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FastNotes

  • Alphorns – unwieldy wooden horns without holes, producing only overtone pitches of the natural harmonic series – have only recently begun appearing in classical contexts.

  • In Haas’ concerto grosso No. 1, “alphorns are not seen as symbols of folklorist (un)culture, but rather as the source of another dimension of intonation (overtone chords), used to create contrast and to expand the traditional twelve-tone tuning of the symphony orchestra.”

  • The timbre and intonation of four alphorns offer high contrast to the sound of traditional orchestral instruments, but micro-tonal techniques allow Haas to pull orchestral music here into the sonic wake of the alphorns.

  • The result is music capable of a great roar, as well as eerie – but still pulsing – delicacy. Haas looks for new expressive powers in his searching exploration of largely unmapped soundscapes: “… I am a composer, not a micro-tonalist.”


Composed: 2014
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (all = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, snare drum, slit drum, wood-plate drum, cymbals, marimba, gongs, tom-tom, woodblock), strings, and 4 solo alphorns
First LA Phil performance: U.S. premiere

The sound and music of alphorns have been occasionally evoked in Western art music, most famously the traditional Swiss “Ranz des Vaches,” quoted in Rossini’s opera Guillaume Tell and Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique. Alphorns themselves – unwieldy wooden horns without holes, producing only overtone pitches of the natural harmonic series – have only recently begun appearing in classical contexts, however. (Leopold Mozart, father of Wolfgang Amadeus, wrote in a letter that he had written a “pastoral” symphony for alphorn and strings, now lost.)

But for a composer with avid interests in the spectral side of music, that reliance on overtones is an exploitable feature, not a limitation. In Haas’ concerto grosso No. 1, “alphorns are not seen as symbols of folklorist (un)culture, but rather as the source of another dimension of intonation (overtone chords), used to create contrast and to expand the traditional twelve-tone tuning of the symphony orchestra.” A concerto grosso pits and contrasts a smaller group against the full orchestra. The timbre and intonation of four alphorns offer high contrast to the sound of traditional orchestral instruments, but micro-tonal techniques allow Haas to pull orchestral music here into the sonic wake of the alphorns. And the variation in pitch between the pure overtones of the alphorns and the orchestral instruments when employed in conventional tuning creates intense frequency beats, which Haas extends into rhythmic pulsing in the interplay between forces.

The result here is music capable of a great roar, as well as eerie – but still pulsing – delicacy. Alphorns can play diatonically, but Haas uses them mainly in sustaining long chords and pedal tones, the center of the surrounding aural storm. Midway through, however, the storm subsides into still, ghostly echoes in the orchestra, and the long notes of the alphorns contract into brief passages of angular melody. From there Haas rebuilds the carefully controlled energy of the piece, with chittering surges in the much-divided strings and quick, virtuosic scales burbling up in the alphorns. To the extent that a concerto is a fight or struggle, the soloists win this one, with the orchestra in deferential response to the alphorns emphatic final statements.

Discussion of overtones and micro-tuning may suggest composition-as-theory, something abstract and mechanical, but Haas looks for new expressive powers in his searching exploration of largely unmapped soundscapes. “I am not really comfortable with being pigeonholed as a microtonal composer,” he says. “Primarily, I am a composer, free to use the means needed for my music. There is no ideology regarding ‘pure’ intonation, either as Pythagorean number mysticism or as a notion of ‘Nature’ determined by trivial physics. I am a composer, not a micro-tonalist.”

The concerto grosso No. 1 was given its world premiere in Munich in March 2014, with Susanna Mälkki conducting the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the hornroh modern alphorn quartet. — John Henken