At its best Heiner Goebbels' music exemplifies the eclectic spirit that runs through contemporary music. It kites around generic and stylistic boundaries with unabashed candour, at times creatively capturing a sort of head-spinning free association across styles and media which other music seeks for in vain. Theatre is important to Goebbels, as are (musical and otherwise) electronic media.
At times, however, the welter of references and ideas simply doesn't gel. Tonight, the packed crowd that assembled at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the last night of the Ether Festival (Squarepusher played next door at the RFH in the same festival), bore witness to both sides of Goebbels' music.
His Surrogate Cities is a mammoth work full of bewildering peaks and troughs. As a precursor to the main event in the second half, the London Sinfonietta gave a performance of one section of the work, the Sampler Suite. This suite is aptly named; the title could stand as a description for all the composer's outfit. Here it references the digital samples of sound the composer manipulates to evoke urban clamour throughout, it references the looped hip-hop and house beats we hear towards the end and at the beginning, and it also adverts to the surfeit of quotations of baroque music, such as those from a Scarlatti sonata, that are generously spread through the work.
Yet despite forthright conducting from Anu Tali, and broadly firm (though somewhat lacking in flexibility) playing from the ensemble, the piece came across as rather insipid. The samples and the quotations felt incongruous, and the atmospheric lighting effects added to the gimmicky feel. It wasn't all bad, not by any means. The friction of three against four in violin and drums in the first section provided a direct opening, whilst the duet between contrabass clarinet and contrabass around the midpoint lifted the piece for a while. Goebbels' harmonic language-he is never shy of utilising extended tonality alongside more acerbic dissonance-meant that the movement into yearning harmonies in support of the crackly voice of a Jewish cantor made a deal of sense, too. Yet the city, both internal and physical, he sought to evoke came across most frequently as a messy, modish place one wouldn’t want to visit too often. Still, the listener is rarely bored at a performance of Goebbels' music.
After the interval, members of the Sinfonietta were joined by musicians from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for a performance of Goebbels' Songs of Wars I have seen, surely one of the greatest new works of the twenty-first century. It was commissioned by the Southbank Centre to celebrate the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall in 2007. Following a rapturous reception, it was brought back for a repeat performance as part of the Ether Festival with largely the same forces (Tali replaced Sian Edwards as conductor).
Goebbels sets extracts from Gertrude Stein's Wars I have seen, a text that gives an account of Stein's experiences of living in France during World War Two. She writes of the everyday experiences she and the women around her were going through. Sometimes these experiences were directly related to the war raging around them, sometimes they obliquely concern the war, which we hear always behind the dryly humorous anecdotes of chickens being stolen, honey being taken, and radio announcements being deconstructed. The most affecting-and compelling- passages are the ones in which Stein reflects on the natures of history and humanity, and on how it would seem we are incapable of learning from our mistakes, and avoiding history repeating itself over and over again. She suggests we are as medievalists, toiling along through violent times, with little regard outside of our own petty drives and desires. We have no meaning.
In response to this text, Goebbels simply does what he can to create a heightened rendering, a rich context for its transmission. His use of theatre, and music, is as restrained and effective as one would wish. In the first instance, he divides the orchestra into men and women (reflecting the female setting of the text), the first of whom play brass, percussion and keyboards, and are arrayed in dark clothes on a raised platform at the back of the stage. The women, meanwhile, play woodwind (including a baroque flute), strings (including a theorbo), harpsichord, and percussion. They sit at the front, surrounded by domestic lamps and dressed in everyday clothes. Each of the women take turns to read out sections of the text (every single one of them on this occasion gave it just the right amateur, naturalistic feel), whilst their colleagues play on around them. They occasionally all join together for rhetorical effect (at these moments they jointly evoked the sort of everyday patter Lily Allen brings to her own lyrics).
In support of all this, the women play restrained music full of memorable episodes and gestures. The general tone is one of haunting, mesmeric subtlety-occasionally the men join in with angry brass, yet more often than not the women (sometimes a man or two will join to enhance the texture) have the task of working through the composer's assured, affecting music. Frequent instances of mordant gestures and frenzied ensembles emphasize the humour in the text, but the abiding atmosphere is one of contemplation. Even the electronics are guarded; clicks and crackle often underscore certain statements, but things rarely get more immersive than that.
Goebbels skilfully incorporates music that Matthew Locke wrote for a production of the Tempest in 1674, thus paralleling the frequent allusions Stein makes to Shakespeare, particularly to war in Shakespeare. Locke's music was given here with great expressivity and authority (thus the period instruments and expert performers), but more than that, it made great sense within the piece. The constant contemplation of the idea of history repeating was considered thus even within the music itself, never as an imposition of one particular view, but more as a creative conjuring of overlapping aesthetic threads. Here, as in everything else in this work, Goebbels employs subtlety and finesse in interpreting Stein. He refuses to moralise about war, or even to make the expected allusions to the conflicts going on today. The wonderfully evocative text is given room to breathe by the setting. The performance, tonight, was so beguiling that I am finding it hard to recall any further details of the music. My attention, and it seemed the attention of those around me, was totally rapt throughout- I hardly noticed the sixty minutes go by. As they drew to a close, each member of the ensemble gradually took up temple bowls and joined in with a quietly building vibration, over which a solo trumpet gave out a strained, sinewy, angry lamentation that soon died away into the enchanting ether surrounding it.
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