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 26, 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.

Heiner Goebbels: Landschaft mit entfernten Verwandten (ECM New Series 1811)

Landschaft mit entfernten Verwandten

Heiner Goebbels
Landschaft mit entfernten Verwandten

David Bennent voice
Georg Nigl baritone
Ensemble Modern
Deutscher Kammerchor
Franck Ollu conductor
Recorded live October 2004, Théâtre des Amandiers, Nanterre, Paris
Engineer: Max Federhofer, SWR
Mixed by Max Federhofer and Heiner Goebbels
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

This recording chronicles the incidental music to Heiner Goebbels’s theatrical juggernaut, Landscape with Different Relatives, a much-lauded work that premiered in 2002. Billed as an opera for soloists, choir, and ensemble with texts by Gertrude Stein, Giordano Bruno, Arthur Chapman, Henri Michaux, T. S. Eliot, Leonardo da Vinci, and Nicolas Poussin, it includes mostly composed material with a mickey of improvisation slipped in. Both modes are taken up with gusto by the Ensemble Modern under the direction of Franck Ollu.

The composer’s polyglot approach to text reveals itself also in the music, which pins a wide-ranging geography of crumbling modernities. Like its librettic assemblage, the listener is eased into the work from the outside in. From above, one sees it divided into two parts. Seemingly disconnected in shape, the first contorts itself around all manner of war machinery while the second sees the body as machine and itemizes the internal workings of that most familiar technology. Closer inspection reveals a kinship between the two halves beyond the grasp of mere words. Both begin with the same introduction, for instance, adding only speech to the second iteration, as if the conscience of the opera’s former half were being revived.

(Promo photo by Oper Frankfurt)

Part One thus inaugurates its concerns without voice. In a bed of organ, flute, and oboe, an electronic beep signals a message waiting to be heard before a wash of light shuttles the listener across narrow waterways into “The Sirens.” Here the vagaries of disgust are re-spun into catalysts, an interweaving of social stereotypes brought home by threats of destruction. Out of this swarm come multiple catharses. Dreamlike and fluid, they imagine procreation in lilting brass and, most notably, in the heavenward flute of “Tanz der Derwische,” one of three centerpieces. Drums and clarinet part the sky to reveal another, a parallel universe where the dead walk as if unscathed as gorgeous improvisations from the clarinetist interact with muted brass. “In the 19th Century” brings science under the lens of its own microscope and questions, as might Foucault, the dangers of expertise. “Triumphal March” is the second centerpiece. An obsessive mélange of lists and figures—and, by extension, of utility and servitude—it builds a monument to interrogation and crushes it to dust. “Schlachtenbeschreibung” is the final centerpiece. It’s title (Battle description) can be said to be the opera’s theme, layering as it does the grids of land and collateral damage that betray any ideological motivations lurking within terror. The playfulness of the instrumental arrangement here suggests a lost art and imbues baritone Georg Nigl with just the agitation he needs to carry off the words. Da Vinci’s pedantry, which guides artists in the depictions of battle scenes, lends a strangely categorical air, adding contrast to the fin de siècle politics that precede it. The ping-ponging of electronic and acoustic beats suggests confusion between the peace and antagonism of “Well Anyway,” which conflates revolution with sustenance, and celebrates the ability to shed tears. “Did It Really Happen?” further addresses the divide between historical revisionism and denial, and pulls the strings of the past clearly into the fray of the present, while “Kehna hi kya” haunts the center with its shrill plucked strings and local flourishes. The latter suggest a cultural archive, packaged and presented to the transient tourist. “Et c’est toujours” (And it is always…) addresses another gap, this between industry and flesh, between art and the earthen origins from which it is produced. It is the twist of a rind in the eye, a squinting of soul into eclipsed sun.

Part Two continues the opera’s marriage of modern and traditional instruments, consolidating many candles into a single flame. As emblematically in the feudalistic satire of “Just Like That,” it plays with minimalism (“Bild der Städte”), bricolage politics (“Krieg der Städte”), travel (“On the Road”), social awkwardness (“And We Said Good Bye”), communication (“On the Radio”), and even delves into a bit of Americana with “Out Where The West Begins,” replete with banjo and wagon procession. This blends into “Train Travelling,” about which the voiceover says, “The irregularity of its regularity is fascinating.” An overarching aesthetic of the opera if ever there was one.

Much of this second half delves deeper into notions of language and category, as in “Ich leugne nicht die Unterscheidung” (I do not deny the distinction), which understands the difference between destruction wrought by hand and by technological intervention, even as it washes both in the same descriptive waters. Such juxtapositions breed nostalgia through lenses of regret and distant complicities. Life takes its path abjectly. The deaths of animals loom as large as those of humans and round the jagged edges of the voices’ autobiographical disguises. Commanding and conquering can occur only where there are speech acts to back them up, and “Different Nations” gives a catalogue of call signs that lend vivid color to the connection between diplomacy and violence. Hence the ultimate arrival of the “Principes,” each a window into the soul that waters ambient soil. This final dronescape hosts only those voices that linger after all the others have expended their welcome. Welcome to their requiem.

Excerpt from the stage production, “Triumphal March”:

Es herrscht Uhu im Land: s/t (JAPO 60037)

Es herrscht Uhu im Land

Es herrscht Uhu im Land

Christoph Anders voice, guitar, organ
Heiner Goebbels synthesizer, piano, saxophone, voice
Alfred Harth saxophones, bass clarinet, voice
Paul Lovens drums, percussion
Rolf Riehm english horn, alto saxophone, voice
Annemarie Roelofs trombone, violin, voice
Recorded December 9-11, 1980 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Thomas Stöwsand

This early collaboration from saxophonist Alfred Harth and composer Heiner Goebbels is a telling lens of intersection through which to mine two fascinating careers. Harth will be familiar to ECM devotees as the progenitor of the label’s second album, Just Music, and would go on to release two further albums in other venues before meeting Goebbels in 1975. The two came together musically in a jazz-rock outfit called Rauhreif which, being to neither’s liking, dissolved, leaving these powerhouses itching for freer means of expression. It was in the context of this collaboration that Harth introduced the young Goebbels to the music of Hanns Eisler, which would of course lead to Eislermaterial, his most successful project to date. After connecting the dots for five years as a duo in various German settings, Harth called on the services of an old friend, Thomas Stöwsand, who’d played cello and flute on Just Music and was now headlong into the ECM storm. Stöwsand agreed to produce and welcomed into the studio Chris Anders, Rolf Riehm, and Annemarie Roelofs, each accomplished multi-instrumentalists, and drummer Paul Lovens. Such is the tangled web of Es herrscht Uhu in Land.

In it ideas were already taking shape that would become touchstones for Goebbels’s work, such as “Autobahn,” which meshes rallying songs with a field recording of its eponymous motorway, while “Wertkauf” betrays a less delicate side, sounding like something out of an Otomo Yoshihide free-for-all. The reversed vinyl and crunchy guitar make for a powerful contrast, each groove a cavity waiting for a tooth. “Mahlzeit” is a trembling gift, enacting a sacred touch of tongue to circuit. And one can’t help but uphold the frozen wasteland and creaking wonders of “Durch Den Wald” as a precursor to Stifters Dinge.

Riehm also makes a significant contribution with “Der Main.” Composed around poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, it thus lays another important keystone in the ECM ethos. This skip through space is like a sonic parlor trick, a knock on the door of memory, a wishful thought. Through a deft admixture of songs, the relay of word to voice moves in an extended meditation. At nearly eight minutes, it towers over the outlying tracks, which average around two minutes each, and underscores the otherwise restless musings therein with a bold cohesion.

The musicians turn air to solid with their touch. Intimate musings, talking brass, laughter, and wires share a bed, rolling in the sheets until something musical takes shape. Each body part becomes a note that in combination with other, activates instrumental ideas. Harth, for one, writhes in soprano-gilded spirals over the song of a hungry whale in “Echter Lachs” and pops the electronic bubble in “Knecht U.” Yet for the most part, the group works as a whole, spitting watermelon seeds out of cartoon mouths in “Ich Nicht Mich Dich” alongside the jackhammer of self-questioning. It pulls us into an underworld of radio signals, waltzing to the beat of a perverse drum (“El Salvador”) and changing channels with the twist of a rein (“Uhu”), all the while feeding voices through a sluice pipe of craft. A spate of translation (“Superbirdsong”), dust for wings and air, and we are in the forlorn wakeup call of “Tilt!” smoking monosyllables until they stain the lungs with honesty.

In this bedtime story for the escaped mind, the main characters are an adroit political insight, a leak in the colonial pen that ruins a fluid takeover with exposition of intent, and a crucible of retrospection. Neither derisive nor derivative, this project takes a good long look at the sandy areas of our consciousness and pours water on them for sandcastles. The water jug drains itself. The water jug waits for no one.

Es herrscht Uhu im Land (Back)
Back cover

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.

Heiner Goebbels: SHADOW/Landscape With Argonauts (ECM 1480)

Heiner Goebbels
SHADOW/Landscape With Argonauts
with words by Edgar Allan Poe and Heiner Müller

Sussan Deyhim vocals
René Lussier guitar
Charles Hayward drums, tipan, hand-percussion
Christos Govetas clarinet, chumbush, gardon
Heiner Goebbels keyboards, programming, accordion
Recorded September/October 1990 at Outpost Studio, Stoughton, Massachusetts
Engineer: G. B. Hicks
Produced by Heiner Goebbels

In the annals of the written word, there are chambers of suffering and chambers of joy, but in the mind of Edgar Allan Poe those chambers were one and the same. It is this twisted contradiction that Heiner Goebbels wrings out from the sodden towels of the human body’s myriad expectorations in SHADOW/Landscape With Argonauts. Following the same concept as its German radio play counterpart (only this time in English), for which random people on the street were asked to read a text aloud for later studio manipulation, this fully realized project draws even deeper connections between public and private spheres of communication. Because people’s hesitations and misunderstandings remain lucid in the final mix, we can relate immediately to the balance of confrontation and collaboration that ensues. From these initial unscripted stirrings arises the brilliance of Iranian singer and performance artist Sussan Deyhim, whose voice is a periodic touchstone in the work. “Ye who read” is the first of a handful of exquisite songs, glinting like a metal pushpin holding up the tapestry at large. A backgrounded organ trades plectrum musings with fluttering recitations of Poe, treading a Jon Hassell-like carpet of swampy electronics. Sirens of emergency echo in the distance, accompanied by laughter. Public transportation carries us away into the field of indecision that plagues these expressions and the honesty of their disavowal. As impossible as water that burns, it trickles along the throats of fever dreams into vessels shaped like literature. Firecrackers give up themselves in ecstatic pops, marking a year of terror against the celestial auguries of the urban sprawl, each a line on a star map drawn in subway routes. Machines disgorge loose change, grasped by sweaty fingers and thrown into the pockets of the itinerant. Deyhim, ever our internal guide, resolves from a klezmer shadow in “Over some flasks” into messages of many histories. In this environment, happiness is suffocation. And as the sky goes hunting in search of dawn, a distorted hotline breathes its empty promises into the wind. “A dead weight” stencils that rich contralto onto an ululating ocean of ill measure. Acrid squeals echo with the incisiveness of a razor. “No arrival no parking” levels a mocking energy, self-absorbed and self-reflected, spawning the delicate propulsions of “And lo” in a relay of echo and night. A radio dial arches its back toward a faraway jazz session, only to drown in the light of a caravan moon. Shrouded in the smoke of faraway dreams, a clarinet bubbles over into the as-yet-unwritten page.

Fascinating to contemplate are the ways in which Goebbels’s subjects read themselves into the text, as if the sounds of words dictated the constitutions of their bodies, the comportments of their quotidian selves blended into the wing-beats of farewell birds. I can no longer read myself, the music seems to say, so I will let others read in place of me. Anything spoken at the whim of the predetermined will always be at a distance removed.

The rest is poetry.

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Heiner Goebbels: Hörstücke (ECM 1452-54)

Heiner Goebbels
based on texts by Heiner Müller and featuring the talents of:
David Bennent
Peter Brötzmann
Peter Hollinger
Kammerchor Horbach
Alexander Kluge
René Lussier
Heiner Müller
Walter Raffeiner
Otto Sander
Ernst Stötzner
We Wear The Crown
Die Befreiung des Prometheus recorded and edited by Walter Brüssow, Heiner Goebbels, Peter Jochum, Gisbert Lackner, Gerlind Raue, Rainer Schulz, and Martha Seeberger
Produced 1985 by Hessischer Rundfunk and Südwestfunk
Verkommenes Ufer edited by Peter Jochum, Martha Seeberger, and Heiner Goebbels
MAeLSTROMSÜDPOL recorded 1987/88 at F.T.F. and Unicorn Studios, Frankfurt/Main
Engineers: Peter Fey and Jürgen Hiller
Mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced 1984 by Hessischer Rundfunk
Wolokolamsker Chaussee recorded at Unicorn Studio, Frankfurt/Main and Südwestfunk Baden-Baden
Engineers: Thomas Krause and Alfred Habelitz
Mixing engineer: Alfred Habelitz
Produced 1989/90 by Südwestfunk, Hessischer Rundfunk and Bayerischer Rundfunk
Album produced by ECM

My respect for Heiner Goebbels only increases with each work I encounter. Yet while his art, not least through frequent collaborations with linguistic wizard Heiner Müller, has always had its heart in drama, from this collection of radio plays that drama emerges—in the wake of German reunification, no less—with a fresh, genuine voice.

The first of this massive collection’s four plays, Die Befreiung des Prometheus (The Liberation of Prometheus), will sound familiar to those who’ve followed Goebbels in chronological order, for its themes had already made an appearance on Herakles 2 two years before. Both are based on a chunk of text from Müller’s Cement, only here we actually come to know that text amid a filmic montage of others. This process of splicing places, spaces, and times for new mythology will be familiar to any Goebbels listener, but it rings more intensely than ever. From the opening nod to Laurie Andersen we feel right at home. Like her Superman, Müller’s Prometheus is deconstructed from the inside out. Rather than carrying the flame of knowledge, he roasts over that flame his own sustenance at the gods’ table, where he is doomed to eat himself in an eternal circle of hunger and release. Though freed by Heracles, he is plagued by a waning remembrance of godliness, chewed and spat by the rock of the earth. Where Goebbels excels is that, in setting all of this, he manages to evoke a wealth of environmental details that his mosaic of voices can only hint at. Through the bubbling crude of his electronic interventions, he unpacks intimations of the zeitgeist with enviable intelligibility. Incidental sounds turn and tumble, grasping at the enamel-hidden scraps of mastication in hopes of picking off a morsel, ending up instead with a fist full of weeds, and it is these we must weave into a basket if we are ever to catch a sense of things. Metallic edges, heavily serrated and rusted over with time, melt in our gaze. Goebbels marks these rhythms with clips and starts. Snatches of the everyday butt up against unpredictable and sometimes-confrontational turns, but always with a uniquely organic energy.

Verkommenes Ufer (Despoiled Shore) takes its seed from an early (1955) play by Müller. For this project, Thorsten Becker asked fifty strangers in Berlin to read the text in question, thus yielding the raw material for Goebbels’s subsequent mash-up. Because none of the readers were familiar with the text, their renderings bring out inner truths. What begins as a writhing and inarticulate being in the final product resolves itself into a landscape of hesitations, loops, and, above all, porous communication. The Argonaut’s promise kisses the face of chance too many times, leaving only the corpses of a onetime progeny swinging in the wind of manipulation. Poison seeps through the ground in reverse, seeking out those vials from which it was poured, but finding only the fullness of adolescent laughter wafting across the urban sprawl. A masterstroke in the Goebbels/Müller canon.

The album’s cover photo is taken from its third play, MAeLSTROMSÜDPOL (MAeLSTROMSOUTHPOLE). If its blood-red wash of solitude is any indication, we might easily know its fascination with reality and disconnect before a single word grabs us. The continuity of the text, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, is its own contradiction, carving out of those syllables a subterranean world. Speech stores hidden desires in its vowels, misted by white noise and the song of an open cataract: drones and queens, reeds and marshes, all blended into a smoothie only a ghost might drink. It is a photograph that grows blurrier the more it develops. The only way to discern it is to drink the vat of chemicals that brought it to visible life. Echoes turn into birds, the shimmering backdrop of an open mike emceed by the mistress of our deepest nightmares. “OH KEEP THE DOG,” she croons, as if to cut the running line that binds us to everything. She overwhelms us with the responsibilities of liberation.

Last is Wolokolamsker Chaussee (Volokolamsk Highway). Based largely on motives from writers Alexander Bek and Anna Seghers, this self-reflective look at social change in the DDR’s last gasps is vitriolic through and through. Part I, “Russian gambit,” introduces the voice of stage actor Ernst Stötzner and music by heavy metal band Megolomaniax. The combination is a fortuitous one, for the sheer theatricality of the language almost screams for these experienced thespians of two not-so-different stages (though, as Verkommenes shows, this needn’t be so across the board). Bloodshed and total recall dance with one another, spinning their way to “Forest near Moscow.” Stötzner continues his tirade, only now with gentler guitar accompaniment. Death still looms in every pregnant pause, given just enough room to spread a pair of wings which, though flightless, can at least move enough to remember flight. Some preparatory shuffling in Part III, “The Duel,” opens a 20-minute call and response between Stötzner and men’s choir, all of whom join lungs to blow the dust off the mood of German Arbeiterlieder. Behind the scenes, the musc underscores an important truth: namely, that no matter how robust we spin our sentiments regarding human existence on paper, they would all burst into ashen death at the touch of a match. Part IV, “Centaurs” (the title of which, a booklet note reminds us, comes from the Old Greek for “red tape”), recasts Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in a world ordered by totalitarianism, a theme finds blatant traction in a recycling of Shostakovich’s (in)famous Symphony No. 7. The narrative is even more localized in the mouth, which bites a desk in order to prevent its screams from tearing out the still-beating heart of resistance. The fifth and final part, “The Foundling” (after Kleist), is perhaps the most unusual, if only for being backed by hip-hop group We Wear The Crown. Stötzner’s “rapping” is a mélange of generic signatures that transcends its surroundings even as it relies wholly on them. In this prison of madmen speaking in “MARXANDENGELSTONGUES” there is only room for forgetting.

German speakers and/or those up on their German history (I can count myself among neither) will surely get the most out of this recording whose booklet forgoes translating every word (especially in Prometheus)—a real shame considering the parodic depths awaiting our swan dive of relish. The language is visceral in the deepest sense, at times vulgar but always self-aware. Completists wanting the most unfettered glimpse into the architecture of Goebbels’s craft would do well to track down this invaluable set. Though the sentiments throughout are as complex as their politics, certain common themes exploit the connections between songs and conflicts. Through songs we can hide in the foxholes of life and cover our heads against any aerial assault, but in the end all of their lyrics flow through us, be they of the enemy, of our mothers, or of ourselves.

<< Barre Phillips: Aquarian Rain (ECM 1451)
>> Eleni Karaindrou: The Suspended Step Of The Stork (ECM 1456)

Heiner Goebbels: La Jalousie / Red Run / Herakles 2 / Befreiung (ECM New Series 1483)

Heiner Goebbels
La Jalousie / Red Run / Herakles 2 / Befreiung

Heiner Goebbels
Ensemble Modern

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.

<< Meredith Monk: Facing North (ECM 1482 NS)
>> Hal Russell: Hal’s Bells (ECM 1484)

Heiner Goebbels: Der Mann im Fahrstuhl/The Man In The Elevator (ECM 1369)

Heiner Goebbels
Der Mann im Fahrstuhl/The Man In The Elevator

Arto Lindsay voice, guitar
Ernst Stötzner voice
Don Cherry voice, trumpet, doussn’gouni
Fred Frith guitar, bass
Charles Hayward drums, metal
George Lewis trombone
Ned Rothenberg saxophones, bass clarinet
Heiner Goebbels piano, synthesizer, programming
Recorded March 1988, Sound On Sound Recording, New York
Engineer: Mike McMackin
Produced by Heiner Goebbels and Manfred Eicher

“Your home is a box. Your car is a box on wheels. You drive to work in it. You drive home in it. You sit in your home, staring into a box. It erodes your soul, while the box that is your body inevitably withers…then dies. Whereupon it is placed in the ultimate box, to slowly decompose”
–Arlington Steward in The Box

Heiner Goebbels continues his (man)made-in-heaven collaboration with Heiner Müller in this fascinating piece of hate mail to the modern condition. Drawing on talents as diverse as Arto Lindsay, Ned Rothenberg, George Lewis, Fred Frith, and Don Cherry, it begins as it ends: in a dance of doppelgangers. Lindsay carefully plots every step of this morbid ball with his delicate guitar. He is the everyman, the proverbial drone splashing his thoughts against the sphere of his labor, rattling like the many cages of transport that carry him through life’s many turns. Like his instrumental comrades, he is constructed by his attire, tuned to the plight of interaction. Lindsay’s omnipleasant diction luxuriates in every rounded r, a tempered steel to Rothenberg’s engaging reeds, the latter a guardian angel fluttering at our backs, constantly tapping the shoulder of those of us who cannot help but ignore the gesture, we in whom ignorance is a coping mechanism.

Lindsay introduces us to the Boss, Mr. Number One whom one never addresses directly. His is a name we must forget, for behind that visage of darkness lies the agitated voice of Ernst Stötzner, who seems to channel David Moss in a constant breakdown of communicative interest. Lindsay’s protagonist responds with a kneejerk expectoration, a James Brown-like cry rendered meaningless in a muzak-infested void. Two distinct voices tainting an urban desert, whose only oasis is circumscribed by the sweeping hands of a wristwatch.

This is a life written in indecipherable shorthand, a steno bound in human skin. A dripping, Peter Greenaway-like pillow book as résumé. A ball-peen hammer ticks away against the inside plane of a metallic skull, branded by the letterhead of a company whose product is never made clear. A desktop computer whines its woebegone tale. The elevator continues to glide along the shaft of our expectations, or lack thereof, smoothed along by the grist of mysteriously absent clerks and secretaries, every coworker a follicle in the dandruff-infested scalp of society.

A flapping of the lips, as if to proclaim, “I am here.” The batting of an eyelid, as if to deny the very same. Against the sparkling passage of data, one can only run in place. A voice over the PA. The boss tops himself, spilling his brilliance across the already untended battlefield of his planner. The populace ignorant, spawning the one serial number who refuses this lot. A warped record of Brazilian love songs melts in between floors, seeping into the sewer, which carries the muck of a single workday below the feet of protesters on the street. Their appeals blend into the signage that advertises their lives.

Intimations of a faraway people and their music laced with grasses of which one can only fantasize. The fume-infested club offers no solace, and only serves to hem the cloak of anonymity, which we can never seem to shrug off. The possibility of rising to the top of the bureaucratic food chain is as vain as hoping that a parachute might spring magically from one’s back the moment he jumps from the penthouse window like so many before. Still, at the end of the day, as the varicolored air burrows like a snake into one’s open shirt, a dream of love waves as one surrenders to a different sort of imprisonment, one in which bliss is real because it is self-selected. But this love belongs in another’s arms, those of the man you’ll never be, who sings as he lives: boisterously out of tune. Cherry’s trumpet cleans the slate before filling in the chrome grille of the last car you’ll ever see. A car whose license plate reads BOSS, and whose chassis was built on the predecessors into which your body will be absorbed in preparation for your replacement.

Such are the polyglot galleries Goebbels draws out of his distinct array of inceptions and spoken words. His is a scathing and evocative exploration of the urban landscape, but one that never smacks of moral self-righteousness. Rather, it involves itself in its surroundings, drawing red threads through death, the corporate environment, and noises of progress. Goebbels joins disparate elements to unite, at one moment pounding them together like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that won’t quite fit, the next letting them speak to one another in agreement.

This is an altogether evocative work. Like any self-respecting postmodernists, its creators always seem to implicate themselves in the very destructions they describe. Which is perhaps why the elevator is the perfect metaphor: its verticality is counterintuitive to the horizontal passage of human traffic. In that 90-degreee intersection lies more than a geometrical relationship, but something of a defining moment, a physical decay that can be felt in the indeterminacies of music-making, in the fragility of song, and in the power of speech.

<< Paul Hillier: Proensa (ECM 1368 NS)
>> Arvo Pärt: Passio (ECM 1370 NS)

Heiner Goebbels: Eislermaterial (ECM New Series 1779)


Heiner Goebbels

Ensemble Modern
Joseph Bierbichler voice
Recorded live October 1998 at Hebbel-Theater, Berlin
Engineer: Max Federhofer, SWR
ECM Records co-production with Ensemble Modern, Südwestrundfunk, Deutschlandfunk

“Fear is a false expression.”
–Hanns Eisler

Hanns Eisler (1898-1962) is the subject of Heiner Goebbels’s fascinating homage, which has become as beloved as the music that inspired it. Eisler was the third protégé, after Berg and Webern, of the Schönberg dodecaphonic school, and a German expatriate who fled with close friend/collaborator Bertold Brecht in the 1930s to the United States, where he would go on to compose two Oscar-nominated film scores (1943’s Hangmen Also Die!, for which Brecht also wrote the script, and None but The Lonely Heart one year later). Just as he was settling into his exile, however, Eisler was deported (he was among the first to find his name on the Hollywood blacklist), but not before a series of benefit concerts—sponsored by Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Charlie Chaplin, Igor Stravinsky, and Leonard Bernstein, to name an illustrious few—were given to raise funds for his defense. Virgil Thomson, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, said of the final program on 11 March 1948:

The impressiveness is due less to any profound originality, as in the case of his master, Arnold Schönberg, or in that of his sometime model, the German-language works of Kurt Weill, than to his graceful and to his delicate taste. Eisler’s music, whether the style of it is chromatic and emotional, diatonic and formalist, or strictly atonal in the dodecaphonic manner, always has charm. It has charm because the tunes are pretty, the textures bright and light, the expressive intentions thoroughly straightforward and clear. Eisler is that rare specimen, a German composer without weight. He uses no heaviness, makes no insistence.

When Eisler returned to East Berlin he penned the GDR’s national anthem amid a spate of intense musical activity, culminating in a Faustian opera that was characterized by Neues Deutschland as “a slap in the face of German national feeling” and therefore never completed. After the death of Brecht, Eisler’s disillusionment intensified and plunged him into depression, during which time he breathed his last.

Eisler and Brecht, 21 March 1950 (Bundesarchiv)

The dramaturgy of Eislermaterial calls for a small statue of its namesake to be placed at the center of the performance space: the surrogate conductor, standing in a field plotted like some gridless Go board. Befittingly, Eisler’s compositions make up the piece’s entirety. The resulting “assemblage” uses his many voices as raw materials for a tribute that shuns ideological heavy-handedness in favor of a bittersweet portrait comprised of lieder and relatively unknown instrumental pieces. The latter are artfully arranged and performed here by the discerning musicians of Ensemble Modern, who crack open the kinetic energy residing within. Of these, Suite for Septet No. 1 provides particularly delightful insight into this eclectic mind, while a fragment for string quartet is rendered all the more moving for being juxtaposed with a turn from his Orchestral Suite No. 3, which sounds like a big band falling down a flight of stairs. Wonderful.

Eisler statue, up close and in situ (photos by Matthias Cruetziger)

Surrounded as these are by nine of Eisler’s songs, they take on more than mere interludinal quality, rather embedding themselves like nodules of concentration. Eight of these are settings of poems by Brecht. Tones range from patriotic (Children’s Anthem) and nostalgic (And I shall never again see) to proletarian (Four Lullabies for Working Mothers), and cover such themes as adaptability (The Grey Goose), the visibility of privacy (Mother Beimlein), renewal (Of Sprinkling the Garden), and fatalism (War Song). On Suicide unfurls the set’s most pensive backdrop, both lyrically and musically:

In such a country and at such a time
There should be fewer melancholy evenings
And lofty bridges over the rivers
While the hours that link the night to morning
And the winter season too each year, are full of danger.
For having seen all this misery
People won’t linger
But will decide at once
To fling their too heavy life away.

A verse by Peter Altenberg closes the set with a melancholic picture of resignation: “Eventually, longing dies, too, / as blossoms languish in a cellar / waiting daily for a little sun.” The interpretations are sometimes augmented by stark contrasts, such as the scratchy free jazz solo of The Grey Goose and the morose rubato of Mother Beimlein. Singer Joseph Bierbichler makes no attempt to sing like Eisler and instead brings out subjective and endearing performances that are as genuine as they are vulnerable. Goebbels also includes two “Audio dramas,” making use of clips from the Eisler archive in true Glenn Gould fashion. In these we are treated to his thoughts on sound, culture, science, and contemplation, evoking an age of black and white imposed upon a world of horrid color.

The comprehensive booklet for Eislermaterial includes an interview with Goebbels, who credits Eisler with having jumpstarted his life in sound. Certainly, one need hardly look deeply to see the affinity. Not only did Goebbels find his own Brecht in Heiner Müller, but both he and Eisler have successfully united politics and music in such a way that one finds them impossible to separate in the listening and likewise to dilute in the thinking. Eisler was more than a Marxist cog with a creative streak, and no one is better suited than Goebbels to tell that story to its fullest. This is the most “filmic” of Goebbels projects and lends itself wisely to an aural and textual world bound by an undying love for theatre. A masterpiece on all counts and a crowd favorite among fans and newcomers alike.