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"A Composer and His Wife: Creativity Through Kink"

on Wednesday, 24 February 2016. Posted in Front Page Headline, Media Updates

The New York Times

By ZACHARY WOOLFE

The OkCupid message Mollena Williams received in December 2013 was, in some ways, standard. It was complimentary: “Wow — your profile is great.” It was confident: “I am an artist, very successful (probably member of the top 10 or 20 in my genre in the world).” It was polite, signing off with “warm wishes.”

 

But something was a bit out of the ordinary, speaking to its author’s interest in domination and submission. The central desire? “I would like to tame you.”

 

The writer was Georg Friedrich Haas, whose powerfully emotional, politically charged music and explorations of microtonality make him one of the world’s leading composers. His work had brought widespread acclaim, but his personal life was troubled, with three failed marriages in his wake, when he met Ms. Williams, a writer and sex educator who specializes in alternative lifestyles. Shortly after he messaged her, the two began a relationship and were married last fall.

 

Composers do their work offstage and largely out of the public eye. But all music is influenced by its makers’ personal lives and, in many cases through history, their grappling with sexuality. Tchaikovsky’s struggle with his homosexuality helped create music of agonizing longing.

 

The Austrian-born Mr. Haas, 62, a music professor at Columbia University since 2013, has recently been increasingly open about the unusual nature of his marriage, which he says has dramatically improved his productivity and reshaped his artistic outlook. He will be the subject of a two-concert American Immersion series on Wednesday and Friday presented by the Austrian Cultural Forum, which includes the American premiere of his “I can’t breathe,” a dirgelike solo trumpet memorial to Eric Garner.

 

In a joint appearance with his wife, who now goes by Mollena Williams-Haas, late last year at the Playground sexuality conference in Toronto, then in an interview this month in the online music magazine VAN, he has “come out,” as he put it, as the dominant figure in a dominant-submissive power dynamic. Mr. Haas has chosen to speak up, both because Ms. Williams-Haas’s sexual interests are widely known (her blog, The Perverted Negress, is not shy about kink and bondage) and because he hopes to embolden younger people, particularly composers, not to smother untraditional urges, as he did.

 

The fundamental feature of their relationship is not obviously sexual, Mr. Haas and Ms. Williams-Haas, 46, said in an interview at their airy apartment near Columbia, with expansive views of the Hudson River. “It’s not caning,” he said. “It’s the fact that I need someone who is with me when I work.”

 

Their marriage can seem, in this regard, distinctly old-fashioned, and not in a Marquis de Sade way. While the terms they negotiated at the start of their relationship do not prevent her from pursuing her own professional and personal life, Ms. Williams-Haas devotes much of her time to supporting the work of a man — “Herr Meister,” she has nicknamed him — for whom a “good day” is one in which he composes for 14 or 15 hours.

 

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“She makes my life as comfortable as possible,” Mr. Haas said.

 

Ms. Williams-Haas, who described the situation as feminist because it is her choice, said, “I find intense fulfillment in being able to serve in this way.”

 

She conceded the discomfort many may feel with a black woman willingly submitting to a white man. “It’s a struggle to say, ‘This is genuinely who I am,’” she said. But she added, “To say I can’t play my personal psychodrama out just because I’m black, that’s racist.”

 

Mr. Haas said that he felt liberated after what he described as a lifetime’s and three divorces’ worth of suppressing what he once considered “devilish” desires. The change has altered his music in ways both quantifiable and more ineffable. He said that his productivity had roughly doubled since meeting Ms. Williams-Haas, which will delight his fans.

 

And while his work has not lost its moody, queasy darkness, he identifies a new hopefulness in it. His 2015 opera “Morgen und Abend,” for example, ends with a scene of a dead father unable to communicate with his living daughter. “Before I met you,” Mr. Haas said to Ms. Williams-Haas, “this end would be very desperate. Now this end is full of ‘Yeah, we have to die, we have to leave, but the life of love still remains.’” (Michael White, writing in The New York Times, called the opera “a serious and sober, though ultimately radiant, imagining of what it might be like to die and pass into another kind of sentience.”)

 

Mr. Haas contrasted the effect on his style to the struggles of Schubert and Tchaikovsky with homosexuality. “What you perceive is not the fact that they desired men,” he said, “but the sadness about the impossibility to make love a reality. And I think that has been part of my music. The fundamental pessimism. You never will get what you want because it’s not possible to get it. That is how my life has changed so intensely.” ...

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