PERFORMANCE AS COMPOSITION
Heiner Goebbels interviewed by Stathis Gourgouris
For more than two decades the German composer Heiner Goebbels has written music for theatre, ballet, opera, radio, TV, and concert hall as well as tape compositions and sound installations. He has created music for many theatre productions, such as Dantons Death, directed by Ruth Berghaus, and Richard III, directed by Claus Peyman. In recent years New York audiences have been introduced to his work with performances of Hashirigaki at the BAM Next Wave Festival and Eislermaterial and Black on White with the Ensemble Modern at the Lincoln Center Festival. Goebbels had worked frequently with the texts of Heiner Müller, including The Liberation of Prometheus, Shadow/Landscape with Argonauts, Wolokolamsk Highway, and The Man in the Elevator, seen in New York at The Kitchen within days of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It featured Müller himself reading his text, accompanied by the musicians Don Cherry, Arto Lindsay, George Lewis, and Ned Rothenberg. Other authors whose writings have been used in musical settings are Gertrude Stein, Poe, Thoreau, Robbe-Grillet, and Kierkegaard. Paul Auster's In the Country of Lost Things was featured in Surrogate Cities . Heiner Goebbels' music is performed frequently in festivals on several continents (www. heinergoebbels. com). In 2003, Sir Simon Rattle conducted his orchestra piece, From a Diary, in its Berlin Philharmonic premiere. This interview was conducted in New York, March 19, 2003.
Welcome to the United States! I extend the greeting in the fashion that Frank Zappa does in his piece with the Ensemble Modern, but with the present moment in mind. I wanted to ask the art-in-relation-to-politics question last, and I feel I have to ask it at the outset because the historical occasion demands it. So, I would like you to consider the problem that one's art can never entirely control the context of its performance. The New York performance of your piece Hashirigaki happens to coincide with the initiation of the bombing campaign in Iraq. If nothing else, this is what the audience brings to the theatre; its thought and affect is weighed down by this occasion, whether acknowledged or not.
I doubt that an artist has much of an influence on the political relevance of his artistic work. If art is too much on purpose, if its destination is too obvious, it loses certain qualities as artwork. As Heiner Müller points out: "It is like harnessing a horse to a car. The car doesn't run well and the horse doesn't survive it either." So I think it's good that the artist does not completely control the political context of a performance. Especially if you are a political artist and you want the work to be open to the world, to whatever occurs out there, I think one day or another you will face such a coincidence. It is much better than to pretend that your work is imminently actualized. I'm very skeptical about direct political relation between artistic statement and the message to the audience. Once you're working in an openminded way, I trust that sooner or later the work will come to breathe in the situation around it. I'm not sure how this will come to be with Hashirigaki, which is rather colorful and playful and perhaps light, except to say that the piece already stands in a strong controversial position toward my other work, which is rather dark and concrete. I just finished an opera in Geneva, called Landscape with Distant Relatives, where I also used texts by Gertrude Stein, from Wars I Have Seen, which she wrote during the Second World War in the south of France. Texts she wrote sixty or seventy years ago nowadays seem as if they were written yesterday. It's much better this way: to discover, almost by an accident, the political importance in the material than to pretend there is such importance in advance. This pertains as well to Eislermaterial.
I don't deny the historical difference between this piece now and Hanns Eisler's situation. In fact, I do the opposite. I rather enlarge the differences by putting the original musical material in a sound-frame which is quite "old-sounding" (with the harmonium, the big bass drum and the particular way of singing), precisely in order to allow the audience to discover how close a connection it can feel to this sound, or how touched it can be by this nostalgic material. I prefer that the audience discovers this on its own than insisting on how important and actual his work is nowadays.
In fact, I had Eisler in mind as well. I asked the previous question in the way one would ask it of Hanns Eisler in the 1940s. During the war and in exile Eisler similarly did not have control over the context of his performances compared to the way he did, let us say, during the time of performing Die Mütter around Germany, in 1932.
Actually, I just saw a Berliner Ensemble performance of Die Mütter. It's very interesting how these words fall now on completely different ground than even ten years ago. I mean, in the 80s everybody would be so provoked by their strangeness; they sounded so far away. While now — unfortunately, I have to say — the floor is ready again for such words.
The story between you and Eisler is a very long story, as you have acknowledged. But also it's evident in the recordings, the history of your recordings. I’m very interested in your various glosses on Eisler and I've gone back recently even to your earlier work. You obviously revisit Eisler's work, as if drawing from an unending pool. The record you did with Alfred Harth in 1976 (Vier Fäuste für Hanns Eisler ) is a bit of a deconstruction of specific Eisler tunes or even his tonalities in general; the word "deconstruction" is overused, but I can't think of a better one here. While Eislermaterial is not quite a deconstruction; it's a sort of distillation, a contemplation of the core material of Eisler. And there is lots of work in between. I'm not sure how I'd categorize the Duck and Cover performance (1985)in this respect. And certainly, the brass group you founded in the late 70s, Sogenanntes Linksradikales Blasorchester, had a distinctive Eislerian feel, though it was also very loose structurally. How is all this connected for you, both musically but also politically?
I think all this started in the mid-70s. Listening to Eisler changed my life. His work conveyed to me that there is a way in which music and politics can be linked, not by forming one layer upon another but by incorporating the political within the musical material. That's what I learned from him, and that's what made my decision to study music after sociology. So, I owe him a lot. And, as you said, I performed a lot of his work before I discovered different modes of working, like literary texts, etc. But when I got this commission for his 100th anniversary, in 1998, I discovered that even when I had sort of "forgotten" him Eisler was always there. Even during my close collaboration with an author who is considered a grandchild of Bertolt Brecht — you know, when I was working with Heiner Müller — I never thought of Eisler, perhaps because of a different mode of working. With Müller, I worked with literary texts that rest on a notion of landscape or on texts and music where the two elements are competitive with each other, whereas Eisler worked differently with texts; he composed songs. But, of course, this way of accepting literary texts as an authority for the music is ultimately very closely related to the work of Eisler and Brecht. And it's nice to discover after twenty years of working in different areas that an undercurrent relation was always there.
We've been talking about Eisler but your work as a whole belongs not just to Eisler but to
Brecht as well in a direct sense. And again, not merely to the Brecht/Eisler duo as composer and lyricist but to both of them as dramatic and performative artists. Brecht as a dramaturg, I believe, is crucial to your performative understanding and it is in this sense that I see your association with Heiner Müller. All of this constellation belongs to the great tradition of Musik Drama in German art, but explicitly politicized. (I would include Adorno's reading of Wagner in this as well. )How do you situate yourself in this tradition? In what sense is music a dramatic performance for you?
I always considered music to be boring without an external frame of reference. Music was most interesting to me when it had a reference to the non-musical world. If this reference wasn't there then music was just a private thing for me even in the earlier days. So, I started to do a lot of olm scores and compose with words and rarely did "autonomous" musical work until the late--80s or early-90s. That's why I think I discovered, with the help of Eisler of course, that there must be a gesture in music. Music which chatters away does not interest me. I can see the circumstances of my musical biography as quite logical actually. In my development I came to include more and more media, but I didn't start that way and didn’t use them all at once but moved from one into another and so on. But the basic assumption — music reacting or referring to other art forms or other forms of perception — has been with me since the beginning. I like Bach and that's where I come from, not Chopin, for example, where the pianistic virtuosity will always be celebrated.
It's funny, I had in my notes here a sort of off-beat question, which I might as well ask now. What does Eisler owe to Bach?
The effect is quite direct. Actually, there have been certain musicological studies in
Germany which have pointed to passages in Eisler exemplifying direct quotes from Bach, like in the beginning of the Die Mütter cantata, where it is quite evident. He loved the functionality of Baroque music. There are also direct quotes from Schubert, by the way.
I remembered thinking this when I first heard some of Eisler's cantatas. I had gotten my first recordings in East Berlin around 1980. Nowadays, much of this has been transferred to CDs, including the great historic recordings of the pre-Nazi years with Ernst Busch singing. The arrangements are quite remarkable.
So, you would have heard the recordings where Eisler sings himself. For me this was hugely important. Hearing Eisler singing the Ballade von der haltbaren Graugans (Ballad of the Grey Goose)made me think of using the saxophone instead of going directly to the words, because the singing sounded so instrumental, the way he used his voice, amazing.
Yes, there is a whole way of singing in this, let's say, epic theatre tradition that's quite compelling. It's a whole new sense of musical performativity and Eisler was entirely selfconscious of its importance. But I want to come back to the question about Musik Drama and Heiner Müller particularly. How did you become so extensively involved with his work? What is the importance of his work for you musically and dramatically? I mean not just the poetry itself (which is singular and barely evaluated as poetry outside Germany), but his whole conceptualization or perhaps his method. Is it a matter of method?
I think that, generally speaking, the kinds of texts I like to work with are always by authors who strongly consider the matter of literary form and structure as important as the content, the semantics. Hence the few authors that reach this level for me: Gertrude Stein and Heiner Müller — who have a lot in common, by the way — and Kafka, and Edgar Allan Poe in a way, because he was able to instrumentalize his style toward the intention of his text; he could slip into different paths of writing. This is the basic view I have on literary texts, which is not only on what they tell but on how they tell. And if this question of "how" has a musical dimension,, like the rhythm in Gertrude Stein or the substantial reduction to single words in Heiner Müller, then I can work, then I have something to do, because I can make this syntax transparent. I can try to enlarge the view on the architecture of the text, to read the text with a magnifying glass. My interest is to share my observations with the reader or with the listener or, looking behind the authors' way of writing, to show some of their writing strategies, to be able to understand more levels than just the overall semantic one.
So, you are in a sense, as a musician and a composer, acting as a reader of literature, making the reading of literature the primary mode of making music. That's a fascinating way to go about it.
That's right. Reading as a form of composition.
You know, I remember your performance of Heiner Müller's The Liberation of Prometheus, which I saw at Delphi, in the ancient stadium in 1995, and remains still one of the most memorable theatrical experiences of my life. It was the closest I ever came to having some sort of understanding of what Aeschylean theatre might have looked like, which had always been a mystery — the idea of the one actor, particularly.
It's interesting you say that because you have experienced so much Greek theatre.
Well, I was astonished. And I came there knowing the Müller text very well. The one scene that really got through to me was the one where Hercules is circling around the rock because the stench from the encrusted feces is so intolerable, and he is circling around the rock for three thousand years, as the text says, and then another three thousand years, and so on, trying to find the proper angle for ascent. And the way you did this, with Ernst Stötzner going way out to the end of the stadium, which from the audience's point of view on the front end, where the performance space is set up, is pitch black, with only the shadows of the tips of the trees from the surrounding woods showing over the Delphi gorge and the starry sky overhead, so that you lose all sense of proportion, just like in the text. But the sheer feel of the experience was profoundly theatrical, though the essence of the performance was musical, strictly speaking. The drama came through the musical performance, not through the acting in the conventional sense, though Stötzner is a brilliant actor, no doubt. The point is that the whole thing was extraordinarily theatrical without any "traditional" theatrical elements. But the key for this scene, you see, is in the sentence itself. The complexity of the sentence is performing exactly the difficulty of Hercules to reach Prometheus because the sentence doesn't reach the point without a lot of grammatical obstacles. The circling and circling creates obstacles and you can't understand finally, you can't reach the point of resolution of meaning, let's say. Especially not with the first reading.
Let's extend this way of looking at things to the Schliemann piece you did. First of all, what is the connection between the theatrical piece, Schliemann Scaffolding (1997) and the earlier musical piece, Schliemann's Radio (1992)?
I did a piece in Frankfurt in 1990, collaborating with a set designer, Michael Simon. We called it excavations and his diaries. And he did this amazing set — it was exactly somehow what I just described about the sentence of Heiner Müller. He emptied out the whole theatre — the audience was only sitting in the balcony — and he put in there a giant mobile machine with a set of buildings which he reconstructed from Schliemann's plan of the wall of Troy. So, in a very customary way, he put together the sketch of the ruins of Troy in a three-dimensional constantly moving machine-like thing. It was a wonderful work, in which we included the texts of the diary. But when we performed it we took all the texts out — we thought it was better without text — so it was like a big installation of sound and music, voices, etc. For the radio version, I brought back the diary text.
It's interesting because in my sense of the radio piece it seems as if Schliemann, in his observations, might be making a field recording, which is obviously a form of music as well as history. There is a real sense of almost ethnographic space inscribed in the music.
Yes, in fact when I did the recording in the studio I cleared out an area on the floor where the performer would walk around in front of the wall of inscriptions. In the theatrical performance we subsequently did in Greece, I enriched the written material, and wrote a part for the "folk singer," which was performed by Lydia Koniordou. 1 It was real fun working there. It premiered in Volos.
Yes, I remember. I wasn't in Greece then, but my friends, who knew of my interest in your work, sent me lots of press clippings. It was quite exciting. And seeing the video later I was impressed with the way you used Greek music. Which brings me to another set of notes I have here, concerning your ability to weave together lots of, let us say, "non-European" musical material with your own. The work you did with the African musical aterial in Ou bien le débarquement désastreux (1993) was particularly impressive — these passages with the kora, the electric guitar, and the trombone, all woven in a contrapuntal relation to each other. What concerns me is the question of how we can avoid, when intertwining all sorts of musical and cultural elements, a sort of postmodern bricolage, a kind of mixing of commodities? Might we speak of a certain dramatic ethos perhaps, or a musical ethos, all of which is also a specific politics? How do we avoid this trap?
Well, I try to be very aware of this trap, and I try to construct a lot of criteria to which I then submit my choice of material. In the case of both pieces you mentioned, in the process of one or two years in advance, I created a system of outlines, which I probably install in my body because I'm not able to be totally conscious of all this, that serve as a system of criteria. I then pour through this system my musical material, and whatever falls through it I throw out. And only what remains along with these criteria I then use. For example, the sound choice in Ou bien le débarquement désastreux was completely faithful to whatever has to do with wood, because the forest was somehow one of the elements that patched together this choice of texts of Heiner Müller, Francis Ponge, and Joseph Conrad. Behind this theme of conquest and estrangement, there was a whole metaphoric substratum built on the different ideas of forest. So I only chose sound material that fit into that. I'm quite superstitious concerning material. In the Schliemann work, I, but it was in fact a piece about Schliemann's, was very aware that all the materials must have their roots around some center, which I tried to keep open of course, but they were all related to this center before I chose them.
A thing that remains consistently fascinating in your music is the entwinement of composition and improvisation. Can you speak a little bit about how you understand this entwinement? How improvisation might in fact be composition in itself? Or, how it might be linked to performance?
I think improvisation is the last step in what I describe as building a system of criteria; it's the last step in using musical material, not the first step. In this whole long process of composition, I always allow myself to improvise as well, but I do so because I think that the paths which are already in place are so limited, so defined by what I may have been doing in the period of contextualizing the material, that whatever I may be improvising will necessarily be within the path of composition. So yes, I do allow myself to improvise in the composition process, but in the very end everything is completely precise. Though music will not always be written down, it will be completely precise in the way it is appointed. For instance, in The Liberation of Prometheus there is not one note written down, but every show is like every other. You see, there is a lot of freedom in creating a very precise window of music to which all the musicians agree.
Since we're talking directly about making music, let me ask you: do you still play the saxophone?
No. I haven't played for probably... I don't even remember... fifteen years maybe.
Do you miss it?
No, I only learned it in three months to be able to found this brass band. It was by virtue of a certain musical-political perspective, in many ways already prescribed by my university research on Hanns Eisler, with which I completed my sociology studies. And I'm sure there were a couple of biographical strong impressions which helped me to think this up: a lot of free jazz concerts in the early 70s, as well as some other experimental brass groups, like De Volharding, around Louis Andriessen in Amsterdam. The nice thing with this band was that it balanced out all kinds of different origins of musicianship. There were professional musicians and composers, like my teacher Rolf Riehm, or other colleagues from the music conservatory, and also jazz players, like Alfred Harth and Christoph Anders. And there were also politically interested musical dilettantes. And so we came nicely together and were able to balance our interests in a very open and frank ensemble sort of way. It is here that I also learned about collective judgment in relation to various commitments, to decisions about where to perform, or what to perform, how to learn a piece, how to compose it, etc. — you know, collective judgment in musical terms in the widest sense — which was very helpful and constructive. I never considered these decisions to get in the way of my aesthetic point of view. I found it a very helpful experience to accept that, as a composer, you don't have to be alone in your room. It was very important for me.
Well, you have always worked collectively and collaboratively. This is self-evident in the entire range of your work over the years.
Yes, that's why the collaboration with the Ensemble Modern was so workable. You see, the political challenge begins for me with the ways of production. As the German film critic Georg Seesslen recently pointed out, "an artwork with many participants and collaborators, like in film or theatre, has to reflect the internal relationships. As an experienced spectator you can easily see if the director uses the actors and musicians in a hysterical repressive authoritarian way, or if he is able to create with them in a fruitful atmosphere. You can see by the performance if the director is an asshole." I try an open process, in which every light technician or wardrobe assistant can easily make suggestions and everyone in the crew always has a fair chance to make the best out of his field (light, sound, stage, costume, musicians, performers etc.). It ends up being very precise, of course, because the combination of all these media can only work properly with precision. Black on White wouldn't have been possible without the strong inspiration and creativity not only by the staff, but also all the musicians included. They proposed to bring instruments; they developed characters, atmospheres, gestures, etc. Also, the fact that the music seems to have diverse cultural backgrounds, the fact that three different languages are spoken (and in the latest opera six!) is not a postmodern invention, but only the outcome of the internationality of the Ensemble: with American, Australian, French, South American, British, Japanese, Swiss, Indian and, of course, German players. You can hear it in the piece. This piece is musically designed to be a portrait of a collective, not based on special solo protagonists. I hope that an audience is able to conceive this respectful, decentralized perspective as a political quality, a gesture that liberates the senses. And with Eislermaterial especially, I tried to build three or four different ways of how the musicians can incorporate the material instead of just playing the parts. Because, you know, the Ensemble Modern play some hundred concerts a year; they perform works from all sorts of different composers. But, thinking entirely in terms of Eisler, I wanted them to incorporate, to embody, the material: first of all, by not giving them a conductor, which means that each player must know exactly what everybody else plays; second, by having them participate in the process of arranging the material (who plays what); third, asking them to improvise on the material, which demands that everyone must be very aware of what they are riding on; fourth, by choosing a stage construction that, as you've seen in the video, is three sides of a square on an empty stage. This means to amplify and make public the necessary communication of them performing without a conductor, indeed by including the audience as an important fourth part, fourth side. It becomes sort of a Lehrstück in a way, because the musicians have to go through this experience learning the material. When they're playing a very intimate string trio, for example, the violin, viola, and cello are in entirely different sides of the set, having the biggest distance between them, fifteen meters or so. And when they have to communicate on this intimate passage even the last row of the audience will note it because it is so public.
That's fascinating. You know, Frank Zappa's work with the Ensemble Modern strikes me as very similar in this way, although not the splitting up of musicians. But he also spent a long time teaching them to improvise with a certain attitude, a non-musical, performative tonality, if I may say it that way. But they are, of course, extraordinary musicians.
That's not the main point. Of course, they are incredible virtuosi, extraordinary musicians. But the real difference is that they are a self-organized ensemble, and this makes their motivation so much higher than in the case of an orchestra where an artistic director tells them "tomorrow you play Eisler" and the day after whatever else, and then "we get a break."That's the difference. They decide whether they want to work with me, where to perform, what to do next, etc. As musicians, they decide collectively on all aspects of the ensemble, musical and non-musical aspects.
The way we are talking is leading me to ask about rock music. I don’t know why. Maybe cause we are talking about the group process. I wouldn't identify you as a rock musician but the presence of rock music is all over your work. So, what is the importance of rock music for you? How have you found yourself inhabiting this domain over the years, or maybe, if not inhabiting it, going in and out of it at different times, traversing it? Is it a matter of a certain kind of sound, a certain ethos, a matter of technology, of performance?
I grew up with classical music in my parents' house and with pop music. There was no experience of contemporary music otherwise. I was very interested in visual arts, contemporary visual arts. But pop music was my most important influence after classical music. And my first way of liberating myself from teachers who taught me the classical repertoire was to play songs that I heard on the radio, songs of the Beatles, the Beach Boys. Later on, I had a band and we played Eric Burden, Jimi Hendrix pieces, whatever. But this is how I learned a certain freedom, primarily in the way of performance, non-conducted performance, and definitely the freedom in creating music together as a group, which is really the most important thing about rock music. I mean, what is Paul McCartney without John Lennon? Even if John Lennon didn't write as much, even if they didn't actually write everything together or equally every part, etc., it is by the very discussions they had about the material, by the encounter itself, that the great pieces happened. The encounter was the creative instance. No one was ever, truly, working alone. And the thing about rock music is also the belief in the structure. The point is not so much to worry about the harmonies, not so much to worry about the solos or the lyrics. It's really to pay attention to the structure, the rhythm breaks, the orchestration, the sound — that's what rock music is all about.
Would you consider Cassiber a rock group?
I guess we were considered an art-rock group or something. No, I wouldn’t consider us a rock group; we were too weird in a way. But when we tried to improvise, we all agreed not to improvise as jazz musicians. We improvised shapes, we improvised song forms. The early Cassiber albums Man or Monkey (1982)or The Beauty and the Beast (1984), though they seemed like collections of songs, were entirely improvised. Chris Cutler and I were improvising forms and the other members were improvising sounds. In this way, we created together a form of instant composition. We created songs spontaneously, without rehearsing them. All these song forms were unrehearsed, just played straight. And later on, when we would meet for recording, we would recall these as shapes and improvised them as shapes. There were never any written parts; there wasn't even an agreement to play a certain theme in a certain way, four bars here or four bars there. That was the magical moment of playing with Chris Cutler, for example: to be able to communicate in terms of shapes without discussing it in advance. Chris has real understanding, a great sense of symmetry, of music as shaping. After thirty two bars we could come back to an initial oeld without counting — this worked magically between us.
It' s very interesting that you mention the notion of the "song as a form" which Chris himself uses a lot and has written about, particularly in terms of the Brecht/Eisler relation. I mean, for me, the Art Bears' fantastic performance of the song "On Suicide"...
... It's a masterpiece.
It is a masterpiece. First of all, as a song, as an Eisler/Brecht composition, but also, as you say, this particular performance. For me, this was a de onitive moment in understanding this notion of the "song as a form." And my interest in rock music itself — or certain aspects of rock songwriting — is fueled by this notion and by this experience. A very similar instance is your own song composition on Hölderlin's poem Hälfte des Lebens. But I brought us into the topic of rock music for another reason too: to discuss the connection between rock music and the piece being performed today, Hashirigaki. I mean, I can sort of picture how Gertrude Stein works in it and certainly how Japanese music might be integrated in such a piece, but I'm very curious about the Beach Boys material.
As I told you, in the 60s I was playing pop music on the piano just by listening to tunes on the radio. And I remember there were one or two Beach Boys songs which I had heard only once or twice on the radio, and I could recall them but I couldn't catch them, I couldn't play them on the piano, because the harmonies were somehow weird. That's the one thing. Then, in 1998, The Pet Sounds Sessions was released, where they published the backing tracks, the rhythm tracks, vocal harmonies, etc. And it was on that occasion that I heard the complete Pet Sounds album again after so many years, and those couple of songs — like "Caroline No" and "Don't Talk"— reminded me of my failure. So I discovered this material again, really fresh four years ago and, of course, I understood immediately why it had been so difficult for me to catch. They have harmonies which just float, they never satisfy the bass register that brings them back to the ground; they keep on going, never really coming to a resolution. That's the secret of this wonderful composition. It's not only because of the melancholy quality of these songs that this music is so formidable for me — I mean, it's such a classic — but also because of this strange floating quality, as if everything is being lifted from the air. It's just not grounded; it's never grounded. So, somehow this connected in my mind with The Making of Americans, with Gertrude Stein, because she does a similar thing with words. She keeps words going constantly by changing some elements in the repetitive language. If we attend to the letter in her process of observation, of thinking, of writing, we might get a better sense — it's very hard — of what she means about love, about sadness, about relationships, about men and women, because she is just evoking associations in a process of reflecting toward the reader, at the reader. But she is fading this sense and it is also hard to catch, you see — so this is the connection that brings this piece together. And then there is another thing: She starts The Making of Americans as a family history, but she immediately goes off on a digression toward an overall human statement, which also makes it ungrounded. She starts off on the ground, with the family, the brother, the sister, the mother, marriage — but then immediately she tries to find an overview from outside, about other families, about America, about the whole world, about humankind — before coming back to her subject from ten pages earlier with the words "as I was saying." And this strange,, elevated expression works very well, I think, in the performance, particularly when we do the last song "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" which is itself an important phrase,, coming, of course, from Brian Wilson, but it could very well have come from Gertrude Stein. She certainly felt untimely.
You've also talked elsewhere about how you are drawn to the melancholy song. It's evident in most of the Eisler songs you choose to perform — not all obviously, you also take on the more playful, ironic ones. But still, there is specific attention to melancholy songs. Why is that?
Well, probably because they are the truest ones. That's the great thing about Eisler. He doesn't exclude feelings. He includes doubts and aggressions, hopes and fears — he includes everything. That's why I think these songs allow most of the truth to come through. Because they don't pretend just to be powerful, to have no doubts — they're full of everything.
Perhaps your insistence on this totality of contrary feelings in music might be linked to your preference for a certain tragic mode in your selection of texts or in the way you frame or stage your musical composition. I feel that in your particular conception (and in the tradition of Music Drama I spoke of earlier — Brecht, Eisler, Müller — ancient tragedy is given a remarkable actualization in modern terms. Does tragedy — and I mean this in a particular way: as the entwinement of drama and myth — have meaning nowadays where the polis is so dispersed? How do you confront this politics or aesthetics of dispersion? How is myth important nowadays, not as an archaic thing but as something very contemporary?
Probably tragic myth is the presence — and representation — of powers greater than what we control. Because what you see in the traditional humanist drama is more and more conflict being brought down to the level of personal relations or conflict brought down to psychological relations, which is something I really hate in contemporary staging. Actually, the movies are better. The film industry has understood that people need more than just love stories. Of course, they continue to produce lots of love-story sorts of films, but there have been many films in the last fifty years that try to represent other forces that we deal with in life, stronger forces. The science fiction genre exemplifies this, of course. But the point is that certain films show an awareness that not everything can be discussed and resolved in the context of a personal relationship. Yet, modern theatre always seems to do just that; even with the most political subtext, even when dealing with tragic mythologies themselves, it often seems to try to reduce things to some sort of domestic drama, and I think that's horrible. I'm just not interested in this sort of thing. As I have experienced the world always as a political world, I think we face daily so many relationships of power which are much stronger and cannot be so easily reduced to personal dimensions. So I'm always looking for references or representations of that in literature or music or theatre. And, of course, I don't use mythological figures (Prometheus or Hercules, etc. )as heroic types. I use them as way of reading politics, because I think the way the world is being controlled, moved, shifted — or how lives are finished and started — is sometimes done without mercy, without any possibility of being a individual story.
So, as a last question in this light, what is the difference between being a political artist in the 70s and nowadays? Is it simply a generational difference? Or is there something else, some other sense of timeliness at hand?
Well, in the 70s I was very involved in the movement. It was a very lively, outgoing sort of movement, with people like Joschka Fischer, Daniel Cohn-Bendit — I lived in the same building with Joschka, now he is flying first class... For us then, everything was so immediate: what do we do next? what do we do next Saturday? When is the next political meeting or demonstration? — that sort of thing. But this has changed. The context where everything is so immediate, so precise, and where your work is but a trial, a commitment to all that, doesn't exist. But my relation to what it means to translate a political experience into an artistic one hasn't changed much at all. When I compare my work with Sogenanntes Linksradikales Blasorchester and my work on Eislermaterial with the Ensemble Modern, for example, I find that it's not all that different. It's more elaborate now, of course. I've got more possibilities and resources, I can work with lights, costumes, sound engineers, and virtuosi players, but the way we talk to each other, the way we deal with each other, the way we try to solve aesthetic and political problems is not so different. When I look back through all those different steps, which you have also followed here today, there is nothing that I regret, nothing where I would say "let's cut this out" or "don't look at that."This is something that makes me very happy because there is a lot of continuation and development in these steps, and there's nothing to be embarrassed about or, in the opposite way, to long for the good days of the past. I never had such a feeling.
Then, I have to add one more dimension to that question: What does it mean to be a German artist today? — as opposed to the 70s, working within the situation of a divided Germany, which seems to have been important for you and the politics involved in your music. I mean, it was important to the leftist movement in the West. Does this matter at all? Is this something you think about? I understand that you are a global artist, of course, but I wonder whether you think at all about your position in German culture.
Well, this is something I owe specifically to Chris Cutler, this way of working at an international level. He was an important figure in this movement because he was the first to open up the space for an international collaboration of musicians and ways of playing. Since that time, I think Eislermaterial is the only piece that's entirely German. I work consistently in an international context. But I never ignored my German roots. I started very strongly with developing my German point of view — the music I grew up with and was educated in. I remember the matter of playing jazz then. Other jazz musicians would complain: "He's got no swing. He's much too German." But I was proud of the way I was improvising. . And in fact, when I saw the Sun Ra Arkestra performing for the first time — and it really changed my way of looking at things — I remember being astonished at how these people could do it all, both swing and improvise in the wildest ways. And be theatrical too. For a lot of straight jazz musicians, even in Europe, Sun Ra was too much. But it's precisely this collective way of making music, of bringing various fields together, which appeals to me.
1. Lydia Koniordou is Greece's foremost actress in classical tragedy, with exemplary performances in Euripides' plays, particularly Electra . The way she is used in this play, as a folk singer, is itself a defamiliarizing gesture.
STATHIS GOURGOURIS teaches comparative literature at Columbia University. He has also taught at Princeton, Yale, and the University of Michigan. He is the author of Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization, and the Institution of Modern Greece and Does Literature Think? Literature asTheory for an Antimythical Era as well as essays on political theory, psychoanalysis, film. He is currently working on a volume of essays on music, performance, and the politics of sound, titled On Transgressive Listening.
PAJ - A Journal of Performance and Art (US), 09/2004
No. 78, September 2004 (Volume XXVI, No. 3)