and refined, and became the frame within which the entire Western canon developed. And yet, it was always a constructed frame, an attempt to mold complex acoustic realities into a manageable system for ease of use. Georg Friedrich Haas’ Trois Hommages is written for one pianist playing on two pianos, tuned a quarter tone apart. Haas' compositional decision is a doubling down on equal temperament (the pianos are still tuned in 12 equal notes per octave, and played together, sound a 24 note scale). But seen another way, it’s also modernist deconstruction of the equal tempered paradigm and the conventional piano’s stronghold on the way we listen. Whatever Haas’ thinking behind the central conceit of the piece, he lets it lead the discourse throughout, keeping the otherworldly and often unsettling pitch world front and center in the listener’s attention. He pays tribute to three modern masters of composition, György Ligeti, Josef Matthias Hauer, and Steve Reich, exploring the 24 note scale through hypnotic repetition with very subtle variation. The opening movement, dedicated to Ligeti, is 30 minutes of percussive, repeated dyads and chords that create a sound mass of beatings and underscore the exotic resonance of the pianos sounding together. The middle movement, dedicated to twelve tone pioneer Hauer (he published a “law of twelve tones” before Schoenberg’s circle), is a steady stream of flowing, ascending arpeggios that highlight the quarter tone tuning. At the opening of the movement, we hear five note arpeggios, then six notes, then seven, before the final section arrives at eight note groupings. Haas’ hommage to Reich characteristically explores polyrhythm, shifting through a series of different rhythmic superimpositions while insistent patterns are articulated across the two alternate keyboards. Ensemble Dal Niente’s pianist Mabel Kwan’s performance is patient and compelling, allowing Haas’ slow evolution to reveal itself over the course of the 72 minute recording and articulating the aspects which highlight the rich color of the tuning throughout.
- D. Lippel
Recorded and produced at EMPAC - The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY
Molly Roth Scranton, Visual Artwork and Design.
Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas is known and respected internationally as a highly sensitive and imaginative researcher into the inner world of sound. His music synthesizes the Austrian tradition of grand orchestral statement with forward-looking interests in harmonic color and microtonal tuning that stem from both French spectralism and a strand of American experimentalism. Since 2013 Haas has been the MacDowell Professor of Music at Columbia University.
Chicago pianist Mabel Kwan, a core member of Ensemble Dal Niente, brings a crisp, patient precision to these three solo pieces by Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas, composed between 1982-84—presented here, on record for the very first time. All three works employ two separate pianos, each played with one of the performer’s hands, tuned a quarter-tone apart to produce a 24-note scale—a simultaneous embrace of an even temperament and a rejection of its limitations. Each study is dedicated to an important 20th century composer. The monumental Hommage à György Ligeti offers a pummeling exercise in rhythm; as Kwan hammers through a series of dyads and chords with forceful staccato, the harmony of the two instruments cycles through moments of clarity and dissonance. Hommage à Josef Matthias Hauer offers a dramatic shift toward the elegiac, saluting the fellow Austrian who developed a 12-tone theory just prior to Schoenberg. As the piece unfolds, elegant arpeggios gently extend from five notes at the start to eight by the climax, one section at a time, with the trickle of sounds underlining the peculiarities of the tuning, producing effects ranging from sweet to deliciously sour. (At the end, it almost sounds like Kwan is playing an inside-out boogie-woogie.) The album closes with another thrumming composition, Hommage à Steve Reich, which deftly embraces the American minimalist’s trademark exploration of polyrhythm.
-Peter Margasak, 10.30.18, Bandcamp Daily
Together, these three Hommages spread to 71 minutes and ask for a single pianist simultaneously to play two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart (each piano is in 12-note equal temperament). Online visuals show two pianos placed at right angles and Kwan positioned to reach all the ivories. We can infer – and what we hear supports this – that each hand is dedicated to a single instrument. Happily leveraging minimalist patterns, Haas has written three pieces that introduce and explore a 24-pitch microtonal universe. Ligeti, Hauer and Reich are three composers he has admired (least familiar Hauer arrived at a 12-tone theory ahead of Schoenberg). The Hommage for Ligeti is chordal, a fast and constant drumbeat as notes are picked from the 24-note gamut. It starts with the tuning system we know, then adds notes from the other keyboard to create a tangy haze. The piece for Hauer is a moderately paced constant stream of ascending scale patterns, suggesting ever so slightly WTC: I’s opening Prelude. With unexpected accents, the beat can be elusive and not just because after a few minutes another is folded in. The Reich movement offers a tapestry of moving notes in a constant pulse. The microtonal colors are bolder, the dissonant tinges suggesting passing ambulances. Repeating pitches reveal compound rhythms. We’ve encountered Kwan before as member of Ensemble Dal Niente.
-Grant Chu Covell, 11.2018, La Folia
First there is the fascinating solo work by Mabel Kwan, performing ‘Trois Hommages for two pianos (tuned a quartet-tone apart)’. A premiere recording of a work composed by Austrian composer Friedrich Haas who works in the US. Three homages, dedicated respectively to Györgi
Ligeti, Josef Matthias Hauer and Steve Reich. Written for two pianos to be played simultaneously. One by the right hand, one by the left hand. The different tuning between the two pianos is effectively used by Haas and introduces a very specific tension. Kwan is [a] Chicago-based pianist associated with ensembles Ensemble Dal Niente, Restroy, big TEEN's Mega Laverne and Shirley, and Uluuul. The first piece is a repetitive percussion-like work. With a strong drone effect. Also the second one is built with repetition as an important structuring element. This time with a short melodic phrase at the core. The third one is a strong pulsating minimalistic work. All three compositions are closely related to the same minimalistic approach. For each composition however Haas uses a phrase or element of compositions from the three composers that inspired him. Only in the case of Steve Reich I was able to recognize this. Playing these works must have been a very intensive physical exercise for Kwan. But she does a great job.
-Dolf Mulder, 12.3.18, Vital Weekly