La Jalousie / Red Run / Herakles 2 / Befreiung
Christoph Anders narrator
Recorded May 1992 at Performance Studios, Frankfurt am Main
Recording engineers: Leslie Stuck and Andreas Neubronner
Mixed and edited at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Sometimes music is so theatrical that it needs no stage or actors to enlighten its listeners. If such music comprised a genre in and of itself, composer Heiner Goebbels would be one of its most idiosyncratic masters. Along with Michael Mantler, Goebbels represents a theatrical strand in the ECM universe that challenges the reviewer attempting to describe it, yet which is perfectly clear once it reaches the ears. My first encounter came through Surrogate Cities, a dazzling piece of music theatre that remains the yardstick by which I’ve measured all Goebbels experiences since. That being said, the more I hear, the more I recognize the futility of such comparison, for in his decidedly textual sound there is equal room for any and all sentiments to frolic, dance, and weep.
La Jalousie places four pieces of ranging character at the capable hands of Ensemble Modern, whose interpretations thrum with the utter embodiment that so distinguishes it from likeminded groups. The title composition for sixteen musicians, subtitled “noises from a novel,” already betrays Goebbels’s fascination with language as toolkit. His source is a work by Alain Robbe-Grillet (who famously wrote the script for Alain Resnais’s 1961 Last Year at Marienbad), in which the protagonist’s suppressed jealousy comes to vivid life on the page. Goebbels nurtures a description portion thereof and attempts to reconstruct it in acoustic terms. The genesis of this piece bursts forth from a rustling of conductor’s pages and unfolds from its compressed chaos a menagerie of guitar, piano, and winds. These are but clothing lines, however, for piles of freshly laundered samples: birds, frogs, and other secrets of the marshlands move in and out of the fray. A car door slams in retrospect, a voice seeming to relive this difficult dream in ominous reflection. The animals’ voices are an indigestion of the soul, stirring ever so disconsolately beneath this veneer of solitude. The clack-clock of footsteps pokes through the piano’s dampened commentary. An overblown oboe bears the imprint of Heinz Holliger’s Studie über Mehrklänge and leads us into a narrative passage underlined by crashing piano and synth shamisen (the synthesizer continues to bear witness to much of the goings on in varying gradations of convention). This brings us to an ending tinged by hope and submersion and a reprise of those restless pages.
In the wake of this palindrome, the nine songs for eleven instruments of Red Run come across rather comfortingly. This concert reduction of a ballet opens with a trio of drums, keyboard, and electric guitar in a deceptively simple pocket of jazz club anxiety. Improvisation abounds in this acute deconstruction of the popular. Tracing horns resolve themselves into a focal point of rumbling breath; a lilting violin arches its back from a bed of nails, drawing a sustained line from its dreams into the measured steps of its waking life: these handfuls and more share an edge, scattered like ashes in the wake of a trumpet’s derisive calls.
Herakles 2 (for five brass players, drums and sampler) takes a section of Heiner Müller’s play Zement as another structural prompt for music without words. The pedantic beginnings are just a front to a flipbook of superbly detailed constructions, each a building block in a crumbling tower of sound. The music trips over some quiet harrumphs from the tuba on the way toward Befreiung (Liberation). Goebbels composed this concertante scene for narrator and ensemblein celebration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Excerpting anti-liberal diatribes from Rainald Goetz’s anti-liberal play Krieg, he paints an insistent call to arms, where hugs turn into defense mechanisms against the blight of direct and noted perception. This is an unrelenting piece, ringing with the glass and bangles and spent energies of a zeitgeist now mute with self-realization. As Goebbels himself admits, with this piece he does not intend “to resolve for the audience the political tension contained in these texts but unleash it for individual confrontation.” And perhaps, in the end, individual confrontation is what the Goebbels experience is all about. Like a language stripped of its consonants, leaving only a sea of diacritical marks, his is a book without page numbers. Through it we face the emptiness of our texts, of our very bodies, and know that within emptiness beats a heart dying to create.