About "Songs of Wars I Have Seen"

"I just discovered a nice duo call The Bird and the Bee. You know them?" asked Heiner Goebbels, wearily leaning back into a couch at Solo Bar in Lower Queen Anne, before sipping what was mostly ice melt from an empty glass of Coke. "I'm a fan since...some months. Sometimes I get CDs from my kids. I have a son in New York and a daughter in Berlin, I mean they're not kids anymore—23 and 29—but sometimes they leave a CD in my car."

A recommendation for Inara George's wispy vocals was, to say the least, not what I was expecting to get from Goebbels. An energetic 57-year-old, born into the former West Germany, Goebbels is one of the most noted experimental composers and theatre artists in the world, whose 2007 piece, Songs of Wars I Have Seen, is being staged at On the Boards this weekend (Thurs-Sat, tickets $18) as part of a double-bill with Pacific Musicworks and Seattle Chamber Players' joint presentation of Monteverdi's operatic fragment Combattimento.

"It's true, my work is most often being seen by music critics, and only a few of them have eyes. That's a pity," Goebbels told me Monday, mere hours after he landed in Seattle. Goebbels' work is hardly limited to music and sound composition; he's as much a theatre director as a composer, and his work features both textual and visual elements well beyond the scope of a standard chamber orchestra. "It's happened only once, I think, in the last 20 years that—I think it was El Pais, the big paper of Spain—in which they were really fighting over who was the one who should write about the piece. And then finally the editor decided to send both the theatre critic and the music critic."

Goebbels' career as a composer and musician began in the 1970s, in the political crucible of West Germany, which was struggling both to become a more open and democratic society following the upheavals of the late 1960s and the radical domestic terrorist movements that followed, as well as continuing to deal with the legacy of the Second World War. In 1972 and '73, he even lived in the same squat as Joschka Fischer, a leading left-wing radical in Germany, who eventually served as the German foreign minister under Gerhard Schroeder in 2000s. A bit later, Goebbels began composing for the Sogenanntes Linksradikales Blasorchester, a left-wing protest orchestra that was trying to bring something more than folk songs and rock music to the New Left.

But politics—like culture—is something that Goebbels was rather skeptical of, and after several years of composing for the theatre, in the 1980s he began a series of constructive collaborations with the groundbreaking playwright Heiner Müller, and began developing his own radical aesthetic based in that skepticism.

"He was, too," Goebbels said of Müller. "That's why he always said that a text in theatre should never be used as a medium for messages. to make statements on reality. A text should always be a reality by itself, and theatre should always be a reality by itself. Of course, he was a very political person, very conscious and connected, but he was deeply convinced that politics is nothing that can be presented or represented from stage. It's only something which can happen within the audience by using the words and images and sounds and performance of a piece."

That skeptical, multifaceted approach to political content is exemplified by Songs of Wars I Have Seen, Goebbels' exploration of the experience of war through the fragmentary lens of Gertrude Stein's Second World War memoir, Wars I Have Seen. In fact, it was at Müller's funeral that Goebbels first really engaged with Stein's work, when the experimental director Robert Wilson sang a long segment of The Making of Americans.

"What's most interesting to me, in this book, is that she keeps on speaking about her experiences of the Second World War, while she was in France, but she doesn't offer any focus, she doesn't give any hint of what we would consider important and not important," explained Goebbels. "It's like neighbors talking about everything, and she combines very personal comments on food, on her dog, on the weather, with very political statements on the Americans and the Italians and the French and the prisoners in Germany. And the nice thing is that when you read this book--and probably when you hear this composition--you have to decide yourself, what is your own focus, between this relationship of your personal point-of-view and the political and social point-of-view."

In the show, a group of female string players are arranged in what vaguely appears to be a living room setting—chairs with tables and reading lamps—and as they perform, they take turns reading sections of Stein's text. The rest of the chamber ensemble is arranged in a more traditional layout behind them, against a black drop.

The choice to have the musicians read—something that's not normally part of their job description, and for which they lack the polish they bring to playing their instruments—is a very interesting choice. "An actor easily takes it away from you," Goebbels said of the text. "An actor easily reads it as if it would be his text, as if he knows the way how to understand the text. It takes some tasks, some pleasure, some freedom, from how you understand a text."

"Once you personalize a text, it seems to be complete, finished, closed, and hermetic. But if somebody who reads a text makes a mistake, you even understand it better," he continued. "And I think my first experiments with that, were texts by Heiner Müller, which I hardly understood. Because they are quite mysterious and complex. And I understood it much better when I heard people reading it and making mistakes."

For Goebbels, that tension between the reader and the text mirrors the tension between the personal and the political inherent in Stein's memoir, and serves as one of the core aesthetic dimensions of Songs of Wars I Have Seen. It's reflected again in the tension between recordings and sampled music and the live performance of instruments.

"I like this friction between the two," he said. "I like to have an element present in the music which shows the musicians that they are not alone in the world and can do whatever they want. There is a system to respect, which is rather controlling them, or there's a force outside the comfort of them being together as a string quartet. There's some other power relations, so to speak, who you have to face, and who you have to be aware of. You have to accept or work against them. So I like this constant tension between something which is strict, and something in which I want to express my own personal attitudes."

"It's the same tension between individual survival and political experience, and we could roughly translate that into the relationship between, say, the click-track of a sample and the live-ness of a performer. And you find that in a lot of my work."

Another component of the work is how it evokes Stein's belief in history as a repetitive act. This forms part of the core of her memoir, the sense of war and violence as an eternal and repetitive component of history. In order to evoke that, Goebbels incorporates elements of Matthew Locke's 17th-century score for The Tempest.

"Gertrude Stein is constantly talking about Shakespeare, she's talking about violence in Shakespeare, and she's talking about history repeating," he explained. "So the repetition of historical phases of violence and power. So I was basically interested in finding a way to consolidate that into a musical confrontation, which refers back to Shakespeare. And that's what The Tempest is for."

Trying to be clever, I pointed out that The Tempest, of all Shakespeare's plays, is oddly enough one in which there is no war. Undeterred, Goebbels just chuckled. "That's a certain freedom for myself!" he said. "If Locke would have written a Henry VIII, I would have been more lucky."

Jeremy M. Barker
The Sunbreak (US), 3 March 2010