in vain, and the discourse of 21st-century music

What to make of what Sir Simon Rattle, in an unfailingly reprinted introduction to Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain, calls the ‘first masterpiece of the 21st century’?

I’m not sure. It certainly is a ‘masterpiece’, if we want to continue using that word. That fact is gilt-embossed on every polished note. It’s certainly one of the first of the century, being composed in 2000.

But it’s certainly not flawless beyond criticism.

The hype that now surrounds every performance of in vain, aided by Alex Ross’s endorsement in the final pages of The Rest Is Noise, stoked by Rattle, and slurped up like water to a thirsty man by arts organisations like the Southbank, doesn’t do the work any favours. One of the hopes of our post-(post-)modern culture should be that we can move beyond this sort of language. Not only for elaborate French-philosophical reasons, but also because it kind of spoils things for audiences.

It was hard on Friday evening to listen to the London Sinfonietta’s performance of in vain on neutral terms. One expected at the end of its 70 minutes to be inducted into a cult, and that is a recipe for disappointment. It is immensely seductive, and its technical polish of a very high level. (The Sinfonietta’s performance was equally polished and unflagging throughout.) But at the same time, there is no grit, nothing truly inexplicable, challenging or ill-fitting. In all these respects it’s rather like the Shard, or a Disney film, or an iPhone. Flawless but hollow.

The good bits were very good. The two fades into darkness work especially well. The first is a great coup de théâtre, the second an even more impressive moment of drama. Here’s where I really felt Haas’s concept of an unwanted reprise succeeded. The lighting is not a gimmick, and it contributes something concrete and musical that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. But it is not exactly Haas’s invention (as Liam Cagney observed a few days ago, Grisey was doing this sort of thing in the 70s).

The piece has its longeurs, particularly in the central section, and there are too many moments that, lighting aside, sound like first draft Grisey. Rattle claims in his note that there is very little music like this around but really, there is some. This post-Ligeti, post-spectral filigree is more lingua franca than exception, even if it’s not always done as nicely as this. And although I love Haas’s harmonic aesthetic of perpetual destabilisation/resolution I much prefer it done with more assertive lines and less ornament, as in Blumenstück or the orchestral natures mortes, both much stranger works. (But I accept that’s a personal taste thing.)

If it sounds like I’m griping, I am. If it sounds like I’m deliberately swimming against the tide of critical opinion then I guess I’m doing that too. (Although interestingly I didn’t talk to anyone over the weekend who wasn’t at least slightly underwhelmed.) However, the sometimes off-the-peg discourse around a piece like this, and what that says about our desire for 21st-century masterpieces, and what we think they should sound like, deserves closer examination.

(NB: For those wanting to read more, Jeffrey Means has posted an interesting write-up of the work’s challenges from a conductor’s perspective.)


11 thoughts on “in vain, and the discourse of 21st-century music

  1. ‘It was hard on Friday evening to listen to the London Sinfonietta’s performance of in vain on neutral terms. One expected at the end of its 70 minutes to be inducted into a cult, and that is a recipe for disappointment.’

    I think this is very acute. There can be a certain group/peer pressure at these events to arrive at the ‘right’ verdict, and a fear of the possibility that many listeners might have different responses and reactions. There’s nothing wrong with ‘swimming against the tide of critical opinion’, even if some critics tend to hunt in packs! 😉

  2. Too much hype over this piece.

    One is better off listening to a great masterpiece like Strauss’s “Die Frau ohne Schatten”

  3. I think that current programming strategies to build audiences have created this sort of phenomenon. If you build your programs based on the current paradigm of basically the top 200 or so most audience-pleasing works with a few lesser known works and then a new work by a composer who has at least not seriously offended an audience and who has the proper credentials academically.
    There is nothing in that paradigm that gets at the wonderful surprise of hearing something unexpected, out of the box. But that is exactly what I seek as a listener. Sure, I want to hear good performances of established repertoire and even good retreads of older styles by new composers but I also want to be surprised or at least startled once in a while. And that seems to be in increasingly short supply, at least in the major concert venues.

  4. Dear Tim,
    This is an important point. Two things, though,
    1. There is nothing wrong – you do this yourself – in advocating. The world is a mess. Let’s those of us who feel we may have some faint grip on a tiny part of it share the goods. Even if we are only conductors.
    2. The “in vain” phenomenon may have something to do with the title, and with what the piece meant to Haas existentially, politically. This does not, of course, make it a better piece, but does make it a more expressively overt piece, and therefore not such a bad entry point for anyone new to this composer.
    Best wishes,

    1. Dear Paul,
      What you say is true, of course. There is room (and a need) for advocacy. And in vain may well turn out to be a gateway into new music for a lot of listeners. That would be a very good outcome. (This point was also suggested to me in private by someone else.) I’m still intrigued by the mechanisms of how this happens, and occasionally puzzled by the results.

      Interestingly, Haas himself was keen to play down the political dimension of the piece in his pre-concert talk on Friday, saying that (his words) it ‘failed’ as a political work because it was ‘too beautiful’ for what it was initially responding to. But that he saw this as a wider musical problem – ‘even a general pause would be too beautiful’.


      1. I’m a bit sceptical about what is really going on when composers evoke something only in order to play it down. In this case it sounds like a way of tagging some political significance in the sure knowledge that this will be registered without too many questions being asked.

  5. This is of course not the first time a recent work has been proclaimed as a “masterpiece” within a few years of its composition. The same thing happened to, e.g. Ligeti’s Etudes, Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, Gorecki’s Third Symphony, and countless more besides. First of all this creates the problem of not knowing whether you are hearing the work or its reputation when you listen, second of all is it just me or is there a certain homogeneity in these “modern masterpieces”? Every example one can think of is relatively traditional compared to the lingua franca of its day, and composed by (with very few exceptions) white, upper-class men of Northern European descent and left-wing political sympathies. Or am I just overthinking this?

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