Interview with composer Heiner Goebbels

Heiner Goebbels has transformed Henry Thoreau’s ideas into music for the UK premiere of Walden as part of the London 2012 festival

What exactly is Heiner Goebbels? At various times of his life, he’s been a radical left-wing rock musician, a creator of subtly suggestive theatre pieces, a composer of concert music, a jazz musician, and a maker of artworks and sound-installations. His works bear traces of all these different lives. As he moves on to some new all-consuming enthusiasm – a writer, a painter, the nature of cities, a philosophical idea – his works become ever richer, and ever harder to define.

I get a glimpse of his extraordinary working method when we meet to talk about his piece Walden, a composition based on the famous 19th-century back-to-nature tract by Henry Thoreau. This receives its UK premiere tonight, in a concert version of the work’s second realisation from 2007, made by the Ensemble Klang.

We meet in Darmstadt, where Goebbels is working on his latest project, for the Mathildenhöhe, a fantastical museum in Art Nouveau style. Underneath the museum is a reservoir several feet deep in an enclosed, arched space like a catacomb.

In this mysterious, dim environment Goebbels – a quiet, precise, silvery-haired man with the face of a wise cherub – is busy setting up his latest installation. It involves thousands of sound samples, some of which he’s collected himself on his travels. There’s a lighting designer with us too, sloshing about in the dark with a torch, and a video-artist who’s setting up computer-controlled projectors.

Goebbels keeps playing the stream of sound samples, changing their order on the computer, looking up to see how the sounds resonate – or fail to resonate – with the images flickering on the wall. I hear a Western ensemble, African instruments, snatches of spoken voices and song, and a strange ghostly noise I can’t identify.
“These sounds I’ve borrowed from my piece Walden,” says Goebbels, “and that particular one is a bowed chime, played by Bob Rutman.”

Rutman, I discover, is an American sound artist that Goebbels had admired for years, and wanted to work with. Indeed it was his pursuit of the elusive Rutman that led by a strange, circuitous route to the creation of the first version of Walden, in 1998.

Back above ground, Goebbels explains how it happened. “I had been asked to make a radio piece in Boston, in collaboration with local experimental musicians. I loved Bob’s bowed chimes, and I said he was the one I really wanted to collaborate with. But he had gone to live in Berlin, so that didn’t work.

“Then years later this man with a gravelly voice and steely blue eyes introduced himself to me after a concert I’d given. It was Bob Rutman. And this was a lucky chance, as I was just then thinking about the theme of Walden, and it turned out that Bob was interested in Thoreau, and had actually swum in Walden Pond.”

Walden Pond is surely the most revered patch of water in the United States. This was where the writer Henry David Thoreau retreated in 1845 to live a life of solitude for two years. He built a house there, grew vegetables, read books and communed with nature.

Years later he wrote his book Walden about his experiences. “I went to the woods,” he wrote, “because I wished to live deliberately ... I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life.”

The book is peppered with homespun wisdom: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes ... a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” Thoreau’s conviction that one should live in the moment, rather than fretting over the past or future, made him an appealing figure to later apostles of spontaneity, above all John Cage.

Goebbels too was drawn to the book, as much for its contradictions and tensions as its overt message. “I admired its radical nature, the idea that you create an absolute for yourself, and live up to it,” he says. “The big theme of all my work is the nature of the urban experience, and I had just written a big piece called Surrogate Cities.

“Now I wanted the opposite. I wanted to create a sense of a different landscape, a much slower timescale. Which is there in Walden, but I was struck by how Thoreau’s perception is often what we call in German kleinbürgerlich, very pedantic and exact and counting the cost of everything to the last cent. Also he hears trains go by, and this shows that already the idea of an escape to pure nature was becoming impossible.”

So how did Goebbels begin the process of making Walden? Here he becomes vague. “What I always begin with is a set of questions. I am faced with something I don’t quite understand, like this extraordinary book of Thoreau, and I share the pleasure of discovering it with the audience. The work, you could say, is a tool for sharing experiences.”

I ask whether what Goebbels is aiming at is a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, a combining of all the different arts. “Absolutely not, I would say I do the opposite. In Wagner everything is blended and works to the same end. What you see is the same as what you hear. In my work, lighting and words and music and sounds are all forms in themselves. What I am looking for is a polyphony of elements where everything keeps its integrity, like a 'voice’ in a piece of polyphonic music. My role is to compose these voices into something new.”

Ivan Hewett
The Telegraph (GB), 22 June 2012