On the compositional work of Heiner Goebbels

Heiner Goebbels once said that music has no home any more. This was not meant as support for the modern Schubert or Mahler nostalgia for artistic and existential homelessness. On the contrary, it was call for composers to leave the tower of genius built for them by traditional subjectivism and, once out in the open, listen to the spectrum of manifold sounds which the fresh wind of the medial age has been blowing round their ears. Goebbels himself has long since taken this path. He is a passionate aesthetic drifter. Admittedly, as a child he did play music within the family circle, and in his youth he was an avid concert-goer, but he soon became unfaithful to high culture. It was not until he had finished a degree in Sociology with a final dissertation on Hanns Eisler and spent several years on musical diversion via the Frankfurt "Spontaneous Music Scene" - as a member of the So Called Radical Left Wing Brass Band, and as experimental political musician in a duo with Alfred Harth - that he found his professional existence within music.

Heiner Goebbels slipped in late through a side door, and yet he had one foot in the camp from the very beginning. The dialectics of proximity and distance as a cultural elixir of life which keeps him in constant artistic motion. The only undamaged cord in his relationship with his cultural origin is his critical distance to it. And it is this that drives him out into the open: a tracker dog sniffing his way through the rubble of world cultures, on expedition into the media world, straying between the rigid categories of today's concert culture, crossing the demarcation line that separates composed and improvised music. He rejects established truths, be they traditional or Avantgarde, and a straight road, especially one that leads to Rome, does not exist for him. His artistic decisions are the result of inquisitive perception and practical experience. Thus the scrutinising of his own points of reference as well as those held by others has become second nature to him, so that by now the gesture of the free-roaming, of the meandering and searching movement has become inherent in his work as substantial and structural topes. The motor of choreographic sequences in Red Run, the sound of high-heeled shoes as a sampled loop in La Jalousie, the tentative advance into the forest in Herakles 2, the expedition farce in the theatre play Ou bien le débarquement désastreux (Or the Hapless Landing) - the list goes on at will.

The dialectic of moving away also constitutes Goebbels' relationship to the very music scene which some time ago cheerfully called itself "Avantgarde", for whom today - faute de mieux - all that remains is the increasingly vague generic term "new music". True, there is limited concurrence between his artistic interests and those of e composer of new music, and he does not search out discourse at any price. The fact is though, that with his compositional concepts he is constantly pushing his way in from the periphery to the well ordered centre of the scene, in the role of the returning adulterer to new music. For example, with the full-length orchestral work Surrogate Cities (1994), composed for the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, in which he exposes the aura-filled genre of the "Symphonic" to the cold beam of the headlights in the modern metropolis. If, in this composition, he disappoints the expectations of serious music; if he favours, when in doubt, the rhythmically compact Big-Band sound as opposed to structural precision work; if, carefree, he dissolves the grand symphonic form into a loose intricacy of single movements or groups of movements, then this is not mental laziness, but in keeping with an idea of the whole that does not want to be the secure whole any more, in the sense of the bourgeois Symphonic. Goebbels learned from Adorno that the whole is the untruth, and he learned well it's just that he values it differently: he does not mourn its demise in the sense of a negative aesthetic of modernity, but happily says yes to its breaking asunder and rummages with the enthusiasm of a collector and (re)discoverer around the flea-market of our antiquarian culture, where many a great tradition has ended up.

There are few European composers today that question the truism of the concert hall tradition with as strong a consequence as Goebbels does. That might well be due to the fact that he has, like John Cage, had a good look around the field of performing arts: in political music, radio play, theatre music, Noise Art, Jazz, Rock, stage performance. Experiences such as these sharpen the sensibility for aesthetic and institutional barriers within which the majority of composed new music today is stuck, or is even returning to increasingly and of its own accord.

Goebbels' relationship to new music is that of a continuous and critical interaction, practised at varying degrees of distance. In this, too, his attitude can be likened in some ways to Cage. However, there is a fundamental difference. It is this difference that reflects the shift in music-sociology that began in the Sixties, exactly the same shift that separates the two generations to which they respectively belong. Ostensibly this becomes apparent in the relationship to the audience. Whereas Cage did not become the besieged Gur7u of a new, intellectually hungry and by no means only young breed of urban people until he was into the last decade of his life, Goebbels has been moving through his audience practically from the very beginning like a fish in water. The criticism of new music which Cage articulated out of the niche he was given, Heiner Goebbels was able to formulate under the spotlight of the sold-out auditorium; in this he does not succumb to the danger of ingratiating himself with mediocre recognition - he studied Hanns Eisler's dialectical understanding of composition too thoroughly for that. His attack on the new concert hall music is aimed at its weak point, its traditional reticence toward the audience. What those thinkers at the vanguard of new music, schooled in modernity, have to learn from Goebbels' success is that the quality of the new, until now the criterion of legitimacy for the Avantgarde, is not necessarily linked to a lack of public resonance and that remaining inside the ivory tower alone does not guaranty the right to represent artistic truth.

Another difference to Cage is found in the attitude to material. Like Cage, Goebbels intends a different, more liberated practice in which the diverging elements of music cultures that are available nowadays are integrated in an encompassing aesthetic space. Contrary though to Cage's Buddhist influenced "everything is what it is", Goebbels does not have the latent tendency for value-free indifference toward the value of sounds, but consciously sets contradictory levels and carriers of meaning against each other. In this way, through play, new semantic constellations might emerge from within the heterogeneous fusion. For him, source materials have a basic capacity for language; out of their multifariousness he creates new contexts for language. In Surrogate Cities he implants the raw tones of the New York vocal acrobat David Moss into a Symphony orchestra, and, via sampler, the chanting of Jewish cantors; the stage piece Ou bien le débarquement désastreux combines African instrumentalists and singers, a French actor and electronic keyboard sounds; in his radio plays after Heiner Mueller, text, music and sound are orchestrated in such a way that one never illustrates the other, but the different levels illuminate and comment on each other. Or he robs established language patterns and form top of meaning; the listener is thereby challenged to fill the resulting semantic gaps with something new, using their own imagination and their talent to connect. It would be mistaken, for instance, to take the titles of the movements in the Sampler Suite of Surrogate Cities merely as references to baroque structural types. Goebbels has nothing to do with neo-classicism. On the contrary, the titles open up an iridescent cornucopia of association that reveals itself to the ear and can be expanded by the imagination. By relating heterogeneous elements to each other and connecting a variety of language codes, instead of merely arranging them next to each other in an unrelated, shock provoking manner as the Avantgarde modernity used to do in line with their aesthetic of provocation, his disposition is inter-discoursive. His preferred method when at play with music and language is the montage, his model the technique of film editing. In 1986 he confessed: "As composer I am at the moment much more inspired by films, by the technique of film, the flashbacks, the ways of telling stories, the effect of films, of the editing process, than by modern music. And I always wish that composers would work more like film makers, that they'd know exactly what they wanted to say, and on their way there, to try and think about the means they are using to achieve it."

Beginning and end are precisely set in Heiner Goebbels' compositions, and the overall structures are never aleatory, even if within the pieces - the best example being Red Run, written for the musicians of the Ensemble Modern improvisational passages are woven into the composition. In his work, form comes about via an assembled sequence of distinct settings. They are nonetheless, courtesy of a clever dramaturgy, interlocked, and the mapping of time as part of the form betrays a sensitive awareness of the paths of tension and the processes of inner perception. This becomes evident in the composition Befreiung (1989). Going by the development of energy, the overall structure of Befreiung can be depicted by a wide arch that abruptly snaps at the apex: the flow of energy breaks off within the free time structure of the coda, entitled "Letting Go", and characterised by the noise of bits of iron thrown on the ground, an acoustic signature of demolition. The formal framework, with the increasingly diminished sections and the transformation into a coda uninhibited by a metric structure, shows us the handwriting of a composer who knows that, prior to any ideological and stylistic implication, composition means first and foremost: the shaping of musical time and the processes of perception.

True, such method of composition is contrary to every abstract structural concept. True also that Heiner Goebbels is not an armchair protagonist. For him, composition is a social activity inside a group within which the "author" achieves the end product through a close collaboration with the performers - until now mostly with the musicians of the Ensemble Modern. This process continues until, and often beyond the performance where changes, cuts, additions are still possible. Composition, thereby, becomes a genuinely experience lead enterprise, its product a work in progress. It was through his years of experimenting with improvisational music that gave him the basis for this way of working; this in conjunction with his knowledge of the instrumental and vocal music which was, as a matter of course, not seen as "new", but which threatened, in more than one aspect, to dethrone "new music" of its title. In a paper entitled Prince and the Revolution which became a provocative manifesto against stagnant attitudes in new music he exclaimed: "Even within vocal music, which has for centuries been an influential source for academic music, voices suddenly emerged which through their degree of intensity and spectrum of ideas and expression opened a canon of sounds never heard before (Blixa Bargeld, Furious Pigs, Diamanda Galas, Arto Lindsay, David Moss, Phil Menton etc.). Academic music will not catch up with all that so fast, because other factors made it possible: not just individual innovation of one composer, but of a whole pool of musicians that influence, inspire, stimulate each other; a way of working which has to continually confront its social environment and economic conditions (e.g. the city of New York), an openness toward other media and a strength and speed of reaction that can only result from a sensitivity of experiencing reality."

He does not view himself as a composer of new music based on traditional patterns; to call him a pop musician would be to exclude the artificiality of his works; he is too much in touch with reality to be merely an ingenious deviser of sounds; and he is too self-critical and reflective for a zeitgeist surfer. Perhaps it is the apprehension of being fixed to this position that keeps him in constant movement between brackets; in the multimedial labyrinth of today's cultural landscape he finds plenty of escape routes and back doors by which he can avoid being defined and yet at the same time remain in the public eye. Perhaps Heiner Goebbels is seeking what Umberto Eco wrote about the American author Leslie Fiedler: "He simply wants to break down the barrier that has been erected between art and enjoyability: He feels that today reaching a vast public and capturing its dreams perhaps means acting as the Avantgarde; and he still leaves us free to say that capturing readers' dreams does not necessarily mean encouraging escape: it can also mean haunting them."
(Max Nyffeler)

(Slightly shortened version of an essay published in the "Zeitfluss 95" program book at the Salzburg Festival 1995.)

Max Nyffeler
Special print by Ricordi Music Publishers, Munich