An interview with Heiner Goebbels

When were you first affected by radio as a medium and by radio art? Was it in your youth in the 60s or did it start when you began to create radio art compositions?

Radio had a strong influence on me. My family didn’t have a television for obvious reasons therefore I mainly listened to the radio, the strongest of all media. Some of my important memories were directly connected with the radio and this affected the way my life turned out. I remember hearing Lady Madonna by the Beatles for the first time. With my father, on the other hand, we listened to a lot of classical music. I was still a young boy when I heard the experimental composition Five Man Humanity by Ernst Jandl for the first time. This fundamental for-radio art piece is still quite powerful today and for me it was a primary impulse. To call it a piece that changed my life, would not be an overstatement. My aesthetic education was influenced by two things: music and the radio as well as visual art, which often has something in common with music. When I was sixteen, I went to documenta[Office 201] in Kassel, I often visited galleries. It was the power, which drew me out of the small town I grew up in.

Which artists, apart from Bertold Brecht and Hans Eisler have noticeably influenced your work? Were the creators of music theatre of the sixties and seventies, Dieter Schnebel, Georg Katzer or Friedrich Schenker important to you?

I respect the artists you mentioned even more today than I did back then, because now I am finally able to notice what Katzer or Kagel have done for the development of musical theatre. I can say for sure that at the beginning what I was most impressed by were things produced in the format of the BBC, visual and sound art, but when it comes to theatre I cannot forget to mention the impact of theatre directors who have transformed the language of theatre, like Bob Wilson or Einar Schleef. Their work was really important to me in the eighties.

Did you have any experiences with theatre in your youth?

No, I didn’t. I didn’t even like theatre when I was a student. My first experiences go back to the seventies and eighties, when I composed theatre music for other directors. It was more about collaboration and composing traditional, illustrative music for illustrative directing. I was more inspired by encountering independent sound and acoustic potential used in other areas or the incompatibility with the aesthetics of “separate elements” present in the works of Bob Wilson in the late seventies and early eighties.

In what way was it illustrative music?

I use this term when one medium supports and accentuates another, when it imitates or reinforces the text of the play, actors, costumes, stage design or the lights. It doesn’t create anything new, it doesn’t open the doors to any unknown dimension, it doesn’t give a spectator any space. I often describe such theatre as a neural experience, which multiplies its subject with the use of theatrical means. A spectator can accept, criticise or even hate it. I’ve come to hate such theatre.

It wasn’t a positive experience, then?

Quite the contrary. It was extremely interesting. Those ten years helped me understand a lot about theatre its energy and imperial pressure. I understood how many wasted chances there are in theatre. For example, when a costume designer approaches the director with a great idea, he is rejected because they have no connection with the subject of the text. I remember having many radical ideas concerning the sound side of the production, but because they didn’t seem to support the interpretation of the text they would be rejected by the director. I realised, at the same time, how many possibilities theatre gives and how much artistic space for experiments it offers. That’s what I do now: I explore the fields I wasn’t allowed to explore before.

In the eighties you played progressive music with a group called Cassiber, which was a part of the Rock in Opposition movement. Do you keep in touch with its members and the progressive music scene?

I sometimes get together with Chris Cutler, Fred Frith or Arto Lindsay, but we have all moved on. However, we still recommend records to each other and listen to each other’s works. But I don’t find much inspiring material within the world of contemporary independent music. I try to change the field I work within every seven years. I started by making music for the film and theatre, then I played with Cassiber, created radio art, my next seven years were about composing for the orchestra and ensembles. At the moment I am busy with theatre work. Maybe I will dedicate myself to film. Maybe I don’t need so many music impulses that I used to need.

Have you ever regretted ending your cooperation with Cassiber or the saxophonist Alfred 23 Harth?

No, I haven’t. I think it happened in the right moment. When I started composing and directing, I lost the desire to be onstage as a performer. I was looking at myself from two perspectives and I don’t think it’s a good idea to combine them.

You turned to theatre only after you’d completed some theatre projects for radio art compositions and musical performances.

For me radio art is like an acoustic stage. That’s where I’ve found my aesthetics deprived of all the hindrances of institutionalised art. In the studio I was able to be myself and do what I wanted. I was able to follow the relations between the music, the sound and the text, between the space and the word. I draw from that experience now with my first year students. I tell them to create their sound stage in a studio. First they have to be able to define sound reality, and only then can they start working on the visual side onstage. I want them to use sound components as independent elements rather than to convey certain things.

Is freedom of imagination important to you when you listen to radio art compositions? Or do you rather define a specific space and situation?

The freedom of imagination is more important.

What interests you the most while working with actors, singers or reciters on radio art compositions? The absence of the body from the recording, the tone of the voice or perhaps the life experience that is inscribed in it?

I don’t feel the absence of the body. I appreciate that I have the opportunity to work with great actors and singers. When I observe a person who is onstage, I am interested in their ability to stay on the sidelines as well as creating a gap between their body and their voice. For example in Hilliard Ensemble, four singers who remain on the sidelines create a space for the fifth voice, the common one. What is worth mentioning, they do not feel they loose anything. Such gap is essential for the viewer’s or the listener’s imagination. I work with actors who are not convinced that they are the only ones capable of embodying the text. They are there to convey the text, they offer it, but they do not own it.

You talk about experimenting with separate elements in theatre and radio art. I would like to ask how you build the relationship of an actor with the text. Do you know from the start that a certain actor, for example Ernst Stötzner or André Wilms will be the key to a given text, that their workshop[Office 202] , tone of their voice are the only ones which will suit the works of Kafka, Canetti or Müller?

I work on my pieces together with the actors. We often focus on single words or sentences therefore their presence is absolutely necessary. That’s why radio art plays such an important role in my biography. It made it possible for me to work on details and the form. I recorded the actors in the studio and after that I edited the sentences word after word. Then I moved to composing music to fit those sentences and glued everything together the way I liked. After the recording was ready I made the actors memorise the new version with attention to details. Today I can say that I reverse the traditional order. I don’t look for the text first and then the actors. Their natural predispositions and skills are my guidelines for finding the right text. For example when I decided to work with Hilliard Ensemble, I thought that Samuel Beckett suits them well or when I started my cooperation with André Wilms, I had the impression that the journals of Paul Valéra will perfectly complement his neurotic and loud personality.

Do your theatre methods resemble the ones you use in the studio?

They are identical.

Why do you mostly use declamations or speech that resembles singing?

Speech has a lot of musical potential, which hasn’t been discovered by the audience, composers or listeners. It’s about the undiscovered grounds of musical theatre.

When did you first become fascinated by the human voice? Was it when you started making your radio compositions?

Yes, that was the moment.

Were you at any point interested in the psychological interpretation of a text?

No, I wasn’t.

Would you say that musical theatre is in opposition to dramatic theatre?

My theatre is, but I don’t think all musical theatre works are. There are performances that imitate dramatic theatre based on the literary cannon. Most composers of such theatre work with dramatic plays or biographies turned into plays.

You often cut the texts, then glue them together, juxtapose pieces written by different authors, in different eras or styles. Would you say there are limits of deconstruction? How important is the subject matter to you?

Very often I am not able to describe the subject or name it. Choosing the texts I channel the questions I carry within myself. I am not interested in a central subject matter, I want it to remain open. I give myself a lot of freedom, however I don’t want to contradict the text. That is where I draw the line. I have worked with texts by Gertrude Stein, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Heiner Müller or Elias Canetti, among others. I interfered with them a lot, but I always did it respectfully. The authors who are still alive, Müller or Robbe-Grillet expressed their satisfaction with my changes when I had the chance to meet them. The form and the rhythm of the text are very important to me while composing.

Heiner Müller took part in quite a lot of your compositions or performances. He had written the text, but he’d also worked as a director. Did he propose some sound or stage solutions? Did he have any special demands he would express?

No, he didn’t. I was completely free and he was happy to watch me working. A couple of times he gave me some advice on some extra books or text I should read. Sometimes he “wished” for me to go through all the materials once again. I would gladly accept his point of view. One of the authors that I worked with after his suggestion was Edgar Alan Poe.

How was your collaboration possible? He was in the GDR, you were from the West.

We were able to travel and visit each other. It wasn’t a big problem.

Apart from the plays by Heiner Müller, you seem to be fascinated with non-dramatic literature. Would you say that dramatic pieces impose the form, limit your freedom?

Yes, they do.

Haven’t you found any dramatist apart from Müller, whose works would interest you?

Yes, I have. For example Stein.

You try to reveal the dramatic potential of prose, journals, memories or essays.

Dramatic or poetic potential, which is often hidden in prose is not visible at first sight. For the text to become visible or audible, you must analyse it very carefully or deconstruct it. For example, when I worked with spiritualistic short stories by Poe, which I used not only in “Schwarzauf Weiss”, but also in “SHADOW” and songs written for Sussan Deihim, I found music rhythms and short poetic fragments.

While you are working on a performance, do you approach music as an independent piece that could be published?

Yes. I separate music from theatrical images very often. I remember that when I was working on Schwarz auf weiss, I recorded fragments of the music and I worked on their sound only from the musical perspective, forgetting about the stage. The visual part was created as the very final stage of my work.

Are your pieces performed by others?

Surrogate Cities is staged quite often. It has been shown in Freiburg, Nuremberg and Berliner Philharmonie. However, my other works are shown quite seldom, including Schwarz auf weiss.

How do you perceive yourself in the context of other artists working in the field of musical theatre, for example Olga Neuwirth or Georges Aperghis?

I don’t know the works of Olga Neuwirth very well. I have seen only one of her projects. She does not direct her own pieces, Aperghis does. For me directing my own works is extremely important, because I can foresee the seize of the space my music needs to be presented at its best. From my perspective creating performances imitating music and lacking distinctive vision is a common mistake in the world of contemporary musical theatre. As a result we watch performances, in which both music and directing are closed off and leave no space for the spectators. I do not hesitate to get rid of music in places where it is not needed, or the visual side, when the music is more important. I want to work on both levels and with every new project I commence my work thinking only about one of the two. Sometimes it is music, another time I may be the text or stage design.

Are there any genres of music that don’t appeal to you?

Only techno and heavy metal.

You were broadly inspired by the Brecht’s theory of “separate elements”. To what extent can you apply this theory in the process of theatrical work and how does it relate to rejecting the primary role of the text in relation to other elements of a performance?

The relations are obvious. Brecht wrote it as pure theory. He did not know how to put it in practice and use it in his work as a director. Not because he didn’t have the skills, but because of technical reasons. A lot has changed since his times, starting from theatre education and ending with the source of theatre as an institution. For example, even today it is difficult to work with an actor in a non-psychological way, but it must have been much more complicated in the fifties. I’m not talking about psychological and quasi-naturalistic methods of work. His theory is very fertile, however we do not have much experience when it comes to putting it to practice yet. I try to discover and analyse it with my students. We study what happens when music is combined with light, how the text functions, when it is combined with the body.

Have you ever seen this theory successfully used on stage?

Yes, I have. In the performances of Bob Wilson.

I know that when you are working on a performance you want to be able to work with the lights, actors, music and the musicians, as well as the text from the very beginning. At the same time, a lot of those elements are modified in the course of works.

We start working on a performance a year before the premiere, sometimes even earlier. In Germany we have something called “Bauprobe“. It’s one day, when we can use all the stage and lighting elements the theatre has at its disposal and try to combine them. For me one day is not enough. I’m interested in how all parts of the performance function together, rather than in working on an isolated visual part deprived of words and actions. When, for example I worked on the opera “Lanschaft mit entfernten Verwandten” in 2002, the starting point was stage design, which was a great inspiration to Poussin and Velázquez.

What direction will you follow now as an artist? Your space-sound installation without actors, Stifters dinge, seems to be setting a new trail and resembles an installation in a gallery rather than performance art.

However, in my opinion it is both about theatre and installation. Stifters dinge is seen by one hundred and fifty spectators, it lasts for eighty minutes and what we can see onstage are water, foam, mist and rain, that is elements which usually serve as illustration. Action, in some way unusual, is also present. We can follow the dialogue between foam, iron and stones, between events and the spectators, mist and the light. There are many interactive situations, however different. I cannot see why it shouldn’t be considered theatre.

Can you tell me about your cooperation with Magdalena Jetelova, the author of stage design to Ou bien le débarquement désastreux? What caught your interest in her art?

I think she has an amazing aesthetic sensitivity. I first saw her installation in Vienna. It was a pyramid of red sand reaching the ceiling. Placed inside a building, it divided it into two parts. I instantly called Magdalena Jetelova offering her cooperation on one of my performances. She agreed and this was probably her only experience with theatre at that time. I’m impressed with the strength and lack of compromise of her works. They can function independently, they do not serve any causes or surrender to anything. That is exactly what I demand from artists, musicians, light directors I cooperate with. I need their world to be strong and able to open new levels in places, where I have no access. At the moment I work also with, let’s say “regular” stage designers and light directors, but I need a different type of work than the one known from my theatre experience. While light director at the opera works five days, my performances demand from five to six weeks of work fourteen hours a day. They must be strong partners and therefore, it is very important for them to understand the whole process and become part of it, just like, for instance, the actors.

Do you sometimes collaborate with dramatists?

Yes, sometimes it is connected with my very competent assistants that I have been working with for ten years. At times I also collaborate with my students, who are well educated and know their theory, but they also need some artistic experience. Theory isn’t enough.

Aren’t you sometimes afraid that you are walking on thin ice and that the things you create are too abstract or obscure?

No, I’m not, because if I work with a team of seven or eight people, I can be sure that after so many years of cooperation we will not create anything too abstract or deprived of some kind of sense. We believe in what we see and I think, that we have the ability to look at our work in a critical way. If I were to say that I have some talent, I would chose the ability to wake up every day to look at the effects of my work from the previous day in a critical way. I think I can make my vision credible onstage. An interesting idea is not enough. This is what I try to teach my students. I warn them, not to trust their intentions, but what they see and what the stage offers, what answer it gives them. Their most common mistake is not knowing how to put their ideas onstage.

What theatre artists, apart from Bob Wilson inspire you?

In the eighties I was inspired by the works of The Wooster Group, but it’s been a long time since I saw their new performances. I am intrigued by all Belgian directors, especially Jan Fabre and Jan Lauwers. I used to find Einar Schleef very important. It changes a lot. Sometimes I find more inspiration in sound installations by Janet Cardiff or the video art of Bill Viola. Other times the choreography by Jérôme Bela.

In your performances or stage concerts you negate most traditional theatrical conventions. Starting from giving stage design more autonomy, through hindering the cooperation of musicians who are not able to see each other, or abolishing the presence of actors onstage. To what extent is it a conscious attempt to push the boundaries further and further?

It is conscious work, indeed. I’ve always been interested in annoying and changing perception. I like leaving empty or boring moments in my pieces, I interrupt stage action with music, I leave the stage empty. I do all this to check where the limit of theatre is and then I come to a conclusion that these are the strongest elements of my works.

Sometimes challenging those limits seems to be an important subject of your work.

It is a subject too.

Lukas Jiricka
Konfrontacje (PL), 2013