More like an architect
Interview with Stephan Buchberger
Question: Are you interested in opera?
Heiner Goebbels: There is only one opera that I've watched with any real interest, and have probably seen in ten different productions, and that is "Wozzeck". Otherwise, I'm not really interested in opera. But there is probably a connection between what you do and what happens in opera houses - after all, when we speak of music at theatre, 90% of the time we mean opera. I think my particular field is more the gap between opera and theatre. I'm interested less in singing than in the spoken word. And I am interested in linking the spoken word closely with music. This generally does not happen in theatre, and in opera it only happens when the text dissolves into song. It's this area in between that interests me.
So sung dialogue doesn't interest you? What changes when something is sung rather than spoken?
Perhaps it is the realism of delivery that gets lost. And, what's more, I feel there is less new ground there for me to discover at the moment. The last four new operas I've seen were full of trios sung by women, and, for now - since the trio in 'Die Soldaten' by Zimmermann -, I can't glean anything new from each one. I believe the problem is that a love of opera demands that people relate very intimately to it. Otherwise, as soon as the second phrase is over people start asking whether it, too, really had to be sung. Or whether it would have been enough to sing just the first phrase. Despite the differences among the four composers whose trios for women I've heard during the past year - and despite the very different ways in which they may wish to be understood and even perceived in their aesthetics - I still see it as just a trio for women, sung by professionally trained sopranos. I can think of many other possible forms of expression: untrained voices, interaction with spoken language, vocal qualities that differ in any way from those of academic singing. My conception of music is much broader, ranging from popular music to opera. And, even in vocal music, the many different styles of singing interest me at least as much - and possibly more - than the academic style. Ethnic styles, for example, like those I used in my last compositions with Sira Djiebate and Areti Georgiadou, or experimental singing styles, such as those represented by David Moss and Cathrine Jaunieux, because these explore other extremes of expression. The structure of opera is too set in its ways to accomplish this. Opera houses have offered me a number of commissions which were conditional on working with professional singers, but I'm not interested in that right now.
With 'Surrogate Cities', your first major composition for symphony orchestra, you agreed to make use of the orchestra in its conventional form. But, if I understand you correctly, you see fewer opportunities to do so in the context of opera as well.
'Surrogate Cities' was possible because from the very beginning I was dealing with a very flexible, motivated, and engaged orchestra with the 'Junge Deutsche Philharmonie' under the conductor Peter Rundel. They made it possible for me to continue to make changes even in the final rehearsals and thus made the entire work process more like what I'm accustomed to. In other words, I could discover something myself with the performers and was not limited to executing what I had thought through in advance, which would of course have to be the case with an operatic orchestra.
Nonetheless, there is operatic material in your compositions, so you must have some interest in it after all.
Yes. If there has to be a balance between operatic material and some completely different kind of material. I am interested in having operatic parts speak in an aesthetic that appeals to my musical perception, but not in having them move in their own orbit.
You use a great deal of outside material, material you find ready-made - which is greatly reflected in the instruments you use as well. This raises the question of the identity of this material. What is its role for you? How does it change? And what would you define as your own work in this?
It is often true that I only manipulate the structure of outside material, whether it be the African music in 'Ou bien le débarquement désastreux' or the heavy metal music in 'Wolokolamsker Chaussee' and that I don't want to touch their identity at all. For me, it is vital to preserve clarity in the contradictions between different styles. I don't want to blend them. I would rather let them conflict with one another than have something new arise out of them that lacks the strength of the independent parts. That being said, I do of course hope that something new will come of it all, whereby the separate musical identities, so to speak, don't lose anything in the process.
There are sections in your compositions which appear only as samples or segments. When, for example, a piece of music is constantly repeated for a certain length of time at different pitches or at different speeds until it loses its identity for the most part, or just serves to some extent. Where is the transition here?
I allow myself a very narrow margin in the selection of material and in the amount of outside material I use in order to have a criterion which doesn't let me use just any material. As a result, I also make use of small fragments which can no longer be recognised as citations. They nonetheless contribute something in creating context. In our current work on 'The Repetition', for example, my criterion is to use only samples from Prince. This is a way of restricting my material. Speaking of my own working methods, I tend more to compose as a director while I stage music more as a composer. Thus, I try to construct a composition using musical criteria and to work on the compositional details as a director. I hold myself back and respectfully allow the individual parts I use to keep their own identity and to develop.
The stage set and the role of lighting in the total composition is also part of the double function of director and composer. Musical theatre is usually seen as a field in which many different disciplines come together to create an integrated work of art. On the other hand, there have been attempts in the most recent productions, in particular, to consciously separate individual areas from each other. What role does this relationship play for you?
Essentially, the same is true for theatre as for music. I am interested in having a space develop its own rules and in never allowing it to act as mere illustration. This involves an effort to create a balance using all available theatrical tools - including lighting, space, text, sounds and action - in which all the individual parts retain their own effect. In this way, you create something which is actually the opposite of an integrated work of art; it is more an opportunity to experience than a product. I attempt to present the diverse voices in the materials, which the audience can then put together to form a comprehensive impression, an experience. The material is not subjected to the 'strong hand' of a stage manager or his aesthetics, but instead is composed in a form as complex as experience itself. Therefore, when I work with stage designers, I do not tell them: I need a particular space or a particular kind of scenery, a forest or a river. Instead, we work on the same theme and the person who designs the space attempts to discover something to which one can respond in turn using the music, the scenery, the lighting and the other media.
This is true of the subjects you treat as well. How topical can the materials, subjects, and texts dealt with in musical theatre be? Your new composition, 'The Repetition ', takes as its starting point a philosophical text. What criteria do you use in choosing your subjects?
I believe the choice of subject to be almost less important - I should choose my words carefully - than its treatment. The audience and my own work must have a focus, of course, but it often takes the form of questions to which I don't necessarily have the answers. I am really interested in passing these questions on, as when one sets up an experiment, or in finding a way to use the widest possible range of opinions and the widest variety of aesthetic methods to formulate the questions. I am less interested in authors who write down opinions than in authors who offer texts which can be used to develop opinions. And, funnily enough, there are great similarities between Kierkegaard and Kafka in this respect. Or between Kierkegaard and Robbe-Grillet, or between Heiner Mueller and Joseph Conrad or William Faulkner. And these authors interest me more than the storytellers.
Or the stories themselves.
Actually the stories themselves do interest me. With the musical theatre composition 'Roemische Hunde', I believe Michael Simon and I tried to tell a story, present it, and show its perception and perspectives, not by following an internal thread, but by reassembling it like a puzzle from the collage of images that exist of it. I like playing with puzzles as they involve an interaction of form and image. When you have a piece of a car, you look either for the yellow tire at the bottom left or for a particular shape which might just fit. And the one does not work without the other if you want to complete the puzzle as quickly and effectively as possible. And both pleasures must play a role in musical theatre as well for you to be interested in seeing it. If you were pressed to choose only one of the two aspects of puzzle-making, it would become barren. This is just as true when something is only formally correct as when only its content works.
You have made a considerable amount of theatre music for productions by other directors, as for example 'Hermannsschlacht' or 'Dantons Tod'. Did you limit yourself more to composing in these cases?
I did not so much limit myself to composing in the sense of authorship, instead I was interested primarily in the opportunities to create a musical effect in the context of a production for the spoken theatre. These are very limited, as many directors specify the hierarchy clearly and say that the text to be performed is the most important, then comes the scenery, costumes, and lighting, and the music comes somewhere in between. In the end, this is not very interesting. What was of primary interest to me in this work was to hear music as a director would. For a musician, this is a contradictory and exciting experience, because directors, although not musicians, are often able to say more about the effect of music than someone who is actively involved in the music. More than once someone has said 'That music was very different from what you rehearsed yesterday', some parameter or other of it was different. The volume, perhaps, or the rhythm, or the speakers were placed somewhere else, or it was mixed differently, and this altered the effect of a piece of music so much that a non-musician was unable to recognise it as being the same. I did not react to this at first and just said it was the same music as the day before - but this got me nowhere. If it did not have the same effect as the day before, it was not the same music. I suddenly learned - and this has perhaps been the single most significant experience I have had in this profession - how to comprehend the music differently, to shift the criteria, and to hear music not so much internally as with the distance of the scene as a whole. This was an incredibly important experience for me. I know many directors who lack the slightest musical vocabulary but who can describe and experience the use of music so precisely that they open up a whole new perspective which musicians normally don't see. That's one thing I certainly took away from my work during this period.
Do smaller, experimental productions such as those put on by smaller institutions - TAT or the Hebbel-Theatre for example - have an effect on productions in the 'big ' theatres?
I'd say that innovation does not occur in the larger organisations, that they are caught up in an incredible search for ideas, and that they certainly do look to get inspiration from the smaller institutions as well. Take 'Newtons Casino' for example. A few weeks after the premiere, the countertenor sang in the Bavarian State Opera House in Munich. Michael Simon is himself now producing operas everywhere. I believe these are the productions which have attracted the most attention. I have the impression that the line between experimental and established theatre is much more transparent in other countries and in other cities than it is in Frankfurt, because people are more curious. Here, where I work, an artist is associated with his experimental activity - although I am not interested in it that much. I'm interested in discovering something I did not know about before, how I can do it, and for this reason my colleagues in a musical theatre production always play a considerable innovative role in the production as a whole. In the end, something must be produced that is not labelled 'experimental' but which could certainly be presented to a larger audience as a significant production. I am not interested in making my use of materials so radical that people walk out of the theatre. Instead, I am actually always interested in the openness of the material we offer.
Musical theatre is still something which interests only a minority in society generally. Even fewer people see what you do. Does it matter at all to you how many people can actually be reached?
As my music does not necessarily exclude people - I do not believe it to be elitist or difficult or that it is in a niche - I essentially see opportunities for what I create to reach more audiences than have in some cases already been reached.
I am not interested in being able to depend on my audience. That I have changed fields so often in recent years - from jazz to compositions such as those for the 'Ensemble Modern', or from ballet to radio plays and to my own musical theatre productions - is in part a reflection of this, and of the fact that it bored me to already know my audience. I have often had my greatest challenges and most exciting results when I was confronted by a new audience, as, for example, with the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie in 'Surrogate Cities'. If you have to go with an orchestra, willy nilly, into places like the Alte Oper or the Philharmonic in Cologne, you also have to be prepared to deal with a particular audience.
For example, in the orchestral compositions I performed with the Ensemble Modern, I experienced how these chamber music compositions - when they were performed in theatres like the Hebbel-Theatre, the Kaaitheater, or TAT - suddenly took on an additional theatrical, visual, or dramatic, narrative dimension which went beyond what these compositions already offered. l can also imagine that the concept of musical theatre can be understood considerably more in terms of being instrumental, when the instrumental is not afraid to be narrative in the broadest sense of the term.
What gives music which is initially conceived as purely instrumental a narrative quality?
In my case, it is certainly the interaction with the sampler, which in the final analysis is nothing more than a digitalized and computerised tape recording which can be accessed more easily and which makes it possible to experience sounds more concretely; to cite noises, scraps of text, other musical selections, and the like; or to integrate these in a new sound. There's a considerable reluctance to this approach among those working in new music. I suspect that 98% of the people who compose electronic music don't work with samplers, but rather invent their own sounds which, strangely enough, all come out sounding the same. When you work with a sampler, you have full access to reality, history, stories, and images. In fact. I have never written anything without a sampler. There are the chamber music compositions, which I wrote for the Ensemble Modern, and there is the piece 'Surrogate Cities' - which also contains orchestral parts written without the sampler - but in the more graphic compositions, the sampler has always played a central role.
There is the cliché that most of the parts are not written by Goebbels at all, that he just happened to have them on his sampler. What has happened to authorship?
This objection does not come up as often in the case of the instrumental compositions us it does with the musical theatre pieces. In these, l do in fact plunder from a whole series of other composers and I don't even try to hide the fact. This is because l don't do musical theatre primarily to invent music, but rather to invent scenes and because it involves working with actors, singers, and other musicians. Perhaps it's also true that I have to choose what it is I want to do, as I can't always be innovative or even creative on all levels at the same time. It is even a relief for me to say that I never invent texts myself because other people can do that better, and, when I work more as a director or invent pieces, I draw on the rich vocabulary of musical languages and use citations from opera, or from popular or ethnic music, and I concentrate on creating the space and action. Division of labour also plays a role in this. When I have just composed something, I am eager to direct another stage production, and then I want to compose another piece of music. I always need a balance between the different metiers.
I believe it to be a key characteristic of my work that the individual genius of authorship is not essential to me and that vital elements in the composition of my musical theatre pieces do not even stem from my own pen. Essentially, my pieces are different because I work with various ensembles, hands, musicians, and singers and give them their own space. I consider it old-fashioned to believe one has to create everything oneself - that's a 19th century concept -, or that one has something inside that has to come out. It doesn't work that way with me. There's nothing inside me that's crying to come out. I have the impression that I work more like an architect. I want to know what materials are available to me, why a particular house has to be built, who is going to want to live in it, what their needs are, and whether I can build rooms for them. I must know what's standing next to the house, in front of it and behind it. I must also know the person giving me the commission. Only if all of these conditions are relatively restricted, can I start to respond to them.
Theaterschrift (DE), 9 (1995)