Opening up the text

Heiner Geobels, Christoph Marthaler, Matthias Lilienthal, Philip Brady, Friedrich Dieckmann and Alan Read

The following text is taken from a talk given by the German composer and director Heiner Goebbels as part of a Performance Forum discussion on German music-theatre and the Berliner Volksbuehne's performance of MURX at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London. The forum included Christoph Marthaler (director of MURX), Mathias Lilienthal (dramaturge at the Berliner Volksbuehne), Philip Brady (Birkbeck College, University of London), Friedrich Dieckmann (East German theatre critic) and others, and was chaired by Alan Read (director of talks, ICA). A tape of the complete ICA Performance Forum discussion is available from the ICA, London.

Heiner Goebbels: I was very pleased by the [MURX] production which I saw for the first time in London last night (even though I live in Germany) and I liked it very much; it is one of the best shows I've seen for a few years. The whole evening had a different quality to it that had to do with the strong character of the material, but also with the different relationship of stage to audience - for my taste a much more open and democratic relationship than theatre is usually able to make.
In MURX there were just a number of different areas and songs, feelings and images. As listeners/spectators we have tried (in the discussions this afternoon) to understand the central focus of the piece. We are already much more engaged than [we might be] in a piece which simply interprets a story, or interprets a classical theatre text. Setting aside the context of the piece (without wishing to exclude it), the production is really developing a new relationship between stage and audience. As Christoph Marthaler said, 'we are not completing songs'. He is also not completing the storytelling at all; and it is not a symbolic way of acting. It has its own reality on stage: it is open, it has more to do with installation work than with classical theatre acting, which is generally up front to the audience. Friedrich Dieckmann's reference to the singing in Brecht's theatre pieces is definitely wrong. The most characteristic thing about Brecht's songs in theatre pieces is that they are directed towards the audience; they want to teach down from the stage, they make summaries of the scenes [that went] before or they give perspectives on the following ones. I wouldn't even try to compare them with the music in MURX, because the function of singing is very different from what we heard in MURX. There the singing doesn't have that approach to the audience. We were looking at a process which was already happening by itself before we entered the room and which could go on for ever even if we left; so we had incredible freedom to choose and look at what we are interested in and to combine and think about it. The translated subtitles used in the London performance placed a bigger emphasis on the meaning of the songs than any performance of MURX in Germany would have. This was distracting for me, because I wouldn't have understood the text of the songs anyway, or maybe only half. So the subtitles reduced the rich quality of the production a bit. The importance of music in theatre is exactly to avoid that.
Even when I personally don't work so much with singing in my own music-theatre pieces, I try to find a brighter sense of experience for the audience with music. Usually you have a text, you follow it, you want to understand the text and the meaning of the performance; but when we want to understand something, we tend to reduce it to what we already know. Much more interesting is an experience which is happening on stage [as in MURX]. A theatre, which gives more space to music, is more able to guarantee that: a brighter experience, which does not exclude all the other levels of significance, of emotion, of being moved or not being moved by the songs; maybe this experience is more true. If you want to execute a text from the stage - if you only speak it, act it - you concentrate very much on the first level of semantics. The truth of the text, also the truth of the music, the truth of the song is definitely deeper, brighter. It also refers to the sound of the language, to the sound of the one who speaks - the melody of the text has maybe a message too - it refers to the rhythm of a language, to the syntax of a sentence. There are so many other levels of importance and experience underneath the semantic level that I think music-theatre can be in a way more democratic (as I've tried to explain) and also deeper as an experience.
Talking about singing is difficult for me. I think singing in the German language is fixed to a historical meaning, and in a way the MURX performance confirmed this. It is hard to imagine a way of singing in German which does not refer to the past. It seems to be very difficult to develop a perspective on singing in German nowadays. This is not only my private experience. You can look at pop music or subcultural music, you can hear the music which was really exciting (or at least interesting) like new wave, or punk, or later techno; whatever happened there's no real perspective about singing German words; most of the interesting things were dealing with language, spoken text and music in a rhythmical way or through repetition, or as colour, as a way of placing and spacing and making the text musical. Not so much in singing. Singing is always referring to the past in a way: you either have the choice of caricaturing a certain way of German singing, or quoting the wonderful, moveable qualities of some songs; or you can make a critique, and so on; but whenever you sing in German, it's very much connected to its history and it's very hard to develop a forward-looking perspective with singing. So I suppose the Germans have lost their singing body, their innocent voice.
Working as a composer for theatre, I try to discover the area which is left between theatre and opera, the area where language can be connected or linked up with music to help both qualities. First I tried to develop radio pieces and concerts, in which I worked on the interaction between music and the spoken text. You can call it Sprechgesang but it's not only that; you already get the musical quality of language when it is placed in relation to music. When you hear a voice speaking with a musical framework underneath it, you immediately catch the melody and musicality of the speaking voice; you discover the musical and rhythmic qualities of language.

Alan Read: Could you refer to or reflect on history as a nation? ... In what way does that relate to the work you do?

HG: I was always connected to my German or, as it's called, my central European roots. So in the early days, in the 1970s - as a jazz musician - people complained that I didn't have 'swing'. I didn't do what 90 per cent of German jazz musicians did - copy American structures, rhythms and patterns. I tried to develop a different approach to music, starting with improvisations on songs from Hanns Eisler, for example, and founding a political orchestra in Frankfurt with wind instruments. We performed political music in a very lively, chaotic, spontaneous way on the street, at demonstrations, meetings and so on.
I tried to connect myself to a German musical history of resistance; not in a way which wears its political approach as a badge, or which refers to it only through the words it uses; we discussed [earlier in the afternoon], whether a march can be in itself left-wing or right-wing; of course it is neither; but it is possible to find music which expresses your way of living and in a wider sense your political expression.
I remember very well when this orchestra - more connected to the spontaneous political scene before the Green Party was formed - played at a demonstration. There was another orchestra coming down the street - from a dogmatic communist faction - and they were really walking 'straight forward' they had the note-stands 'straight forward' and they played 'straight forward' in a strict four/four beat; in contrast we were very chaotic, had more of a 'free jazz' sort of feeling; so we started to undermine their sound a little bit as they were passing by; and they were so pissed off by our way of playing - not by the meaning of our words - that they came and smashed our instruments. At the same time I was composing a lot for theatre and I mostly disliked the productions which I was involved in, especially because of the unquestioned hierarchy in which the text happens to be the most important thing, and everything else is just a supporting extra. The actor was identifying with his role, the costume was supporting this and the set was also supporting this - and so the production ended up having the same information four times, and that duplication is what I was always bored by.
I now try to develop a theatre in which the elements have an independent balance, where even the lights have their own independent quality; where the language can have an independent quality (as can the sound, the music, the noise and the acting) so that the elements do not duplicate each other. It is a combination of making sense - giving us ideas which we can deal with - and at the same time taking sense away by creating distances between the elements; this asks the audience - because they do it anyway - to bring their impressions together.
In a way we are all interested in making connections; when, for example, you see somebody speaking and they make a movement at the same time which doesn't belong to what they are saying, we immediately try to make a connection between these two elements and this keeps us awake. Not like in the traditional theatre where everything is doubled up.

Alan Read: I'll ask one more question and then maybe we could open up to general discussion.... What's the difference for you between the spoken voice and the singing voice? You've used spoken text and talked about that and your own questions about the singing voice, but could you talk about that relationship, is it possible?

HG: First of all I have a lot of singing in my pieces too, but I have to admit, this is never in German; in one of my earliest pieces (Newton's Casino about Schliemann, the archaeologist who unearthed ancient Troy) there was, of course, a Greek voice; I made a piece in French (Ou bien le débarquement desastreux) last year about colonisation and alienation, forest and war (there were actually a lot of themes) with African singing; German audiences especially, who didn't understand the complicated French texture, really seemed to enjoy not having to understand the words; they could simply enjoy the rhythm and the melody of the French language in relation to the subject of the performance.
Most of my pieces are in three, four, five, six languages at the same time. For example, with Roman Dogs I did a piece about an old conflict which happened two thousand years ago in Rome - the battle between the Horatii and Curiatii. I did it with a Spanish actor, an Italian teacher, a black rap singer, a Belgian/French vocal artist, a black mezzo-soprano and a German tenor. I tried to let the story explode into the different ways of perception of their own languages. This old story has been reworked by Heiner Mueller, as well as by Brecht [and] Corneille [Horace], and several Italian operas have been made on this subject, taken from the Latin retelling by Livy. We tried to tell the story with all the little elements of perception that the story has been through in the last two thousand years: so that the piece completes itself for the audience as they listen to it, and not before they hear it. There was a lot of singing which included using some tunes from Wagner's Rienzi for their heroic gesture. In this context I wouldn't make a particular distinction between the spoken and the singing voice as long as I have the whole repertoire of the human voice and not just one register. As I said before, German singing sounds more like quotation to me, and it's harder to compose a new way of German singing with a new text in an open area, in fact it's not possible....
I try to describe a sort of democratic experience. My idea is not to open the material up to a liberal experience where everyone can think what they want to. 'What matters is what you think; you can think what you want; you can interpret want you want into these things; I'm not concerned about the meaning': - Christoph Marthaler earlier in the discussion. I wouldn't support that and don't share that quotation. In my work I open a text up at different levels of understanding; it doesn't make this text more deliberate or redundant, it makes it more precise. If you are able to experience the different levels of the text or of the speaking voice yourself, you get closer to the truth of the text than if you receive it in a political package. It's not that anything goes. I show and offer the necessary elements of a subject, of a piece. If the elements are precisely chosen, the experience of an audience is able to combine these elements in a subjective, very different way; but the final experience will be hopefully more precise and complex.... When I deconstruct a sentence it is important that its elements still retain a tension, still keep their connection, that they refer to each other. Looking at a text of Heiner Mueller, for example, even when you make the structure more transparent by deconstructing a sentence, even if you look at only one single word, you still have the connection; it's never a Dadaist text. There is still something that you can be sure of, like the tension from one word to the next one. That's his quality. I'm only interested in creating a tension between giving sense and taking sense away, which attracts our activity as an audience; which keeps us making experiences, using this artistic offering.
I was very struck by the method of a book called La Jalousie by the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet. It's a book about jealousy but it never mentions it. In this book you have all the elements: like somebody who watches, observes very carefully what his wife is doing, how she is opening a letter, how she is moving to the window, where her friend is sitting, and how and from which angle she is filling the glass of the friend who is visiting maybe too often. These descriptions are made without directly expressing any emotions. But by reading you create all the emotions yourself; so this freedom is very precise; it has nothing to do with 'everybody can think what they want to'.
This is what theatre should be about. For theatre it is useless to execute emotions on stage. It doesn't work with sex, it doesn't work with humour, it doesn't work with anything. It only works if the wall to the audience is removed. And if, for example, the people on stage are laughing, I don't care; it is only interesting, if what they do makes me laugh. This happened in the MURX performance. Even when Mathias Lilienthal and Christoph Marthaler say 'We don't care' or 'Everybody can think what he wants to', I don't trust it, and actually I don't believe it.

Mathias Lilienthal: We are making theatre. For forty years the East German Communist Party said what the people had to think.... We do not have the arrogance to tell anybody from East Berlin, or Rome, or anywhere, what he has to think about. I am a producer of theatre, not an interpreter of theatre. I can tell you how we have produced it and I can tell you how I interpret it for myself.... We have collaged different things that allow us to ignore and to destroy, to acknowledge and to think in an intelligent way about the history of Germany and of life in our society. I don't want to give you a meaning.... There is no special significance to which you can [point] and say 'This is the meaning and it's finished and now you can go home with the message'.
Because the meaning is so complex, that you can't describe it in a few words. To say 'This is the message' would not be true. You refuse the message, because the message is a complex experience. You might not even know it. I choose my pieces, my subjects, because I don't understand them and I try to offer my experience with the material to the audience - as you did probably yesterday - to take part in this experience, and we might not under- stand it in the process of doing it.

Philip Brady: Just to clarify that, it seems to me that so often these days ... the assumption is that if you say 'What's the meaning of an aesthetic work', there are also plenty of meanings it hasn't got and couldn't have, but you'll never get anyone to agree that it did have those meanings. The crucial thing is that tension between freedom [of meaning] and ... the sense that there are things that it isn't about because nobody in their right minds would agree that it was about that. Given the tension that maybe it is meaningless at certain points, you've got to leave that space somewhere there as well. Music is completely meaningless, and in another sense isn't, and without that tension it may drift into meaninglessness, which we have to face....

ML: The meaning of [MURX] changes every evening and changes if I'm playing the show in East Berlin or if I'm playing the show in London.... Perhaps one of the things about German history is that we aren't so interested in building up a new ideology.

Audience: Don't you think there's a big difference between telling someone what to think, and communicating with them if you've got something to communicate? I think you're equating the two. If you say I've got nothing to communicate and there's nothing specific I want to say - which I don't think you are saying - but it sounds like that if you say I don't want to tell you what I'm meaning. I make a decision between telling someone what to think and communicating with them.

PB: Is it about where this takes place? It's not what's coming from the heads of the producer and the director.... It's what's happening in [the] space of the play that we're concerned with. Meaning isn't something in somebody's head.... We don't know where meaning is and yet we do know certain things about how meaning functions. I think what Heiner Goebbels was saying was so important, in the sense that it also works at non-semantic levels - associations with rhythms change what meaning then is in certain contexts. That is why you can't pin it down and say 'What did you mean?'

AR: The issue that Philip Brady mentioned about meaning, and most of the way that we've just talked about it, seems to me to be very productive. Howard Barker said very recently that the last thing he wanted the audience to do when they were watching one of his plays was to understand it. How boring that would be, just to sit there and understand it all the time, because what is happening is much more complicated than that and much more interesting than simply knowing what it means. That would be something you could go home with and put in your pocket. If you could know what it meant anyway, either outside the context of the performance or the artwork, then why bother with the artwork in the first place? I think there is a very strong connection to the Brechtian tradition which we've rather forgotten about, when Brecht says that 'There must be a solution, there must, there must, there must' - I don't think it's because he knows what the solution is. He doesn't know what the solution is, and you have to go and work with the material, that's why you're there. If we knew what it meant we wouldn't bother going to the theatre at all.

Audience: I would like to come back to the point I made earlier, that music, the medium of music, has the capacity to express something that if you try to express it in words, it would lose all its different levels of meaning, and precisely the meaning that is very difficult to put into words. I come from a psychoanalytic point of view to this discussion. People who have been traumatised and are unable to verbalise their experiences, will turn to music or art to find a way of approaching what is unbearable. To that extent I think music or art can be a lifeline in that it affords a way of approaching something that cannot be experienced verbally.

HG: I don't think that music as a possible expression of unbearable things should be the only reason ... for me music is a very important medium for finding more complex ways of storytelling, of narrative, which respect all the different levels of experience and emotion. I wouldn't like to reduce it to this point, but it is a very important one.

Performance Research (US), Spring 1996