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  • Mark Hutchinson


The glowing critical response to Georg Friedrich Haas's in vain (2000) has focused particularly on the visceral effect created by Haas's use of ‘endless’ scales, richly saturated microtonal chords, and passages that take place in total darkness. Discussion of these features has often led reviewers and commentators to use forms of description and praise which evoke the old (but lately rejuvenated) aesthetic category of the sublime. This article explores these connections with sublime aesthetics in more detail as a way of clarifying both philosophical and interpretative perspectives on in vain. The idea of the sublime serves as a thread connecting aspects of spectral technique and aesthetics, the mathematical visions of M.C. Escher, and the charged socio-political context in which the work was written.



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1 For a further discussion of Klangspaltung and other auditory effects in Haas's work, especially those inspired by Wyschnegradsky, see Hasegawa, Robert, ‘Clashing Harmonic Systems in Haas's Blumenstück and in vain’, Music Theory Spectrum, 37 no. 2 (2015), pp. 204–23.

2 Bernhard Günther, programme note to in vain,, accessed 22 April 2017.

3 Alex Ross, ‘Darkness Audible’, The New Yorker, 29 November 2010., accessed 9 July 2015.

4 Key texts in musicological scholarship on the sublime include Webster, James, ‘The Creation, Haydn's Late Vocal Music, and The Musical Sublime’, in Haydn and His World, ed. Sisman, Elaine (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 57102; and Sisman, Elaine, Mozart: The ‘Jupiter’ Symphony (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993).

5 Morley, Simon, ‘Introduction’, in The Sublime, ed. Morley, Simon (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010), p. 12.

6 For another thought-provoking perspective on the tension between existing readings of this piece and Haas's own (sometimes contradictory) statements about musical meaning and politics, see Silva, Max, ‘Heard Utopia vs Utopian Hearing: Haas's in vain and Political Ambivalence in New Music’, Twentieth-Century Music, 15 no. 1 (2018), pp. 75102.

7 Morley, ‘Introduction’, p. 16.

8 Lyotard, Jean-François, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1991), trans. Rottenberg, Elizabeth (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 24.

9 Kristeva, Julia, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’ (1984), trans. Waller, Margaret, in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Moi, Toril (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), pp. 91–8.

10 Kristeva, ‘Revolution’, p. 93.

11 Abbate, Carolyn, ‘Music – Drastic or Gnostic?’, Critical Inquiry, 30/3 (2004), pp. 505–36.

12 Farthofer, Lisa, Georg Friedrich Haas: im Klang Denken (Saarbrücken: PFAU, 2007), pp. 81109.

13 For a full description of Shepard scales, see Shepard, Roger N., ‘Circularity in Judgements of Relative Pitch’, Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 36 no. 12 (1964), pp. 2346–53. As in other works by Haas that feature a compositional projection of this illusion, its effect here relies not on the seamless crossfading of upper and lower partials, but rather on carefully staggered octave leaps in each part which allow the apparent descent to continue indefinitely. See Hasegawa, ‘Clashing Harmonic Systems’, p. 216.

14 Hasegawa, ‘Clashing Harmonic Systems’, pp. 218–21.

15 Fineberg, Joshua, ‘Guide to the Basic Concepts and Techniques of Spectral Music’, Contemporary Music Review, 19 no. 2 (2000), pp. 107–8.

16 Murail, Tristan, ‘Spectra and Pixies’, Contemporary Music Review, 1 no. 1 (1984), p. 159.

17 Mark Berry, ‘London Sinfonietta/Pomàrico – Haas, in vain, 6 December 2013’ (review), 7 December 2013,, accessed 21 April 2017.

18 Kant, Immanuel, Critique of the Power of Judgement (1790), trans. Guyer, Paul and Matthews, Eric, ed. Guyer, Paul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 134.

19 Kant, Critique, pp. 140–143.

20 Escher, M. C., The Graphic Work of M. C. Escher, trans. Brigham, John E., rev. ed. (London: Macdonald, 1967), p. 16.

21 Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) (Oxford: Oxford World's Classics, 2008), p. 54.

22 Simon Rattle, spoken introduction to performance of in vain, Orchester-Akademie of the Berlin Philharmonic, 18 January 2013. Transcribed in programme for London Symphony Orchestra performance, 6 December 2013,, accessed 20 April 2017.

23 Simon Cummings, ‘HMCF 2013: London Sinfonietta’ (review),, accessed 20 April 2017.

24 Xenia Pestova, ‘Georg Friedrich Haas’ in vain by the London Sinfonietta at Southbank’ (review),, accessed 20 April 2017.

25 Farthofer, Georg Friedrich Haas, p. 46, my translation.

26 This is something that has been noted also by Max Silva, who reads it as an ‘ethical tactic’ for challenging ingrained habits of listening and awakening a more immersed, attentive focus on Haas's complex soundscapes; see Silva, ‘Heard Utopia’, pp. 82–3.

27 Kant, Critique, p. 143.

28 Kant, Critique, p. 145.

29 It is worth noting that Haas has changed his own stance on politically motivated work a number of times in his career; in 2008 he turned his back on the concept of composing for political purposes, suggesting that it was futile and detracted from the distinctive qualities of musical experiences. By 2013, however, he returned to this arena with another protest piece, I can't breathe for solo trumpet. For further discussion of the ambiguous ramifications of Haas's shifting ideological position, see Silva, ‘Heard Utopia’, pp. 75–8 and pp. 97–101.

30 Ross, ‘Darkness Audible’.

31 Ross, ‘Darkness Audible’.

32 Haas, Georg Friedrich, ‘Fünf Thesen zur Mikrotonalität’, Positionen, 48 (2001), pp. 4244. For further discussion of the manifold nuances of microtonal tuning within in vain specifically, see Silva, ‘Heard Utopia’, pp. 86–98.

33 Haas, ‘Fünf Thesen’, p. 42, my translation.

34 Ross, ‘Darkness Audible’.

35 Morley, ‘Staring into the Contemporary Abyss’, Tate Etc., 20 (2010),, accessed 2 August 2018.

36 Morley, ‘Staring into the Contemporary Abyss’.

37 Longinus (attr.), ‘On the Sublime’, trans. T.S. Dorsch, in Classical Literary Criticism, ed. T.S. Dorsch (London: Penguin, 1965), p. 100.

38 Mike Kelley, interview with Thomas McEvilley (1992), in The Sublime, ed. Morley, Simon (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010), pp. 201–4.

39 See Morley, ‘Introduction’, p. 19.


  • Mark Hutchinson


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