Heiner Goebbels: A House of Call (ECM New Series 2728/29)

Heiner Goebbels
A House of Call – My Imaginary Notebook

Ensemble Modern Orchestra
Vimbayi Kaziboni conductor
Recorded September 2021
by Bayerischer Rundfunk
Prinzregententheater, München
Engineer: Clemens Deller
Recording engineer: Gerhard Gruber
Mixed and mastered by Clemens Deller, Heiner Goebbels, and Gerhard Gruber
Cover photo: Gérald Minkoff
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 19, 2022

With A House of Call, Heiner Goebbels peels back his most significant layer of multimedia music for the stage. This self-styled “imaginary notebook” incorporates archival recordings of prayers, songs, and other speech acts into dialogic relationships with a full orchestra. Much of what we hear is old and anonymous, barely hanging by a thread of preservation and never imaginable in a concert setting. And yet, here it all is, wired together like some elaborate lie detector of our shared past, pinging with increasing frequency to signal every denial of complicity by proxy. Tempting as it might be to view such a project through an archaeological or ethnographic lens, to do so would strengthen the very contradictions it wishes to dilute in its reckonings of time and place. “The music is a direct response to the complexity and roughness of the voices,” says Goebbels in his liner note, pointing also to the radiance thereof against the opacity of present traumas.

Across four thematic assemblages, the Ensemble Modern Orchestra, under the direction of Vimbayi Kaziboni, draws upon an intimate relationship with Goebbels to bring his vision of death to life. Part I, “Stein Schere Papier” (Rock Paper Scissors), cites Pierre Boulez’s orchestral work Répons as foundation, magnifying its call-and-response principle with glimpses of Goebbels’s art rock band Cassiber from the same period (the early 1980s). The initial stirrings of a privileged crowd indicate the biological venues we often fail to maintain. The instrumental colors are fluid, attentive to detail, and indicative of various styles pouring from many portals at once. The story of Sisyphus, as retold in Heiner Müller’s “Immer den gleichen Stein” (Always the same stone), wraps the orchestra in a chameleonic skin. And as the street noise of a Berlin building site from 2017 stirs up a vortex of unread manifestos, faded newspapers, and other detritus, we begin to treat all words as fair game.

Part II, “Grain de la voix,” borrows from the Roland Barthes essay of the same name, in which the French philosopher asserted the power of language to shield oneself against the glare of mortality. Ghosts from the Caucasus region open their lungs, strings trembling beneath the surface as a violin leaps in sporadic response. Thus, the hypocrisy of destroying the questions of culture to answer them is outed. When more modern recordings, like that of Iranian musician Hamidreza Nourbaksh intoning Rumi from 2010, reveal themselves, they take on a volition that blinds the orchestra’s feeble attempts at imitation. The juxtaposition is critically self-aware, a score written in scars. The evocation of Komitas and Armenian soprano Zabelle Panosian hints at the spiritual planes being razed in addition to the physical, as scrutinized in Part III, “Wax and Violence.” The title refers to the wax cylinders weaponized by pseudoscientific ideologues whose voracious appetite for the “exotic” was only the beginning of their consumption. In particular, Hans Lichtenecker’s xenophobic aural documents of the very people German soldiers would later destroy through genocide pull us by the ears. A recording of school children in the Namibian village of Berseba is even more haunting and spawns a big-band catharsis—if falsely so called, for what do we have to be released from by comparison? The effect is even stronger in the laments and incantations of Part IV, “When Words Gone,” wherein Amazon rituals conducted in lost languages blend into lines from one of Samuel Becket’s last texts amid digital whispers.

The danger of all this is reading the wrong kind of sorrow into everyone we hear. We latch on to familiar names like life preservers, forgetting that the nameless have been speaking truth all along. And so, while it would be easy to call this the pinnacle of Goebbels’s work, it might be more appropriate to see it as his valley of the shadow of death. We walk through it, guided by hands unseen, in faith that hope awaits us on the other side. But to get there, we must be willing to face the hostile forces of collective memory, thick with the mud of misunderstanding.

Barre Phillips/György Kurtág jr.: Face à Face (ECM 2735)

Barre Phillips
György Kurtág jr.
Face à Face

Barre Phillips double bass
György Kurtág jr. live electronics
Recording/mixing:
September 2020 – September 2021
Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
by Gérard de Haro, Manfred Eicher,
György Kurtág jr., and Barre Phillips
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 19, 2022

Although Barre Phillips and György Kurtág jr., respective virtuosos of the double bass and electronics, first collaborated by chance, one might not know it by the interlacing qualities of Face à Face. Each artist translates the other’s language in a borderless loop of communication, so that by the end we are one step closer to sharing their lexicon.

They begin in subterranean space, listening as if with the tympanal organs of a beetle to the stirrings of labyrinth makers. And maybe they never plant feet aboveground, more content to abandon the light for other forms of perception. Despite hints of the outside world in the sampled drums of “Two By Two” and the kalimba of “Across The Aisle,” our flesh always feels caught by something we cannot readily touch except in thought. Still, a feeling of tactility reigns.

The briefest excursions never reach two minutes, while the longest ones exceed only four. Among the latter, “Chosen Spindle” travels into backlit caves of memory, where seemingly infinite regressions flirt with the here and now.

Phillips is a sage of the bow, turning harmonies into shaded reveries that speak of decades leading to their emergence. In “Extended Circumstances,” he sings with mythical electricity in folds of cricket-like chatter. His pizzicato, too, moves vocally through the refractions of “Ruptured Air.” Kurtág plays his instrument (a practically biomechanical array of synthesizers and digital percussion) as a physical appendage, never letting go even when placing a shushing finger in the foreground. “Sharpen Your Eyes” is a remarkable example of his structural sensibilities, artfully suited to the bassist’s renderings of space. Their deepest integration takes form in the ironically titled “Stand Alone,” wherein mitochondrial anthems resound. Even “Forest Shouts” speaks in quiet streams of thought, each ripple extending a hand to pull us upstream to where it all began.

If asked to compare this to another album, I might nominate Heiner Goebbels’s Stifters Dinge, to which this may be heard as an electronic counterpart. Both are dreams awaiting visitors.

New Reviews for Shfl

I have been graciously asked to contribute capsule reviews (of 100 words or less) to Shfl, a phenomenal music recommendation tool for exploring old favorites and making new discoveries across genres. If you want to read my thoughts on key ECM albums in shorter bursts, check out my first wave of 100 reviews here, and the second of 25 here.

Follow me on Twitter for the latest updates, as I’ll be posting new batches there every Friday over the coming weeks. Never stop listening!

Special Announcement!

I am thrilled to announce that my book, Between Sound and Space: An ECM Records Primer, is at last available on Amazon! Those of you who have followed me for any portion of this journey know how much love, time, and care I’ve put into this project, and I hope the book, like the blog after which it was named, will lead listeners to many discoveries and hidden gems in the label’s ever-deepening catalogue. Click on the cover below to order yours while they last, and thank you, as always, for reading.

Maacha Deubner: Bessonnitsa

Soprano Maacha Deubner, whose voice has graced such masterpieces as Giya Kancheli’s Exil, folds her operatic pleats into the tapestry of the KAPmodern-Ensemble in a program of latter-day chamber music. Bessonnitsa is Russian for “insomnia” and points both to an overarching theme and to Valentin Silvestrov’s eponymous piece for soprano and piano. Reminiscent of Francis Poulenc’s songs, it is the album’s crown jewel. Its flowing sense of time and evocation is like a storm turning into ocean and touching the shore with its final breath. One can also trace a line of continuity between this and Edison Denisov’s At the Turning Point for soprano and piano (1979), a set of temporally brief yet spiritually far-reaching evocations of flesh and word in a self-shadowing mode. Deubner navigates them as one might tell the story of their life.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Brief an die Dichterin Rimma Dalos for soprano and violoncello (1985) begins with the solo voice, floating yet carrying the weight of a monument carved in time. “My soul is a Sphinx,” she sings as if to give that monument a name, setting the immaterial self upon an altar of ruins and unfinished verses. The words come from writer Rimma Dalos, whose texts have also been lovingly set by Hungarian composer György Kurtág. Gubaidulina’s approach, however, is never so compact, as proven by the solo cello commentary that follows.

Most of the pieces here belong to the mind and heart of Elena Firsova, for whom the poetry of Ossip Mandelstam (1891-1938) is a touchstone. Sorrows (Tristia II), op. 145 (2013) carries over the same scoring from Gubaudulina’s contribution and bears a dedication to Deubner. The music is at once a reflection of and counterpoint to the poetry, which looks deep into the night to uncover its many layers of shadow:

Who knows, when the word ‘departure’ is spoken
what kind of separation is at hand.

Such words point not to dialogue but to prayers walking parallel paths. They can see but not hear each other, ever caught in cycles of pain and healing.

In Towards the Starlight for soprano and string quartet (2017), receiving its world premiere recording, we have a different side of Mandelstam. Whereas in Sorrows he praised the uninterrupted life, now we get:

I hate the starlight’s
monotonous spectrum.

Such is the duality of consciousness. In the second movement, “How slow the horses go,” we encounter a more sorrowful glow. The poet sees things he cannot see, speaks of things that have no voice. Cello and soprano engage in subliminal communication as delicate pizzicato and high strains give way to flowers of darkness. In the final movement, lyrical self-deprecation:

To read only children’s books,
To cherish only children’s thoughts.

Yet another facet of Mandelstam catches the light of From the Voronezh Notebooks, op. 121 (2009). This cantata, also for soprano and string quartet, moves into organic textures following a nervous prelude. From the raindrops dripping from leaves in “Greens” and the pouncing delicacy of “A Cat” to the frantic trajectories of “In the Sky” and the final “Madness,” fear is never far behind. Deubner expresses these states of mind with lucid projection.

Peppered among Firsova’s more substantial assemblies are three monologues, of which Starry Flute, op. 56 (1992) is the most intimate. Dedicated to the late Aurèle Nicolet, it captures the brilliant flutist’s penchant for extended techniques, each of which naturally extends the breath. Sustained notes float as if made of vapor (and indeed, that is what our life can only be), so that by the end, we are left in stasis with memories of those enchantments now wilting in the hot sun of reality.

Taking account of these works in the aggregate, I am inclined to treat them as a face seen from different angles of light. It smiles and frowns, sleeps and awakes, screams and whispers, showing us that the continuity between states of mind is where our existence is defined.

Johannes Luley: Follow Your Heart

Guitarist-producer Johannes Luley was born and grew up in Germany before relocating to California, where he honed his craft as an in-demand touring musician and began recording other artists in his Los Angeles studio. When said studio had to close at the start of the pandemic, Luley found himself facing a professional and personal crisis that kept him from the guitar for months. In August of 2020, he resolved himself to break free from that spell and move his creative muscles again. The result is Follow Your Heart.

As the title suggests, Luley examined what moved him from within, and this led him to dip into the ECM songbook, arranging tunes by some of the label’s key figures. His band includes reed player Max Kaplan, bassist David Hughes, drummer Dicki Fliszar, and percussionist Simon Carroll. Trumpeter and flugelhornist Jonas Lindeborg plays from afar, having laid down his parts in Stockholm, though one would hardly know it by the integration of his artistry.

Luley has a fluid ability to shift between styles and influences without missing a beat, adapting instruments and treatments to suit each track. The set opens with “Yellow Fields,” from Eberhard Weber’s 1976 album of the same name. Hughes evokes the German bassist via fretless before he and Fliszar put feet to ground with gentle traction. Kaplan’s soprano lends further credence to the revival, while Lindeborg’s flugelhorn adds reflective light. Next, Luley’s 12-string pivots into Ralph Towner territory on “Brujo.” Despite hailing from 1973’s Trios/Solos with Glen Moore, the expansiveness of this version points more toward Solstice from two years later. The Bill Evans/Miles Davis classic “Blue in Green” (which has appeared on two of Towner’s albums) glows in Luley’s fireside recreation. His restraint exudes warmth at every turn. This and Kenny Wheeler’s “Heyoke” (see 1976’s Gnu High) are standouts for their free and easy spirit, drawing magic from Lindeborg and propelling Luley to skim the proverbial waters with purpose. The latter tune’s seeking qualities match the composer’s perfectly, as do the far-reaching tones of “Ostinato” from Manfred Schoof’s Scales (a 1976 rarity from ECM’s onetime sister label, JAPO). Swells from electric guitar provide the foundation for a roving gallery of impressions, ranging from Kaplan’s bass clarinet to Lindeborg’s emotional flights.

The title track cites John McLaughlin’s My Goals Beyond (released in 1982 on the Elektra label) and features a crunchier sound from Luley and artful sopranism from Kaplan, while “One Melody” references Belo Horizonte (1981, Warner Bros. Records) to stratospheric effect. John Abercrombie also gets two musical mentions. “Telegram” time-travels from 1978’s Charactersand elicits the most cohesive dynamics from Luley’s group. Its nostalgic energy is only heightened by the rhythm section’s articulate drive. “Greenstreet” points to 2013’s 39 Steps and sits flush with its brethren in gentle resolve, ending the record with an embrace.

Follow Your Heart makes a welcome addition to any ECM lover’s shelf and should inspire listeners to explore Luley’s back catalog in kind. The album is available from his website here.

Interview with Phil Freeman

I recently conducted an interview with music critic and author Phil Freeman for All About Jazz. Freeman has some of the sharpest ears out there—and a way with words to hone them. Interested readers shouldn’t hesitate to pick up his latest book, Ugly Beauty, which hit shelves last year. Click on the cover below to read some of my thoughts on the book and our conversation about it.

Dine Doneff: Lost Anthropology (neRED/3)

Dine Doneff
Lost Anthropology

Mathis Mayr cello
Antonis Anissegos piano, prepared piano
Stamatis Passopoulos bayan
Dine Doneff double bass, guitar, percussion
Recorded live July 2, 2015
Einstein Kultur Munich
Engineer: Hans R. Weiss
Remix: Pande Noushin
Mastering: Tome Rapovina
Cover artwork: Fotini Potamia

For the third full installment of his neRED label series, multi-instrumentalist Dine Doneff presents a live set of seven original pieces. Playing bass, guitar, and percussion, he leads a quartet completed by cellist Mathis Mayr, pianist Antonis Anissegos, and bayan player Stamatis Passopoulos. This combination yields a fascinating gallery of scenes painted in various mediums, often within the same track. The opening “Pripapindoll,” for example, introduces us to a faintly abstract sound, a pencil sketch for the paint yet to be applied. When the melody makes itself known, it leaves a trail of pigment in search of evergreen hills beyond. The range of sonorities these instruments achieve is as varied as the topography they describe, culminating in a folk-like flourish. “Endekapalmos” follows a parallel path of development from less ordered dreams to smooth awakening, opening its vista for the bayan’s welcome entrance, sunlit and free as the wind. Doneff’s bass is the anchor for “The Fallen,” in which a groovier aesthetic prevails, the cello adding a fluid overlay, riding a wave of emotional transference from one peak to another. Mayr and Doneff carry over their traction into “Meglen,” setting up an evocative vehicle for Passopoulos and Anissegos, who trade words and memories to climactic ends. After the bayan interlude of “Exile,” a cinematic nostalgia bleeds into “Rite of Passage,” the initial flow of which clots in the improvised plasma of a prepared piano. At last, we reach the turning point of “Prolet.” Building from guitar arpeggios, it shifts into higher gear through percussive color changes, driving toward the horizon without once looking back because the only thing that matters is catching the last glimpse of sun before it dies.

Music Hotel: ECM Musiktage Römerbad Badenweiler 1997 (VHS)

John Surman saxophones, clarinets
Anders Jormin double bass
Bobo Stenson piano
Dino Saluzzi bandoneón
Tomasz Stanko trumpet
Michelle Makarski violin
Jon Christensen drums
Rosamunde Quartett
Andreas Reiner
 violin
Simon Fordham violin
Helmut Nicolai viola
Anja Lechner cello
Filmed at Hotel Römerbad, Badenweiler, May 16-18, 1997
Edited by Pierre-Yves Borgeaud and Cyrille Nakache
Post-production: ARRI Studios, Munich
Executive producer: Fredrik Gunnarsson

Continuing in my coverage of ECM rarities, I was fortunate enough to be sent a copy of an obscure VHS tape documenting the 1997 Römerbad-Musiktage, where an eclectic group of ECM musicians gathered to perform as part of this annual musical event. The clamshell case insert provides the following description:

The Römerbad-Musiktage has been an important event in the contemporary music calendar since 1973, when impresario Klaus Lauer first began to present concerts in the Kuppelsaal of the hotel he owns in the South German resort town of Badenweiler. Although a wide range of music has been presented at the Hotel Römderbad, the emphasis has been on modern composition, and a close working relationship has been established with composers including Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, György Kurtág, György Ligeti and Wolfgang Rihm. In 1993, Lauer and music producer Manfred Eicher instigated another annual series, with performances by improvisors and interpreters associated with the ECM label. More than a mere festival, the Badenweiler meeting allows an informed public to witness ECM recording artists in the process of shared musical discovery. Spontaneity is the watchword as the musicians play together, in both proven and untested combinations. “The ECM Whitsun Concert Series at the Römerbad have become an enduring artistic experience,” wrote the Frankfurter Rundschau of the 1997 event. “The aesthetics of Eicher’s equally stringent and open agenda has acquired international renown. Listeners from 16 countries had the opportunity to enrich and modify their musical worldview and to perceive things unavailable at conventional music events.”

Sadly enough, the 50-minute video is not a document of the performances themselves. What we do get, however, is an intimate glimpse into ECM’s “behind-the-scenes” presence in the world of live music as Eicher brings together musicians that have rarely (if ever) shared a stage to create something as enduring in the minds of listeners as it is spontaneous in its coalescence. Filmmaker and friend of the label Pierre-Yves Borgeaud, along with coeditor Cyril Nakache, go to great lengths to clue us in not only on the logistics of putting together such an event but also on the everyday imperfections that must be ironed out to pull it off with elegance.

The split curtain that introduces us to the concert space, backgrounded by the unmistakable sound of John Surman’s bass clarinet, offers a sliver of orientation before we see the reed virtuoso in the flesh, along with bassist Anders Jormin, engaging in a measured dance as shots of the hotel’s interior and attentive staff are revealed in leisurely succession.

What follows is a series of rehearsal footage as Eicher molds the air with his hands, visually imagining what he hopes will take place when the room is populated with seasoned ears. Surman talks afterward about how easy it is to play with musicians who listen so deeply to each other before melodizing on soprano saxophone with Bobo Stenson and Jon Christensen joining on piano and drums, respectively.

The film moves on to Dino Saluzzi, who fills the room with the resonance of his bandoneón as the other musicians decide on their configurations with Eicher’s input. They then augment Saluzzi with Jormin and trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. Violinist Michelle Makarski is also interviewed, expressing her love of improvisation despite her classical training and her gratitude for being among these jazz greats. She recalls being asked to perform the works of Keith Jarrett in New York City, which caught the attention of Eicher and resulted in the 1994 album Bridge Of Light, followed by her solo album Caoine one month before this film was made. Her sound meshes soulfully with Saluzzi and Stanko, the latter of whom talks about the beauty of the space, the dry acoustics of which allow for the cultivation of a fuller sound among such artfully curated musicians.

Saluzzi is the focal point of the most alluring ensembles, especially when he combines his sound with that of the phenomenal Rosamunde Quartett. Anchored by the robust cello of Anja Lechner, the strings pair wonderfully with Saluzzi’s generous spirit. In the interview that follows, he talks about pitching this formal music crossover as a blurring of divisions toward social harmony. His tangos uphold that ethos with utmost love, imprinting the film’s final moments with a message for all.