Heiner Goebbels lives in Frankfurt and, for over a decade now, has been working together with Ensemble Modern, who have premiered several of his works. In 1996 the composer began work on the project Black on White in Frankfurt's Theater am Turm, developing his piece of music theatre during many months of rehearsals and collaborating with the young musicians of this famous ensemble who hail from around the world. It is a piece without protagonists, for it is the ensemble itself which is the protagonist. The musicians take on the role of strolling players deployed in a mise-en-scene, and who not infrequently exchange their chosen instrument for other ones or devote themselves to producing extraneous sounds of significance. The artistic space of music theatre becomes merely an area where everyday life is acted out. Critics have referred to Black on White as one of the most important theatrical events of the year and saw it
as a Requiem for Heiner Müller, whose presence is ensured by including a reading by him of Shadow, Edgar Allan Poe's parable of death: "Ye who read are still among the living; but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows." Heiner Goebbels had already made these recordings in 1991 whilst working on the German version for SWF of his sound play written in America Shadow/ Landscape with Argonauts. It was during rehearsals that he learnt of the death of Heiner Müller, prompting him to use the material for the music theatre project.
Amongst Heiner Goebbels' various sound plays, Black on White appears to be characterized by an extreme poverty of text, but at the same time it is his most literary work. Dealing with literature in only the literal sense, the piece treats the text in a manner freed from literary detail, without entering the realm of fiction. According to the composer: "For me, Black on White, and Poe's Shadow too, are parables about the act of writing. To put it more exactly, it is about an art form in which not only a single voice may be heard - that of the writer himself - but also something resembling a collective voice, a collective 'I', the voice of experience and recollection. Heiner Müller was also a representative of this style of writing, and that is why I return to his texts again and again."
A trembling hand begins to note down a text, one which deals with the irritating process of writing. It is the opening to Maurice Blanchot's novel L'attente I'oubli. The voice of the one who is writing formulates and repeats that which is created and sounded out against the 'writing desk: This micro-acoustic generated by written gestures is transformed into musical ideas and thence spatial events that lead out to acoustic points of reference which seek to define and mark out the aural parameters. But these spaces, which pulsate with life and are eminently accessible, arise out of the collective consciousness, whereas the texts taken from Blanchot, Eliot and Poe simply become part of the game, standing upright like erratic monuments as they are spoken aloud by members of the ensemble in their native tongues. The quoted passages have to do with the past, with the lonliness of writing, with a voice that takes wing and with an author who can suddenly vanish. During all of this, it is Heiner Müller's taped voice that returns time and again.
Heiner Goebbels points out that: "Thematically, the piece is a sort of farewell to Heiner Müller. But it is by no means a sad departure, as if it were some kind of Requiem. There are lighter moments in the piece where humour reigns. And there can be found a certain balance between the attraction arising from a live performance, and reflection. Of course, something such as this can only be achieved with the very best musicians, like those of Ensemble Modern, who not only remain the ultimate professionals, but also manage to interact, speak and sing, among many other things."
(Hans Burkhard Schlichting - Translation: Graham Lack)
Here, at this very sentence, one which was perhaps also destined for him, he felt it necessary to call a halt. He had almost heard it speak as he began to commit pen to paper. As he wrote he could still hear her voice. He showed her what he had written. She did not wish to read. She read only a few words, and then only because he had bid her softly. "Who is that talking?" she said, "Who is that talking then?"
For she believed that there must be some mistake, which she just could not put her finger on...
(Maurice Blanchot: L'attende I'oubli - Translation: Graham Lack)
SHADOW - A Parable
Yea! Though I walk through the valley of the Shadow - Psalm of David
Ye who read are still among the living; but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows. For indeed strange things shall happen, and secret things be known, and many centuries shall pass away, ere these memorials be seen of men. And, when seen, there will be some to disbelieve and some to doubt, and yet a few who will find much to ponder upon in the characters here graven with a stylus of iron.
The year had been a year of terror, and of feelings more intense than terror for which there is no name upon the earth. For many prodigies and signs had taken place, and far and wide, over sea and land, the black wings of the Pestilence were spread abroad. To those, nevertheless, cunning the stars, it was not unknown that the heavens wore an aspect of ill; and to me, the Greek Oinos, among others, it was evident that now had arrived the alternation of that seven hundred and ninety-fourth year when, at the entrance of Aries, the planet Jupiter is conjoined with the red ring of the terrible Saturnus. The peculiar spirit of the skies, if I mistake not greatly, made itself manifest, not only in the physical orb of the earth, but in the souls, imaginations, and meditations of mankind.
Over some flasks of the red Chian wine, within the walls of a noble hall, in a dim city called Ptolemais, we sat, at night, a company of seven. And to our chamber there was no entrance save by a lofty door of brass: and the door was fashioned by the artisan Corinnos, and, being of rare workmanship, was fastened from within. Black draperies, likewise, in the gloomy room, shut out from our view the moon, the lurid stars, and the peopleless streets - but the boding and the memory of Evil, they would not be so excluded. There were things around us and about of which I can render no distinct account - things material and spiritual - heaviness in the atmosphere - a sense of suffocation - anxiety - and , above all, that terrible state of existence which the nervous experience when the senses are keenly living and awake, and meanwhile the powers of thought lie dormant. A dead weight hung upon us. It hung upon our limbs - upon the household furniture - upon the goblets from which we drank; and all things were depressed, and borne down thereby - all things save only the flames of the seven iron lamps which illuminined our revel. Uprearing themselves in tall slender lines of light, they thus remained burning all pallid and motionless; and in the mirror which their lustre formed upon the round table of ebony at which we sat, each of us there assembled beheld the pallor of his own countenance, and the unquiet glare in the downcast eyes of his companions. Yet we laughed and were merry in our proper way - which was hysterical; and sang the songs of Anacreon - which are madness; and drank deeply - although the purple wine reminded us of blood. For there was yet another tenant of our chamber in the person of young Zoilus. Dead, and at full length he lay, enshrouded; - the genius and the demon of the scene. Alas! he bore no portion in our mirth, save that his countenance, distorted with the plague, and his eyes in which Death had but half extinguished the fire of the pestilence, seemed to take such interest in our merriment as the dead may haply take in the merriment of those who are to die. But although I, Oinos, felt that the eyes of the departed were upon me, still I forced myself not to perceive the bitterness of their expression, and gazing down steadily into the depths of the ebony mirror, sang with a loud and sonorous voice the songs of the son of Teios. But gradually my songs they ceased, and their echoes, rolling afar off among the sable draperies of the chamber, became weak and undistinguishable, and so faded away. And lo! from among those sable draperies where the sounds of the song departed there came forth a dark and undefined shadow - a shadow such as the moon, when low in heaven, might fashion from the figure of a man: but it was the shadow neither of man, nor of God, nor of any familiar thing.
And quivering awhile among the draperies of the room, it at length rested in full view upon the surface of the door of brass. But the shadow was vague, and formless, and indefinite, and was the shadow neither of man nor God - neither God of Greece, nor God of Chaldaea, nor any Egyptian God. And the shadow rested upon the brazen doorway, and under the arch of the entablature of the door and moved not, nor spoke any word, but there became stationary and remained. And the door whereupon the shadow rested was, if I remember aright, over against the feet of the young Zoilus enshrouded. But we, the seven there assembled, having seen the shadow as it came out from among the draperies, dared not steadily behold it, but cast down our eyes, and gazed continually into the depths of the mirror of ebony. And at length I, Oinos, speaking some low words, demanded of the shadow its dwelling and its appellation. And the shadow answered, "I am SHADOW, and my dwelling is near to the Catacombs of Ptolemais, and hard by those dim plains of Helusion which border upon the foul Charonian canal." And then did we, the seven, start from our seats in horror, and stand trembling, and shuddering, and aghast; for the tones in the voice of the shadow were not the tones of any being, but of a multitude of beings, and varying in their cadences from syllable to syllable, fell duskily upon our ears in the well-remembered and familiar accents of many thousand departed friends.
(Edgar Allan Poe)
That corpse you planted last year in your garden, Has it begun to sprout ? Will it bloom this year? Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men, Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!
(John Webster, quoted by T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land, 1 - The Burial of the Dead)
1 January 2000