Paintings Unseen: Sifting through Stifter with Heiner Goebbels

Heiner Goebbels
Stifters Dinge
Heiner Goebbels conception, direction
Recorded October 20/21, 2007 by Willi Bopp, Grand Théâtre de la Ville de Luxembourg
Edited and mixed July 2010 by Max Federhofer (SWR) and Heiner Goebbels
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

“Language cannot represent thought, instantly, in its totality; it is bound to arrange it, part by part, in a linear order.”
–Michel Foucault

How can the pen be mightier than the sword when the page is the most hurtful weapon? It is not that the flesh receives the pen, but that the eyes swallow words into the soul, their blades wreaking havoc in a place where dying utterances thrash, unnoticed, for want of lips and tongue. There is something to be felt here, pondered like sun and moon in the same sky, only to slip from grasp, tether to a dream. In that state of half-sleep we are hyper-aware of sounds that make us. We turn them inside out and hold them to our ears, each a vacated conch shell. Were we able to peer into the shadows of those porcelain folds, we might encounter composer Heiner Goebbels tinkering in the deepest crevice, his fingernails clicking like camera shutters at the dawn of time.

Such is the veil that stands between us and Stifters Dinge (Stifter’s Things), the 2007 installation piece that would be enigma were it not for the clarity of its presence. It is many things. It is everything. It is the power of speech turned on its head and spun until it is a single color. The voice of Claude Lévi-Strauss excavates the work’s ethos, at once underscoring and disavowing our need for discovery, the rarity of adventure in a global network mapped and catalogued to every conceivable end. It is also a regression into a past where the truest blanks in our physiological scripts remain. These blanks play host to other notable figures. William S. Burroughs levels his critique of inner fire into social ice. Malcolm X speaks of division, fragmentation of power, splitting of the master’s tools. Goebbels weaves in field recordings from Papua New Guinea, Greece, and Colombia, archives of travel and lost communities, shades of Bach and monoliths. Bobbing along these waves is the constant ghost of one Adalbert Stifter, the eponymous 19th-century Austrian writer who, like Henry David Thoreau, heard nature as the musical amalgam of machine and biome that it is.

The piece is, above all, an experience—Goebbels calls it a “performative installation”—that abets the evolutionary processes it unravels and reties into permeable sculpture. The gentle logic of it all is indeed linguistic. We feel ourselves caught up in its locks and thorns. But the human is hidden, falling into ruin among the crust and residue of progress. It is an irrigation system that draws forth the atmospheres of solids. Drones of screen and sand, of distortion and touch: these are its faces.

The piano looms large, both literally onstage and figuratively as the consummation of the gallantry it burns to ash. As a mouthpiece of elitist spirit, its heft trembles under contact. As a technological pest, it is so impervious that only practice, mastery, and ultimately submission are its effects. It is an artificial ecosystem that somehow becomes parthenogenetic. As the soundtrack to smoke, it enfolds us, settles in with our bacteria. Stifters Dinge, then, is an astonishing concept that fully alerts us to the astonishment of concept.

“Language refuses but one thing,
to make as little noise as silence.”
–Francis Ponge

“Is there such a thing as three-dimensional music?” asks Wolfgang Sandner. In ECM’s audio version of Stifters we have one answer.

The fog (1) flaunts a wave of mystery, given traction by the distant bass beat of a techno house, pulsing like our zeitgeist through avenues of youthful expression, bodily movement, and philosophical naïveté. The salt (2) chips away at our ear canals and offsets the arterial spice trade with the attention of rot hidden in every city’s foundation. The water (3) speaks in drips, opening us to the metronome’s deception. In every deposit we startle a different facet of the same visage. The wind (4) carries sailors’ incantations: sinewy, mineral. A recurring clutch, an audio checkmark spinning us on our axes of interpretation. A prayer for the nameless, for the bodiless, for the motionless. The trees (5) whisper through punctured tires and forest tales. Piano chords rest on the fulcrums of frozen pasture. Anxieties fade, crystalline, into the aching heart of the beast. The thing (6) abrades its hide with strings, in each a keystone of intent that opens its mouth and sings nothing. The rain (7) does not pour but weeps, finding its way through crags, abandoned houses, and blackened farms. It soaks the earth, churning, sneezing diagrams into every root. It is the thunder (8) that falls, unleashing torrents of political rhetoric. The sound (9) emotes from a muffled source, its life written in a phonograph’s needle and spoken through a black-and-white broadcast. The piano kicks like a sleeping dog. And while the storm (10) hails morose arpeggios, it also closes itself to the possibility of air and cracks instead along fault lines that far outdate the means of their articulation. A foot drags through leaves and curls around the coast (11). A blink extends, every lash a piece of driftwood pillared between heaven and earth. A pressure gauge, valve and open throat, thump of a Tell-Tale Heart and tick of an Ingmar Bergman clock. In the exhibition of objects (12), we find that many such curios have fallen through the cracks and gathered at the bottom of this tub, washed down a drain of silence.

“So we have destiny to thank for permitting us to be what we will become to each other.”
–The Brothers Quay, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

In light of these evocative possibilities, of which I have sketched hardly the crescent of a thumbnail, I search for concrete language with which to describe that which is coated like so many dusty attics. For this, I go to the source. Mr. Goebbels answers the following questions I posed via e-mail:

1. There is a sense of “opening” in your music that, like a painting, offers a window into its own world. In your mind, where does this opening lead?

To the listener’s imagination.

2. Often in your work, and especially in Stifters Dinge, I feel a sense of unsettling, of things coming apart. And yet, there is still unity. The music, the theatre—it all holds together. How do you balance these two seemingly contradictory aspects? Or are they part of the same sound, image, and word?

I think it’s a sometimes-unconscious contrapuntal (counterpoint) strategy, in the best possible 18th-century sense.

3. How did you approach the CD version versus the museum version? What special characteristics of the CD as a visual and sonic package influence the physical experience of Stifters Dinge?

The CD recording offers a very direct and detailed “view” of the machines and instruments; you can hear things which you will not be able to perceive in the live performance because of visual distraction or spatial distance.

4. Was there anything about Stifters Dinge that surprised you when you experienced the final result?

Yes, everything. I didn’t start this project with a vision. Just with a question: Are the performative installation and music possible without any performer? The answer is the result.

5. On that note, is there a “final” result, or does it always shift and evolve? Does it still surprise you?

What still surprises me is the range of experiences from audiences. These are the actual “center” of the piece.

6. Which elements from your previous work are present in Stifters Dinge? Which elements are new?

There is a strong continuity in all my work regarding the use of acousmatic voices, the use of documentary recordings. What’s new is the heavy, overall machine-like construction.

7. I am so grateful not only to you for creating such visceral and reactive art, but also to Manfred Eicher for believing in it so strongly. Because of him, I have discovered it. Can you briefly discuss how you first met Mr. Eicher and how he has influenced your activities and way of thinking?

I met him for the first time in the late seventies/early eighties in concerts. Since The Man In The Elevator (1987) we’ve had a sort of exclusive partnership based on friendship, with inspiring talks on all art forms, literature, music, film, etc. And during these exchanges he was the one who drew my attention to Francis Ponge’s “The Pine Wood Notebook” (in Ou bien le débarquement désastreux) or to Samuel Beckett’s “Worstward Ho” (in I went to the house but did not enter).

For further answers, I turn to filmmaker Marc Perroud, whose documentary The experience of things, Heiner Goebbels charts the development and realization of Stifters from the turnstiles of the brain to the stages of reality. As Goebbels informs the camera, he sought to eschew the use of actors, to build a “free area” of intensity for the public. For him, composition and stagecraft go hand in hand. “I’m not a visionary or someone who has a clear idea of what he wants to do,” he goes on to say. “I always react strongly to what I see.” The lack of prepared material allowed for merging between technical and artistic processes. The situation created the music.

As one interested in the infinity of theatre, Goebbels sees the art form not as a means of “narrowing vision” but as an “open channel” for fresh experiences. Placing action behind details is his fascination. Communication thrives here in song, in text, in stasis, cracked to reveal the sound that is its blood: “We understand things better when they are placed at a distance and are more aware of their structure when we focus on abstraction.” Stifters ritualizes nature. Land and water become one. Things are not only objects, but are the unfamiliar, a space of curiosity to which Goebbels holds a magnifying glass. The machines speak, he listens.

For a more user-friendly synopsis of Stifters Dinge, visit ECM’s background page.
To watch a trailer of Marc Perroud’s documentary and find ordering information, click here.

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