Words move through music on stage

Heiner Goebbels’ new piece for voices and stage promises to be vintage stuff from this great Frankfurt experimentalist, but vintage, too, in escaping all categorisation. I went to the house but did not enter has, as a title, his usual absence of any clue to a story, but it would be pointless to look for one.
It comes from a short fiction of 1949, The Madness of the Day, by reclusive French writer Maurice Blanchot, who died five and a half years ago. So reclusive was he that no known photos of Blanchot exist and he was described, in one obituary, as acting “as though he were already dead”. The author always claimed that his “books were posthumous”.
“I went to the house but did not enter,” reads Blanchot’s narrative (at paragraph eighteen: it runs to forty). “Through the opening, I saw the black edge of a courtyard.
I leaned against the outer wall; I was really very cold. As the cold wrapped around me from head to foot, I slowly felt my great height take on the dimensions of this boundless cold; it grew tranquilly, according to the laws of its true nature, and I lingered in the joy and perfection of this happiness, for one moment my head as high as the stone of the sky and my feet on the pavement. All that was real; take note.”
This doubtful precision - oxymoron intended - is ideal for the twilight, surreal world of Heiner Goebbels, who has long enjoyed incorporating the fugitive words of elusive (usually dead) authors into his music theatre. He loves Blanchot for his indeterm-inacy, his strangeness - a writer, moreover, he considers badly underrated in Germany and whom he admires, not least of all, for being the first to espouse, in France, one of his favourite literary figures: Franz Kafka.
Kafka was the 20th century’s first existentialist, infinitely greater in his examinations of doubt and terror than later, more fashionable Europeans who made existentialism a buzz word after the Second World War. With Blanchot, Kafka makes an (albeit brief) appearance in I went to the house but did not enter, alongside, more substantially, T.S.Eliot and Samuel Beckett. All are authors who, in the texts on which this show is based, fundamentally distrust fixity.
Goebbels responds as acutely to such open-ended writing as he does to the sounds in his head (when, indeed, asked to compose something - he works to nothing other than commission):
“I am attracted to things which don’t have only one meaning,” he says. “When I worked, for over a decade, with Heiner Müller , and to whom I was close, he said, clearly, `You should never nail a text just to one meaning.’ So for me a text which offers a certain quality, which you can read, and re-read, and re-re-read, and in so doing always discover other levels of open perspective - in literature, that’s the most attractive thing.”
I talk to Heiner Goebbels in a quiet, book-lined corner of Berlin’s Wissenschaftskolleg, where he has just finished a year-long tenure as fellow. It is a bright July morning and we’ve quickly got on to literature. But of course I went to the house but did not enter
has a musical genesis:
“This is the first time the Hilliard Ensemble have worked theatrically. And the fact that they have not worked like this before might have been the starting-point for the commission. It was not my idea. I have difficulties with the institution of an opera house, but after my last major piece, Landscape with Distant Relations, I got all these opera requests - which I turned down - but one in particular came from some American promoters, to do something with the Hilliard Ensemble: a twenty-minute multimedia piece, for them to include in one of their normal programmes.
“I was immediately attracted. Yet I hate this idea of the multimedia cliché,
with, say, four musicians in front and a big screen at the back, doing something with video. I thought if I want the media to interact, then I need to do much more careful work, more time, and to develop things in a process. So I said, `Yes, I would love to collaborate with them, but I would prefer to do a complete evening and not just one element in a normal programme.’ ”
Goebbels has neither a preconceived plan nor pre-existing score. But asked whether the four Hilliard members help with the composing, Goebbels answers with a crisp “no”. Material has evolved in, as he says, a process - a word Goebbels is fond of -
in which the singers, through isolated periods of rehearsal (in May of last year, in March of this, then, in Switzerland, in August, shortly before the show’s world première at the Edinburgh Festival), try things out, discard ideas and retain others.
This risks a result of mere bits and pieces; cards thrown on to the floor, suitless, out of sequence. Goebbels admitted some time ago in an interview with BBC radio in London that he has to be careful of being thought of as a “collagist”:
“Yes, I think it’s a danger. The more possibilities you have, the bigger the danger is. So the more preparation and careful investigation and research beforehand, the better.”
“Composer” is, then, a word that frustratingly bounces off this polyvalent artist. Stage design, musical ideas, dramaturgy, lighting: all are his. He creates idiosyncratic magic that fits no conventional form (for me the swirling, skirted dervishes of Landscape with Distant Relations remains, amongst many of Goebbels’s which stick, one of the most engrossing stage images of the last decade: I still don’t know why they were there).
To that extent Goebbels is unique in his - well, I was going to say “field”, but it is not clear to what field or discipline he belongs. He doesn’t even particularly care for the term “music theatre”, preferring, for I went to the house..., “staged concert”.
This seems accurate. As we talk in Berlin, it is clear Goebbels has figured out what he wants for the new piece, with twofold inspiration from three significant 20th-century texts and four significant singers schooled in early music. But more interestingly, it is clear what he doesn’t want:
“Until now, I’ve made a point of avoiding the classically-trained voice, because somehow I’ve always missed a unique identity there. The Hilliard Ensemble is different. With this group, when they sing together, new territory is gained through the homogen-eity of their four voices, and also in the way they work together.”
At this point in our chat, Goebbels leaps out of his armchair. He swings his arms
around, and his normally subdued tone rises to shake our hideaway:
“When you work with four actors or four opera singers, you always have someone in rehearsal saying, `YOU ARE DOING THIS’ or `LET ME PLAY THIS ROLE’.”
He sits down and resumes speaking gently into my Dictaphone - in total, for over an hour.
In rehearsal, Goebbels never shouts. He guides: he directs by stealth and insin-uation. And this new show is not loud. From the start, its creator was won over by the Hilliard’s restraint and he has moulded his stage material from that, and from unobtru-sive textual suggestion.
The texts span sixty-six years of the 20th century. Between each lie just over thirty years, yet they have much in common. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” of 1917 is one of the first poems in English to strip the “I” of primacy. Indeed, its entire 131
lines are an exploration of an ego dismantled of empirical potency, admiring almost of his - its - vacuity: “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?” In the Blanchot,
a story is being told, but no framework is provided, no lead attached to a narrative collar; were the text a dog, it would be free, sleek and swift, but with no idea of where it was running. The reader walks along but can’t keep up. It is lucid, fascinating but perplexing.
Worstward Ho, published in 1983, is a late prose-poem by Beckett, a masterpiece written some seven years before his death. Deliberately, humorously, it strains at syntax and sense, yet coheres through a subtle musical rhythm in a quest for a story its perpetrator is almost sure cannot be told (there’s no “I” at all here). A journey is embarked upon, but barely allowed to begin: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
It is characteristic of all of Goebbels’s work to be thematically indistinct, just as these texts mainly are, but, also, wonderfully constructed. He might not be a “collagist”, but he is a builder, a manufacturer of moods and images which shy away from a centre.
His self-description is unimproveable:
“Apart from my musical training, there’s a strong visual element in my biography, in the visual arts, starting from the age of sixteen. But I also read a lot in my youth, discovering a quality of poetic literature in short texts which had never been tried out on stage before. I was always less interested in the dramatic texts of theatre, more in the little prose inserts in the programmes, or in poems: non-dramatic literature. I have a tendency to look for the opposite of drama: something focussed away from a single protagonist who might otherwise be there just to mirror the desires of the audience. I’d rather let the audience discover something in a decentralised image.”
Goebbels will take his audiences for I went to the house but did not enter right up to the very building, and pose questions. We will be left to explore the rooms - though home comforts will not abound. Challenges, and mystery, will.


James Woodall is a writer and critic based in Berlin. For six years, he was an arts correspondent there for the Financial Times and, in 2006, began to write for The Economist. His books include a history of flamenco (1992), a biography of Jorge Luis Borges (1996) and an account of musical travels through Brazil, A Simple Brazilian Song (1997). In 1997, Rowohlt Berlin published his biography of John Lennon and Yoko Ono which sold over 10,000 copies in Germany and has gone on to be translated into over a dozen languages.

James Woodall
March 2003
Monatsheft März 09 des théâtre vidy, Lausanne