The Celestial Mechanics of Heiner Goebbels
Composer, theater director, uncontested master of music theater and artistic director of the Ruhrtriennale, Heiner Goebbels is the guest of honor at the Musiques en Scène biennial in Lyon March 5–29, 2014. This first retrospective of his work is to comprise numerous pieces, including Genko- An 69006, a sound and video installation about the Genko Buddhist temple in Kyoto, and Stifters Dinge, an experimental mix of music, theater and electronic voices in which the score is performed without human intervention. With Heiner Goebbels (born 1952, lives and works in Frankfurt), there’s always something going on, but what is it? In I Went to the House But Did Not Enter, revived in Lyon, he posed the question of the narrative. Using four texts by T. S. Eliot, Maurice Blanchot (the title is taken from his book La Folie du jour), Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, he staged the assumptions of the narrative and language. “A narrative? No, no narrative, never again” Blanchot declared in La Folie du jour, the basis for this meditative painting reminiscent of Edward Hopper featuring four singers framed by the doors and windows of an isolated house lost in the immensity.
Today’s uncontested master of music theater, this composer has expanded the “total art” advocated by Wagner, work that appeals to our sight as well as our hearing. Goebbels’s music theater is situated at the crossroads of the ensemble of artistic practices. He has no fear of quotidian reality; on the contrary, he makes it a part of his work, integrating the sounds and images of the day into a phantasmagoric kaleidoscope. For instance, in 2012, after hearing the young women singers of the Vocal Theatre Carmina Slovenica, he wrote When the Mountain Changed Its Clothing for them. Grafting teenage angst onto these young voices, he sent them spinning in a poetic universe where Jean-Jacques Rousseau dialogues with Alain Robbe- Grillet to music by Brahms, Schoenberg, Karmina Šilec, Sarah Hopkins and himself. In Hashirigaki (2000), he melded Gertrude Stein, Japanese percussion and songs by the Beach Boys. In the outstanding and somber Noir sur Blanc (1996), playwright Heiner Müller read Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Shadow” while a koto, mysteriously manipulated by a hanging wire at the front of the stage, played an enchanted melody. Was this a curiosity cabinet or an alchemist’s lair? The list of what Goebbels considers constitutive of poetry could be infinite. A catch-all, perhaps, but always inspired, such as his recent Stifters Dinge (2007) based on Adalbert Stifter, a nineteenth-century Austrian poet whose utopian vision drove him to meticulously identify and gather every sign and sound to be found in nature. In this piece Goebbels combined the most diverse noises in a hallucinatory clockwork mechanism for five pianos without pianists. A “no-man show,” as he joked. A French version of this piece is to be performed in Lyon. Incontestably his celestial mechanisms are full of invention and jubilation. His catalogue, running at almost 150 scores, represents a polyphonic universe. Truly, Lyon can be proud of holding “the first retrospective of Goebbels’ opus ever organized,” as Damien Pousset, the biennial’s artistic director, put it. In addition to this homage, last autumn Geneva witnessed the reprise of one of the most knock-out shows ever presented at the Ruhrtriennale, the opera Delusion of the Fury composed by the American Harry Partch in 1966, in a production directed by Goebbels with the musicians of the Cologne-based ensemble musikFabrik.
How did you discover Harry Partch (19011974), whose opera Delusion of the Fury you staged for the first time in Europe at the opening of the Ruhrtriennale last August?
I came across his music in the early 1980s when I acquired two vinyl records put out by the CRI label at his expense. I felt that Partch was historically interesting for two reasons. First, because of his interest in rhythm and the corporal sensation of sound that it produces, a phenomenon I was already familiar with and appreciated in pop music, and second because he considered himself an explorer of an as-yet poorly defined new sonic space. At the time that was very important for me in terms of positioning myself in regard to contemporary music. Consequently, in Noir et Blanc there is a passage entitled “Harrypatari,” dedicated to both Harry Partch and my Atari computer! When I had the opportunity to work with the musikFabrik ensemble to reconstruct all the instruments he had conceived and made, we decided to put on Delusion of the Fury. It took the percussionists almost a year to learn how to play these instruments. During the course of the rehearsals it was a real pleasure to discover the very particular character of his music, a mélange of seriousness, probity and humor. I read his writing with fascination, and realized that the ideas I had developed during the 1980s had already been formulated by him forty years earlier. How can such works be staged? How can they be performed without a conductor? I was intrigued by his thinking about how to link the body and musical instruments. His conceptualization went beyond the boundaries of art to embrace life itself.
You mean that he didn’t separate theater and music?
Never. When I began to read the score and the libretto for Delusion, there were a number of things I didn’t understand. I said to myself, “Doesn’t matter. Don’t try to find an explanation for everything…” But as I delved more deeply into it I realized that what had seemed bizarre to me at first glance—his borrowings and derivations from Japanese folklore and African tales— made sense when they were staged. His meticulous written indications were like writing space. The movement and positioning of the instruments, which were extraordinary sculptures in themselves, the stage sets and the instructions for the performers—everything served the music.
A SCORE WITH NO HUMAN PRESENCE
You reject experience in composition, but at the same time you want it to be an experience for the listener.
Art should not be reduced to communication or considered an instrument to convey reality. Further, music shouldn’t have a predefined role. For example, when I became head of the Triennale, I promised that it would be a memorable experience for all concerned, something never seen or heard before. I privileged texts and librettos that had a primordial relationship with education, training and culture, because we can all be touched, attracted and seduced, or, conversely, frightened or irritated by a word, a phrase or an image. Above all, what I strive for is to create multiple levels of perception, so that nothing can ever be read only one way. A composer is like a traveler in unknown countries. His vision cannot limit itself to a simple description where he gives precise names to everything he sees. When art tries to become political it is even harder for us to apprehend because it negates the multiplicity of points of view.
You’ve been writing music since the late 1980s. In the wake of residencies in Lucerne and Bochum, you were commissioned to compose for the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Ensemble Modern and others, and at the same time you were teaching. Have you found time to write since you became artistic director of the Ruhrtriennale in 2012?
Please note that I assumed this responsibility for a three-year term that ends in the summer of 2014. Obviously I’ve not composing during this period, but it’s great to be able to stage work that would not be
possible anywhere else. Because of the considerable resources available to me I can embark on fabulous artistic adventures, and the Triennale enjoys an extremely diverse audience. In 2013, for example, more than 90 percent of the seats had been sold before the festival opening, which had never happened before.
What’s on the marquee for this year?
The full program will be announced next April. We’ll open with Die Materie by the Dutchman Louis Andriessen. I’m staging it with Ensemble Modern. This is the first time it’s been done in Germany since Robert Wilson’s 1989 production in Amsterdam. It’s a magnificent work, the perfect marriage of theater and music. The other thing I can talk about is River of Fundament, a new film by Matthew Barney with composer Jonathan Bepler. Lemi Ponifasio, a leader of the Maori cause, a choreographer and founder of the MAU artists’ collective in New Zealand, created I Am, a piece at the crossroads of music, theater and games. I love the idea that it can’t be classified under any artistic discipline.
That spirit is really reflected in your work at the Lyon Biennale.
Like in Stifters Dinge, where I tried to reconcile contemporary music played live and voices that are absent, electronically manipulated and broadcast. Similarly, Noir et Blanc was a piece filled with absence, commemorating the death of Heiner Müller. Stifters Dinge is an experiment with the idea of a score performed without any human presence. As it unfolds one can perceive ethnological ramifications, like a living sculpture whose radiations catalyze the ambient sounds, such as wood being cut, stones knocking together, glass breaking, wind, rain and a whole network of recorded voices, including Claude Lévi-Strauss. The pianos and stage lighting are themselves actors in this theater of music.
Aren’t you trying to cultivate or rediscover a certain magic in the rituals of theater and performance?
That certainly applied to Adalbert Stifter, the romantic writer my piece is based on. He sought to develop an intense relationship with the natural elements he observed, even though he couldn’t grasp their meaning. I find this humble and transparent attitude fascinating, which is way I’d like to talk about Stifters Dinge.
HOW TO TALK ABOUT WAR?
What made you want to stage Song of Wars I’ve Seen, based on Gertrude Stein’s book recounting her experience in France during 1942 and 1943?
What I like about her is her unique way of mixing political ideas and very personal observations about daily life. For me, she succeeds at what I think is an essential question, how to talk about war. The piece is nothing but a concert, a staging of the text, where we see the two worlds coexisting. In front is a cozy interior where women instrumentalists play seventeenthcentury Baroque music composed by Matthew Locke for The Tempest, since Stein associated Shakespeare’s play with World War II. Above them, a group of black-clad men armed with percussion and wind instruments suggests the hardships of war as they play jazz tunes mixed with crude and repetitive sounds. To my mind Stein is indicating our inability to find a language appropriate for talking about war and all such conflicts, past, present and future.
Translation, L-S Torgoff
Franck Mallet is a music critic (for reviews such as Le Monde de la Musique, Les Inrockuptibles, Classica and artpress), writer, radio broadcast producer (Radio K, France Musique and France Culture) and television director of portraits of Philip Glass ( Looking Glass), Pierre Henry ( P. H. ou l’art des sons) and Steve Reich ( S. R. Phase to Face) for Arte.
Biennale Musiques en scène
LYON, MAC, Genko-An 69006, 5 mars-20 avril THÉÂTRE DES CÉLESTINS, Goebbels / Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain / Valade, Chant des guerres que j’ai vues, 11-15 mars ENSATT, Campus Heiner Goebbels, 21 mars AUDITORIUM, Goebbels / Orchestre national de Lyon / Stockhammer, Sampler Suite, 28 mars THÉÂTRE DE LA CROIX-ROUSSE, Goebbels/CNSMD de Lyon/Gardon/Rophé, Surrogate, 29 mars VILLEURBANNE, TNP, Goebbels / Hilliard Ensemble, I Went to the house but did not enter, 6, 7, 8 mars Goebbels, Stifters Dinge, 13, 14, 15 mars DÉCINES, Ciné Toboggan, Goebbels/Perroud, De l’expérience des choses, 18 mars OULLINS, Théâtre de la Renaissance, Goebbels / Wilms, Max Black, 21, 22 mars SAINT-ÉTIENNE, Opéra Théâtre, Goebbels / Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain / Valade, Chant des guerres que j’ai vues, 26 mars 2014. Festival Archipel 2014 GENÈVE, BFM, Delusion of the Fury, opéra d’Harry Partch, mis en scène Heiner Goebbels, par l’Ensemble musikFabrik, 28 et 29 mars. Discographie ECM New Series, BMG Classics, Rer, Sony
« Stifters Dinge ». Ruhrtriennale. 2012-2014. (© Klaus Grünberg)
« I Went to the House But Did Not Enter ». 2008. (© Mario Del Curto) « Chant des guerres que j’ai vues ». D’après Gertrude Stein. (© DR). “Song of Wars I’ve Seen” (after G. Stein)
Ci-dessus/ above: « I Went to the House But Did Not Enter ». 2008. (© Mario Del Curto) Ci-contre / left: Heiner Goebbels. (© Wonge Bergmann)