Musical Review The Fascinating Innovations of Heiner Goebbels
A call house
HEINER GOEBBELS is a contemporary German theater director and avant-garde composer. One of his most notable productions is Stifter’s Dinge (Founder’s Things) – a multimedia poetic technological performance, first premiered in 2007, inspired by the nature writing of the 19th century Austrian Romantic writer Adalbert Stifter .
An extraordinary 80-minute piece produced by the Swiss theater company Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne in association with Artangel in London for a 2008 production. It featured a host of invented instruments and a state-of-the-art audio production with the score published by ECM.
In 2013, as artistic director of the Ruhrtriennale Theater Festival in Germany, he directed the very first European staging of the play Delusion of the Fury by American composer Harry Partch, with the MusikFabrik ensemble.
The work is an amalgamation of a Japanese noh piece with a West African legend performed at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2014. A set of special instruments had to be made to play the microtonal score of Partch.
His new album ECM is a self-proclaimed fantasy notebook incorporating archival recordings from the composer’s extensive audio collection, including prayers, songs, speeches and compositions for full orchestra, recorded in 2021.
Other sources, on the 100-minute work spread over two CDs, include wax cylinders, news reports and ethnographic sources given a political or historical context and a musical response.
“The music is a direct response to the complexity and roughness of the vocals,” Goebbels explains in the liner notes. Beckett, Rumi and WW1 prisoners are all referenced in the score which incorporates vocals, jazz-rock, rhythmic dislocations and delicate solos.
The title of the album comes from a line from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, in early 19th century England, a gatehouse was a public space in which itinerant craftsmen could hire out their skills.
Through four thematic assemblages, the Ensemble Modern Orchestra, under the direction of Vimbayi Kaziboni, paints the picture. The first part, Stein Schere Papier (Stone Scissors Paper), opens the album. The saxophone and the slow and brooding jazz brass open up to give way to an orchestral chord and melodic notes from the orchestral sonorities of Pierre Boulez. Then the electric fuzz guitar comes in as a reference to Goebbels’ artistic rock band, Cassiber, of the early 1980s.
The monumental scale of the work is finely balanced, for a very complex mix, including towards the end of the piece, the street noise of a Berlin construction site recorded in 2017, is surrounded by light percussion and melodic brass.
Part II, Grain of the Voice, is based on string sections and rapid-fire woodwinds, using text from Roland Barthes’ essay of the same name, in which the French philosopher describes the power of language over death.
The tempo slows down giving way to Gamelan atmospheres and distant human cries winding around the dynamic cello and bass then trumpet and violin.
Part III, Wax and Violence refers to wax cylinders weaponized by pseudoscientific ideologues. The evocation of Komitas and the Armenian soprano Zabelle Panosian included. A recording of schoolchildren in the Namibian village of Berseba is deeply haunting.
Part Four, When Words Gone, includes recordings of Amazonian rituals conducted in lost languages mixed with lines from one of Samuel Beckett’s last Worstward Ho texts from 1983 amid digital whispers winding around electric guitar , accordion and dulcimer.
The calm ending, using singing vocals, piano and bass, is fascinating. Goebbels continues to break boundaries with inspiring concepts and sometimes enchanting beauty.
A House of Call concert is scheduled for March 25, 2023 at 7:30 p.m. at the Royal Festival Hall in London. More details and tickets: 020 3879 9555, southbankcentre.co.uk