'My work needs no introduction. Either it works or it doesn't'
Wrong notes aren’t a problem, opera is of little interest, and he can’t quite name any composers who have influenced him: Heiner Goebbels is a singular man
The first question you might want to ask Heiner Goebbels is, will the real Heiner Goebbels please stand up?
The composer, who turned 60 last year, was one of the founders of the Sogenanntes Linksradikales Blasorchester (so-called Radical Left-Wing Wind Orchestra) in the 1970s, and later a member of the art-rock trio Cassiber. He has composed for theatre, film and ballet, and created radio plays and sound installations. Nowadays he’s a composer bestknown for his works of music theatre and opera (which he also directs) and he’s also been commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic. He’s a professor at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies at Giessen’s Justus Liebig University and is also director of the Ruhrtriennale International Festival of the Arts.
So, how will he choose to introduce himself to audiences in Ireland, which is not yet one of the 50-plus countries to have seen one of his major music-theatre productions?
“I don’t have to do that,” is his quick response. “No. I think my whole life is meant to make that difficult. Actually, what I try is to deceive expectations, and also to surprise. I deeply believe in the power of an art-work. So I don’t think my work needs an introduction. Either it works or it doesn’t. And also it’s your job to categorise. And I hope you fail.
“Down to the facts. I’m a composer, and for more than 20 years I develop music-theatre works which have travelled a lot around the world – except Ireland. But I hope that in the near future I am also able to show Ireland something of what I understand with the wider term of music theatre, which has, frankly speaking, nothing to do with opera.”
Opera, or at least as you probably know it, is of little interest to Goebbels. “There is so much musicality to discover in spoken language . . . And very often when I hear a contemporary opera, my first question to the composer is, why are they singing? Do these texts need to be sung?”
His enthusiasm for the standard repertoire extends to just a single work, Berg’s Wozzeck, which, strange as it may seem, he has not the slightest interesting in directing. Apart from Berg’s mastery in holding everything together, “It is the closeness to speech melody which atonal music all of a sudden made possible, which convinced me that an opera is possible.”
As Goebbels tells it, each new work begins with an impulse towards collaboration sparked by the temptation of a suitable commission. His mind, he says, doesn’t harbour any unfinished projects and he seems to enjoy the metaphor I propose, that he’s like an oyster waiting for the grain of grit that will produce the pearl.
Red Run, the 18-minute piece that Crash Ensemble will play during the New Music Dublin Festival, was his first encounter with a contemporary music group. It was developed “for and with” Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, and premiered by that self-governing group’s players in 1986. What he brought to the table, he says, were his experiences as an improvising musician in jazz and noise art. And the members of Ensemble Modern “showed me things I didn’t believe that were possible on their instruments”.
His approach was to carry out a kind of balancing act. “When I work for radio I try to balance words and sounds. When it comes to music theatre I try to balance light and action, or space and music. I try always to order the elements of a piece, of a composition, of a theatre play, not in a hierarchical way, but in a way which gives a chance to everything.”
Finally, of course, a score is created, “everything is written down as far as you can write things which are not definite in pitch or in dynamics”.
The grey areas, the inexactitudes of musical notation, seem to get Goebbels more exercised than they do most composers. Usually when he meets ensembles who have worked on Red Run he finds them well prepared and fully in command of the notes. “What I have to add is to encourage them that playing the right notes is not the thing I’m interested in. I’m interested in a certain energy which goes beyond any academic repertoire, and in which maybe even the right notes might be ignored for a while.”
He wants Red Run to make a conductor superfluous, a gesture of rebalancing carried out by dint of elimination.
If “expect the unexpected” is the effective motto, it’s one he certainly delivers on. He has pieces that, for instance, bring together the music of the Beach Boys and traditional Japanese music. He muses on what I would encounter were I to return to Frankfurt at the end of April, “a so-called opera with Ensemble Modern in which the same musicians who played Red Run in the 1980s, now they are changing 300 costumes around, they are dancing and talking and singing, and performing as the main characters of an opera, not just as a hidden musician in the pit”.
I ask about antecedents, wondering if there are any composers either who influenced his work, or with whom he feels an affinity. “I think I found in a way my own aesthetic in the division of what we hear and what we see, starting my whole music-theatre biography by the fact of reflecting how else can a concert look than the way we’ve seen it over the last 300 years.”
Mavericks and musicians
He cites director Robert Wilson as an influence in the 1970s rather than any composer. And he’s also come to identify a kindred spirit in Harry Partch (1901-74), one of those independent voices in American music who often get branded as mavericks. He’s long had a grá for Partch’s music, and will direct his Delusion of the Fury at this year’s Ruhrtriennale. Delving into Partch’s diaries and writings he realised that “already in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s he tried to develop a music theatre out of the dramatic potential of making music with the musicians and the instruments he built himself.
“So here was a big antecedent without me knowing it. We have a similar starting point of developing an aesthetic ex-negativo. We didn’t want to do certain things, and that’s why we got somewhere else. That’s still basically my way of staging, to avoid everything I don’t like to see.”
Irish Times (IR), 1 March 2013