Heiner Goebbels: Q&A

(1) How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?

I never do that

(2) In both Songs of Wars I Have Seen and Sampler Suite you make extensive use of ‘sampling’ (either digitally or live by including quotations from existing (baroque) music) – how did you first become interested in using this within your compositions and what do you feel it adds to the music?

Long before a sampler was built I already worked with tapes and other documentary materials, because I wanted to integrate acoustic sources and confrontate cultural spheres, which normally can’t be experienced in a concert hall. I don’t believe we can actually discover new sounds in the 21st century (and even Lachenman n meanwhile agrees to that), but as composers we can draw the attention to contexts, to conventions, to listening habits and to reflect production methods and performance strategies. And with all that we can discuss a contemporary concept of art, in which the role of the listener might become more important than the development of the musical material itself.

(3) What role do you think music has to play in commenting on issue of society, politics or everyday moden life? And, is this important for it to have a meaningful future rather than a niche existence?

I am sceptical that music can do that. But to our surprise sometimes something - which is rather far away from us in a safe artistic distance - might touch us in a way, which becomes nowadays an important experience for us. It depends from the chances, how much we can discover in an art work . I don’t believe you can actually transmit political messages in a more direct intentional way.

(4) Why is interdisciplinary working, such as combining music with theatre, important to you?

Because even an audience in a concert can’t exclude their visual experience. And the irritation about changing priorities in our perception – the question what is more important: to look or to hear ? - can be very constructive.

Songs of Wars I Have Seen

(5) Why did you choose the subject of women and domestic life during war when you were commissioned by Southbank Centre for a piece to celebrate the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall?

It was Gertrude Stein who choose this topic a long time ago. I just found it. And there were several reasons, why it made sense with this comission: In her book “Wars I have seen” Gertrude Stein had defined ‘history is repeating’, and she compares wars and violence in the 20th century with a history as it was already described in Shakespeare’s plays. This gave me first of all an excellent possibility to combine the two ensembles London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra in the Age of Enlightenment, who are so dedicatetd to different historical periods.

(6) And why Gertrude Stein... is she an author you’ve been interested in for some time?

I discovered the somehow liberating meditative quality of her writing very inspiring and heard that at the funeral service of Heiner Mueller, when Bob Wilson was reading some pages of her book “The Making of Americans” in January 1996. Since then I have realised a theatre sketch at the documenta X in Kassel, 1997, the music theatre piece “Hashirigaki” in 2000 (with music by the Beach Boys, shown in London in Barbican), and my first opera “Landscape with distant relatives” where I started my work on “Wars I have seen” for the first time . But I had the feeling this could be developed further and on its own for the two ensembles.

(7) What were the challenges of writing for an ensemble that combines period instruments and contemporary music specialists?

Not the pitch, as everybody assumed. I just ignored it and transposed the parts for the period instruments. It is rather the different attitude to the instruments, to the body, to written music in general, which I found interesting to discover. They play an important role in the performance and create that delicate intensity.

(8) Listening to the electronic soundtrack at the premiere was fascinating – personally, it gave me the impression of being in an underground bunker perhaps listening to the crackle of a radio or with someone on a typewriter – how is it constructed, what sounds do you use?

I am happy to hear your associations. I just used one little sound, a few seconds long, from my opera and processed it through several electronic devices quiet violently so that it became an half an hour soundtrack in the end. I am deeply superstitious about the coherence of the used material, so I try to avoid any sort of deliberate sources.

(9) What were your impressions of the first performance in July 2007?

I was completely surprised by the reception and the success of this performance, because I was sceptical before. It is always risky to create a performance, which is not based on the classical intensity of dramatic solistic expression and dynamics. “Songs of Wars I have seen” is a very quiet, discrete reading of the book with some lousy besidelamps and with not much happening outside on stage; so I was very happy to realise how much was obviously happening inside the listeners.
It was another risk to ask musicians to do that rather than to ask actors. But I believe that an amateur attitude with such a text can be more true and touch us more than a professional one. The musicians don’t try to represent an authentic experience – which is impossible anyway – and by that truth they are able to give us something real!

(10) Have you made any change to the piece for these forthcoming performances?


(11) Are there any conscious resonances or messages within the work about more recent wars in the Balkans, Africa, Afghanistan or Iraq and the threat of terrorism?

No. I don’t believe in intentional connections and actual references. This is the part for the audience and their imagination. This piece is not a message and it doesn’t has one. It’s a public reading of Stein’s Book and you can make up your mind specially because in her constant chattiness telling private stories during the second world war, she doesn’t give you a hint, what is most important and what is not: her dog the shoes, the chicken, the honey, the bombs on the Italians or the prisoner in the trains.

(12) What else, if anything, do you think the audience need to know about the piece before they hear it?


Sampler Suite?

(13) This is part of a larger collection of works – Surrogate Cities – how do these all relate to each other?

Roughly, like the different parts of a city. Only because you hear it in the same concert they belong to the same acoustic building, But even the order is not strictly fixed. You can enter a city from different sides.

(14) Why did you model a work which is ostensibly about modern urban life on baroque keyboard suites?

The baroque form of a suite is a loose order of individual movements in different temperatures – which I always liked. It doesn’t mean more.

(15) Can you explain the intriguing double titles that some of the movements have... Some are obvious - such as Chaconne/Kantorloops - or puns - Air/Compression - but others are less so - for example Sarabande/N-Touch?

It gives you another image together with the baroque title. The movements are all abstract images on concrete topics.

(16) The sampled material is eclectic – from 1920s recordings of Jewish kantors to city sounds – so how did you select this material and what is its significance within the score?

First of all I should clear that misunderstanding. There are no city sounds. There are only sounds from collegues, musicians who live in big cities, such as Tokyo, New York, Lyon etc. but they are already musical translations of urban living. I am not sure I can always reconstruct why I selected specially these sounds. It might have had to do with the quality of a general validity for this urban image I was looking for: so I have chosen sounds which don’t want to mean something, but sounds which are something by themselves in their materiality. I don’t want you to recognize anything (there is nothing to recognize) but I want to open these acoustic images for your own imagination.

(17) It is noticeable that you are not afraid, unlike many composers, to use tonality within your work – why is this and how does a contemporary composer use it in a context that doesn’t sound clichéd or pastiche?

I am aware that the originality and modernity of an artwork never only depends from the material but from its context. Atonality is not a value by itself. And tonality can be as important as its opposition, the dissonance, f.e. by noises. But even the noises have a pitch, which I respect! Atonality is not a value by itself and I don’t have a pedagogical attitude towards the audience.

(18) Again, is there anything else you think the audience need to know about the piece before they hear it?

No. I generally think my works should be accessable by itself, not by any sort of introduction.

And more generally...

(19) Which other living composer’s music would you like to have written, and why?

This question is to general. Maybe here a piece from Louis Andriessen and there piece of Lachenmann or Stevie wonder. But maybe not even the entire piece ...only a part of it, sometimes the beginnings are better than the rest.

(20) What are your top 5 favourite albums of all time?

5 are not enough, rather 5 Gygabite; among them there must be some Bach, of course; some Joao Gilberto, Beatles and Beach Boys (Pet Sounds), Prince, Ambitious Lovers, The Hilliard Ensemble etc...

(21) What does the London Sinfonietta mean to you?

A lot of work!

(22) If you weren’t a composer/musician what other sort of artist do you think you might be?

A singer (Tenor) for Lieder, a filmmaker, a visual artist or better: an architect.

Doug Buist
November 2008