I Can’t Breathe: A Virtual Dialogue
George Friedrich Haas’s composition I Can’t Breathe, written just after the birth of the Black Lives Matter organization and well before the concept came to international prominence, raises a number of important questions about the response of the international new music community to the increasingly multicultural and multiracial, i.e., creolized, societies in which its performances, curatorial directions, and critical and philosophical inquiries are being presented.
In 2016 I first heard I Can’t Breathe, Georg Friedrich Haas’s haunting work for solo trumpet, performed by Marco Blaauw at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Haas’s work, written just after the birth of the Black Lives Matter organization, and well before the concept of Black Lives Matter came to international prominence, raises a number of important questions about the response of the international new music community to the increasingly multicultural and multiracial, i.e., creolized, societies in which its performances, curatorial directions, and critical and philosophical inquiries are being presented.
I Can’t Breathe was conceived and written in 2014 as a response to the police execution of an African American citizen, Eric Garner, on a New York City street. Garner’s “crime” was selling “loosies,” single cigarettes from a pack. This was said to be technically a form of tax evasion, which is not a capital crime in the statute books. However, a bystander filmed a police officer restraining Garner bodily with an illegal chokehold. On the video, Garner was heard to repeat the words “I can’t breathe” eleven times, before passing out and lying on the ground for seven minutes. While the authorities waited for an ambulance, Garner passed away; the autopsy cited “[compression] of neck, compression of chest and prone position during physical restraint by police” as cause of death. Despite nationwide protests, charges were never brought against the officers involved, although one of them was eventually terminated in 2019.
Georg Friedrich Haas: I can’t breathe (2014) for trumpet solo
Marco Blaauw, trumpet; Janet Sinica, video
(Lockdown Tape #66 in Ensemble Musikfabrik’s series of live to tape recordings of solo pieces in times of Corona lockdown by ensemble members.)
It seemed clear that Haas’s piece took on renewed relevance with the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd, who before passing away, interspersed urgent pleas to be allowed to breathe with plaintive calls to his deceased mother. In the wake of the much larger, worldwide protests over Floyd’s killing, the widest range of individuals and institutions, including those in the field of new music, are being called to account for their actions regarding race.
I have always been intrigued with the questions raised by I Can’t Breathe, so I decided to talk to both Marco and Georg about the piece. The method I am using here to combine our respective dialogues is similar to the penultimate chapter in my 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), in which I selected quotes from nearly one hundred interviews with AACM members to fashion an imagined intergenerational dialogue about overarching social, cultural, and aesthetic issues that the organization and its individual members faced over the decades. I blend this new imagined dialogue with critiques of scholarly writing about the piece.
I begin with Georg’s understanding of the motivation for the work.
GFH: Well, it was a spontaneous activity. It happened when we looked out of the window at our house and we saw some demonstrations, Black Lives Matter, below us, and I said, OK, we have to go down there to join this. And suddenly this anecdote popped up about Chopin, when he heard about the revolution in Russia and decided, instead of going to Paris, to fight in this revolution. But he changed again and decided to go to Paris and work for the idea. And it is clear that this actually helped the revolution in Poland much more than he could have done by being part of the military activity. In the same way, I decided it’s not my job to protest in the streets. It’s my job to protest in the arts. And this is maybe one of of a few pieces [of mine] which had some nonmusical connotation.
At the time, Georg was already quite late with another, much larger commission, but as he recalled, “Because it was such a spontaneous idea, there was no time for me to make a large, huge internal discussion about what is the right way to discuss this. Just do it. Do it now. And I think this idea is one of the possibilities to go to work as an artist.”
It seemed clear that Haas’s 2014 piece took on renewed relevance with the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd.
George Lewis, composer & musicologist
I decided it's not my job to protest in the streets. It’s my job to protest in the arts.
Georg Friedrich Haas, composer
I feel that sometimes in the audience, people do not dare to breathe anymore.
Georg Friedrich Haas, composer
Anybody doing political stuff is told to just shut up. But as I see it, you're bringing a needed message to this public.
Georg Friedrich Haas, composer
The present essay was prompted by a discussion I had with Marco Blaauw this past summer about the frequent negative responses to a Facebook announcement that his new-music group, Ensemble Musikfabrik, posted about this forthcoming release. Indeed, a number of the comments around the Facebook posting indicated that white new music people really had no business even speaking about the topic. One commenter suggested that Haas had “appropriated the words of a dying black man to become his anodyne aesthetic plaything.”
That such an apparently non-confrontational work could generate such heated debate seems ironic at first hearing. However, I read a number of these responses as exemplifying the growing pains that the field of new music is undergoing as its composers, performers, listeners, curators, scholars, critics, and educational institutions gradually awaken, now certainly fitfully, to the need to develop a far more refined and trenchant discourse around the location of the field in a creolized creative environment.
Despite the shocking nature of its subject matter, I Can’t Breathe is anything but sensationalistic. Rather than a wailing lament, Haas produces a restrained elegy.
GFH: The piece starts like a sentimental twelve-tone Kaddish. What I do technically, the process is, that this Kaddish is taking away the space to breathe. You are singing freely and the space gets closer and closer. And what I did technically is just to transcribe and transform the melodic elements into smaller intervals. As I reduce it, the melody is squeezed into 16th tones. The music is really very difficult, and Marco in this performance really is able to sing emotionally within these small intervals. There exists a cantabile in these 16th tones. And I still have this very traditional translation of a huge range of intervals describing the entity of the free world, and therefore it starts with the spaces between the lowest pitches of the trumpet and the highest, soft.
Marco Blaauw’s perspective on Georg’s technique evokes the blues:
MB: A blues player colors the notes, so to notate that, Haas uses what he has always been using, microtonal intonations. In the beginning, it’s like more and more colors to the melody, and then it becomes more and more strict as the melody goes from the big trumpet range to the tiniest interval, interrupted all the time by these single notes that are held for a very long time and pull you in.
GL: I feel that the piece as a whole can be usefully contextualized as a form of pranayama, the study of the breath: a meditation on breath and life. We are asked to feel ourselves inside the breath, following its every nuance. The piece has a timeless quality about it, although it’s only thirteen minutes long.
MB: I do think it’s very, very meditative. And in that way, I think the brain starts listening more and more for details so that when you come towards the middle of the piece, you actually hear all the microtonality, the tiniest steps. You can actually listen to them because you’ve been trained during this short duration of the piece to all these little things [sings], this blues melody, like a variation on two notes.
GL: I’d also say that with its emphasis on depiction, I Can’t Breathe is very much in the American tradition expressed in Duke Ellington’s concept of the “tone parallel,” which includes Charles Ives, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins. The use of the harmon mute is of course related to the African American tradition, very effectively through Miles Davis. And then there are those super-high “squeeze” notes, an innovation in technique that is closely associated with the Ellington Orchestra’s altissimo specialist, trumpeter Cat Anderson.
GFH: And it was you who said to me that this is a specific technique of jazz, these very high pitches. It’s very rarely used in new music. For me the association is more to Luigi Nono, for whom high melodic gestures are a symbol of utopia—for example, the beginning of his string quartet, Fragmente-Stille.
GL: The piece is about aspiration in the literal sense, and with regard to the conceptual context, for me the squeeze notes depict severe restrictions on the breath, while the hesitations in the tone production refer to the fragility of life as the breath is strangled. The breath becomes rougher and more fragile as the life force goes out.
MB: The association with suffocation comes in when that becomes softer and softer and longer and longer and you get literally out of breath. But I don’t think it’s really meant that way. And then the piece falls apart after that. It loses structure also by the use of softer and softer mutes. And then, in the end, it’s just the silences and the single notes which are, as in the beginning, very, very long. Don’t you think that when you listen to a piece and you see somebody play a very long phrase, it’s almost like you stop breathing? I think when you have long silences, the same thing can happen. I feel that sometimes in the audience, people do not dare to breathe anymore.
GL: It’s like the audience can’t breathe. And you, the trumpeter, evoke a sense of empathy via a kind of transubstantiation.
In a 2016 essay, musicologist Max Erwin positions I Can’t Breathe as program music, which from the foregoing conversation seems evident enough; indeed, Haas appears to find no substantive moral imperative on either side of classical music’s traditional debate over programmatic versus absolute music. However, the author provocatively characterizes the nature of the program as “more accurately, western art music snuff” (Erwin 2016, 10). However, rather than a criminal’s recording of an actual murder for macabre or prurient interest, one can summarize Haas’s origin narrative for I Can’t Breathe as a determined response to an atrocity (in this case, musically) by a concerned citizen.
However, when the deformation of race becomes involved, an atrocity is no longer just an atrocity, and music becomes more than just music. Erwin sees Haas’s approach as exemplifying “a pervasive self-satisfied attitude and concomitant mode of production within the New Music apparatus. Under these auspices, the ‘politically engaged’ composer writes ‘protest music’ which laments the fate of this or that marginalised group” (Erwin 2016, 9). Thus portraying Haas’s move to assert humanistic values as simple political posturing, Erwin maintains that the statement in Haas’s program note—“I leave no notes to the perpetrators” identifies an object of political critique—’the perpetrators’, whilst simultaneously extricating the subject (composer/artwork/audience) from the object of critique… The object of critique is exactly that; it remains fundamentally over there, safely removed from composer and audience to observe and lament (Erwin, 10).
Erwin’s critique would have greater currency and credibility if new music as a field could demonstrate an ongoing concern with black lives, including those of its own Afrodiasporic composers and performers. However, this lack of engagement with issues of race is precisely what Haas is pointing to with his program note. Bringing this level of engagement from “over there” to “right here”–to himself as composer, to his audience, to the performer, and to the historians, critics, and institutions of new music–was exactly the goal of the piece.
In an influential essay, theorist Sylvia Wynter pointed out the consequences of the routine use of the acronym N.H.I. (No Humans Involved) by Los Angeles juridical and enforcement institutions “to refer to any case involving a breach of the rights of young Black males who belong to the jobless category of the inner city ghettoes” (Wynter 1994, 42).
By classifying this category as N.H.I. these public officials would have given the police of Los Angeles the green light to deal with its members in any way they pleased. You may remember too that in the earlier case of the numerous deaths of young Black males caused by a specific chokehold used by Los Angeles police officers to arrest young Black males, the police chief Darryl Gates explained away these judicial murders by arguing that Black males had something abnormal with their windpipes.
Indeed, this image of the deformation of the Black windpipe is central to the iconography of I Can’t Breathe. The remainder of Wynter’s “open letter to my colleagues” attempts to answer her own pointed question: Where did this classification come from?
GL: In both the title and the content of the piece, there’s a conceptual aspect which is very important. It’s not just an exercise. It’s designed to make people think. And I was telling Marco that for this sort of white audience for new music, it should make these people think.
GFH: Thank you. That’s very good. And in the end, in fact, this is what I also can prove. In interviews, I’m very often asked about this. And of course, this gives us a chance to speak about this, within surroundings in which, additionally, nobody is speaking about it. This is a way in which, in my opinion, political music does work.
Mostly staying in the softer and more difficult-to-sustain regions of the trumpet, I Can’t Breathe is zurückhaltend (reserved), and not only by the composer’s choice. Rather, the situation forces the composer’s writerly hand. Here, I find that the piece’s intensity depicts both a fragility and a Stoic nobility, where Eric Garner, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Rayshard Brooks, and thousands of other black citizens are literally trying to draw upon their reserves of breath in a life-or-death struggle with forces who, backed by a culture in which black lives and liveness do not matter, take no significant notice of the humanity of those lives, while negating their own humanity in the process.
While Erwin’s thesis concludes that “Haas’s piece is at least five degrees removed from even the most rudimentary criteria of effective political protest” (Erwin 10, n16), in this thirteen-minute lament, political protest seems to be no concern whatsoever–unless protesting racialized injustice is now to become merely a political matter. Rather than a reductive rerouting of human values to questions of political efficacy, I Can’t Breathe is simply about black subjectivity, and what it means to be human.
Even so, our virtual conversation took on an ominous tone:
GL: The piece doesn’t have a happy ending; one could play it again and again, and a Sisyphean hell would be evoked. That accounts for what I find to be the work’s pessimistic quality– in the sense of Afro-pessimism, or how to function in the face of the possibility that Western society might prove permanently unable to shed its preoccupation with anti-blackness as a central part of its identity.
Indeed, it could be that at this late date, a reserved, conceptualist approach may not be enough. To begin with, Marco Blaauw was concerned about the ethical dimension of this kind of work and these kinds of issues being presented by white institutions, composers, and performers, in the white-majoritarian new music context:
MB: You don’t think that when I go to that festival and I ask my fee and I play that piece, that is somebody profiting from the situation?
GL: I feel that when you play this piece, and other people play it too, it brings those issues to an audience that isn’t often exposed to them, or maybe doesn’t think that those issues are relevant to their lives, or feel that what you are performing is totally antithetical to pure musical expression–what are you doing with this political stuff? Frederic Rzewski went through the same thing, John Coltrane, Bruce Springsteen–anybody doing political stuff is told to just shut up. But as I see it, you’re bringing a needed message to this public. And if you don’t do it, who’s going to do it?
Sylvia Wynter saw the disclosure of the category of N.H.I. as an opening from which to spearhead the speech of a new frontier of knowledge able to move us toward a new, correlated human species, and eco-systemic, ethic. Such a new horizon, I propose, will also find itself convergent with other horizons being opened up, at all levels of learning… It is only by this mutation of knowledge that we shall be able to secure, as a species, the full dimensions of our human autonomy with respect to the systemic and always narratively instituted purposes that have hitherto governed us–hitherto outside of our conscious awareness and consensual intentionality (Wynter 1994, 70).
This new awareness bears strong resonances, not only for the understanding of I Can’t Breathe, but for the future of new music itself. In the end, a creolized work like I Can’t Breathe represents a move toward a new identity for new music. No longer framing itself as a globalized, pan-European sonic diaspora, the goal of a creolized new music field is less about pursuing diversity than achieving a new complexity that promises far greater creative depth by recognizing the widest range of historical, geographical, political and cultural cross-connections. As the philosopher Arnold I. Davidson has noted, “Multiplication of perspectives means multiplication of possibilities.”
As Georg Friedrich Haas has declared, “With this piece, I declare my solidarity with the protesters” (Haas 2014). Indeed, each performance of I Can’t Breathe demands from contemporary music a further solidarity: an affirmation that black lives and black liveness do matter, to its history and to its future.
https://www.facebook.com/Musikfabrik/ 10 June 2020
Erwin, Max. 2016. “Here Comes Newer Despair: An Aesthetic Primer for the New Conceptualism of Johannes Kreidler.” Tempo 70, No. 278: 5–15.
Haas, Georg Friedrich. 2014. “I Give No Sound To The Perpetrators: Ein Kommentar.” https://www.musikfabrik.eu/de/blog/georg-friedrich-haas-i-give-no-sound-perpetrators-ein-kommentar
Lewis, George E. Unpublished videoconferencing interview with Georg Friedrich Haas, 14 June 2020.
Lewis, George E. Unpublished videoconferencing interview with Marco Blaauw, 14 June 2020.
Wynter, Sylvia. 1994. “’No Humans Involved’: An Open Letter to my Colleagues.” Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall): 42-73.