Georg Friedrich Haas, the Austrian composer, has long credited the influence of American composers on his musical thinking. "It was they who began to construct a bridge from the United States to me in Europe," he says.
Now he is crossing that bridge to join the music department at Columbia University, where he began teaching this fall as a professor of composition.
Mr. Haas has already achieved fame as a composer in Europe while teaching at conservatories in Basel, Switzerland, and Graz, Austria. From those cities, he could retreat to rural areas to focus on his own compositions, often going to a mountain village in Austria, and, for one winter, to a remote seascape in Ireland.
This fall he is adjusting to working in New York City and teaching in English instead of German. (Only once during an hourlong telephone interview did he pause to look up the exact English word he wanted.)
His interest in teaching drew him to Columbia. "Some students came and asked me to apply," he says. "It was a big honor that this younger generation wanted me."
He also hopes to build on the strong acceptance of his music in the United States, where performances of his signature works like "in vain," a piece for 24 instruments, and String Quartet No. 3, which is to be played in complete darkness, have drawn enthusiastic audiences.
Mr. Haas, who is 60, specializes in microtonal music, which does not limit itself to the standard 12 semitones within an octave in traditional Western music. He is also interested in spectral music, another approach outside the traditional tonal system that also explores fine gradations of pitch and timbre.
Spectral music originated in France in the 1970s, but Mr. Haas goes about it "in a very Austrian way," says Fred Lerdahl, a professor of music at Columbia and chair of the composition area. "It's a Brucknerian version of spectral music, painted on a very large canvas."
That's not to say Mr. Haas's music sounds anything like the post-Romantic symphonies of his 19th-century compatriot, Anton Bruckner. Yet he shares with Bruckner an interest in "unusual sonorities, which he develops on a very leisurely scale," Mr. Lerdahl says. "That's why I call it Brucknerian."
Mr. Haas makes a similar connection. "I see myself as a composer in the post-Romantic tradition," he says. "I want to express, to communicate feelings, to write music that touches the listener."
Music is more precise than language in communicating emotion, he says. "Some things I cannot summarize in words, I can summarize in music. ... In language there is always misunderstanding."
Columbia hired Mr. Haas through an open search that reached out to musicians on both sides of the Atlantic and in Asia. The university first made him an offer about a year and a half ago, in the hope that he could join the faculty last fall. But there were obstacles on both sides, including Mr. Haas's obligations in Europe "and the whole process of granting tenure at the senior level at Columbia," Mr. Lerdahl says. "The process is not difficult but is very bureaucratic and takes a long time, longer than it should."
Mr. Haas has been living in Manhattan since August. "Generally it is fantastic," he says. "Sometimes I ask myself whether it is a dream or not that I am now sitting in New York."
In Europe, he says, "I lived separately from the university and had to travel to teach. Here it is 15 minutes by foot to Columbia. So theoretically I could compose until 10:30 every morning and walk to Columbia to teach at 11."
While he no longer can retreat to the Austrian woods to compose, "nature is around me in New York, too," he says. "I can look out over the Hudson River or up to the skies above." Or, "in half an hour I can be in the botanical garden in the Bronx," with a sketchbook in hand to jot down musical ideas.
At Columbia, Mr. Haas is teaching graduate and undergraduate composition, with six students in individual lessons and about 30 more in two group classes. He also teaches seminars on specific topics. His role, he says, is not that of a master handing down wisdom to apprentices.
"The most important thing I must accept as a teacher is that I'm offering the student what the student needs, not what is 'correct.' I want to help them find their own identity. I never want to show them the 'right way.'"
Drawing an analogy with religion (and here is where he pauses to look up a word), he notes that in composing music, there are "no transgressions."
"In religion," he says, "if you do a bad thing, it is always bad. The moral of art is, if you do this thing three times, it is no longer a transgression."