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
Being so used to a group dynamic, if I was faced with a ‘piano only’ release in days gone by, I would have made my excuses and quickly headed for the door marked ‘exit’. But in the intervening years, I’ve gently eased myself into this somewhat isolated discipline by listening to the solo pianistics of Brit avant jazzers like Howard Riley and Mike Taylor; a different kettle of fish to Trois… I’ll admit… but in hindsight that was the closest I ever got. Sorry.
But to merely reduce this CD into a two thumbs, eight fingers and eighty-eight keys scenario simply won’t do. As the three pieces here, written by Austria’s leading ‘Spectralist’ composer are for one pianist playing two pianos, tuned a quarter-tone apart. The ivories are still tuned in twelve equal notes an octave, and played together, sound a twenty-four scale. A sound that’s slightly at odds with western sensibilities, in which a slight disconnect occurs that you just can’t put your finger on. Tipping the cap to a trio of leftfield composer types such as Ligeti, Reich and the lesser-known Josef Matthias Hauer, it’s a case of dilated-pupil repetition with s-l-o-w-l-y evolving changes. The longest cut, the pummelling ‘Hommage a Georg Ligeti’, clocking in at 30:06, tells us in no uncertain terms, that we are in this for the long haul. A round of sandwiches and Kendal Mint Cake might be considered as a nutritional boost should you start to flag half way in….
I guess the question on a few lips (perhaps?) is whether the interpretations of American Mabel Kwan (of Restroy and experimental three-piece Uluuul), are faithful to the intentions of Herr Haas and that’s one I can’t answer (so shoot me!), as the Spectralist canon remains a tantalisingly elusive one to yours truly. I guess there might be a clue in the genre’s name? I will say, however, that those looking for new thrills originating from hitherto unchartered territories should find something of interest here, but gentle reader, it’s not an immediate fix…
-Steve Pescott, 1.18.19, Adverse Effect Magazine
This marvelous album contains three pieces for two pianos, which are tuned a quarter tone apart—an arrangement that creates a halo of bright overtones around the insistent rhythms of a pair of pieces dedicated to György Ligeti and Steve Reich. Another composition, dedicated to Josef Matthias Hauer drifts sublimely into increasingly disorienting sonorities.
-Bill Meyer, 2.7.19, Chicago Reader
Who are you, Georg Friedrich Haas, and what are you trying to tell us? New Focus Recordings is offering this disc to us with scarcely any written information—I even had to look up the Austrian composer’s full name and birth year (1953)—although it does tell us that the work is “for two pianos (tuned a quarter-tone apart).” Either the music is expected to speak for itself, or we, in the age of the internet, are expected to do our homework. Looking online, I found, among other things, an article published in the New York Times in 2016 that addresses Haas’s BDSM relationship with his wife, a relationship in which he plays the dominant role. I mention this not just because it is titillating but also because I think it might be relevant to his music. As it says in the aforementioned article, Haas’s “exacting, virtuosic style gives a whiff of the dominant-submissive to the composer-performer relationship. The same can hold true for the composer-audience relationship, particularly in works like Mr. Haas’s third string quartet, In iij. Noct, 50 minutes performed entirely in the dark.”
You, dear reader, do not need to be similarly in the dark. Trois Hommages (1982–84) is played by one pianist on two pianos at right angles to each other. One piano is tuned a quarter-tone lower than the other, which of course has ear- and mind-bending consequences. The hommages are to György Ligeti, Josef Matthias Hauer (an Austrian composer whose work with 12-tone music slightly predated Schoenberg’s), and Steve Reich. Haas’s Hommages to Ligeti and Reich wear their allegiances on their sleeves. (I do not know Hauer’s music at all, so I am not going to comment.) Having just gotten Michael Gordon’s The Unchanging Sea out of my head (see elsewhere in this issue) I find Haas’s sound world threatening, albeit in a BDSM sort of way. I giggled at New Focus’s description of this work as “beguiling” (“agreeably or charmingly attractive or pleasing,” according to Merriam-Webster), but if you add the lexicographically acceptable nuance of deception or distraction, I suppose I can see what New Focus is getting at. Not to put too fine a point on it, Trois Hommages messes around with you. That’s OK, though. My understanding is that this is the work’s first recording, even though it seems to be played relatively often (for new music) and is more than three decades old now.
The Ligeti Hommage is notated as a series of whole-note chords, but the pianist is directed to repeat the chords as 16th notes, fading new tones in and fading others out. The tempo is approximately 96 quarter notes per minute, which translates to 384 16th-notes per minute. Do Austrian pianists have workman’s compensation? On this CD, this piece goes on for 30 minutes. (The Universal Edition score estimates 16 to 20 minutes.) The Hauer Hommage is a series of broken (“quasi arpeggio”) chords divided between the two hands/pianos and played legatissimo. This lasts 19 minutes and functions as the work’s slow movement, I imagine. Most maddening of all is the Hommage to Reich, which requires the pianist to repeat short patterns of different and evolving lengths at a blistering tempo. The interaction between the two pianos produces what sounds like a third piano. The Universal score again suggests a timing of 16 to 20 minutes. Mabel Kwan plays it in 22 minutes; I am not sure if that is a function of her tempo or of the number of repetitions she plays.
I started out skeptical and ended up convinced, even excited. This is a lot of fun, if you have a strange idea of what “fun” is. I don’t know how Kwan plays this, but I’m impressed. She is part of an ensemble called Ensemble Dal Niente which has championed Haas’s music in the past. I found a blog interview with Kwan in which she talks about this piece, and reading it would be an excellent teaser or introduction to Trois Hommages: icareifyoulisten.com/2013/02/5-questions-to-mabel-kwan-pianist/. These recordings also have been uploaded to YouTube. If you are an adventurous sort, sympathetic to process music or Minimalism, or interested in microtonality, then I have no qualms about recommending this disc to you. This could be on my Want List at the end of the year.
-Raymond Tuttle, 1.23.19, Fanfare