Hanns Eisler is Heiner Goebbels's musical hero; he keeps a bust of the east German on his desk when he is composing, a reminder that it was his encounter with Eisler's works and writings in the early 1970s that got him into the business in the first place. Goebbels, who was 50 last week, was studying sociology in Frankfurt when he discovered Eisler, whose ability to bring together politics and music in a perfectly natural, outward-looking synthesis, has informed his own music ever since, allowing him to cross the borders between the avant garde, jazz and rock.
The very first album that Goebbels made was a series of improvisations upon Eisler's music, and those same works are brought into Eislermaterial, which is surely his definitive homage. It is an hour-long compilation of his idol's songs and instrumental pieces, interspersed with Goebbels's own musical commentary, woven into a spell-binding continuum. In Ensemble Modern's live performances it has been staged, with the musicians ranged in an arc around the platform with Goebbels's own bust of Eisler at the centre, but it is not strictly a music-theatre piece in the dynamic way that the earlier Black on White and the later Hashirigaki unmistakably are.
As always with Goebbels, the combination of these different elements is greater than the sum of its parts - he interlaces Eisler's bittersweet melodies and biting lyrics (most of them by Brecht) with his own arrangements and freely invented music worked out in rehearsal with Ensemble Modern. The opening is totally magical: a wheezy harmonium cranks out the tune of Eisler's Anmut sparet nicht noch Mühe, then quietly, and totally without self-parody, the instrumentalists sing the first verse, before the cracked, achingly nostalgic voice of soloist Josef Bierbichler takes over. The songs that Bierbichler contributes, with their simple, effective melodies, contrast with the highly wrought samples of Eisler's instrumental music - he was after all a Schoenberg pupil - yet everything coheres, everything is bound together by Goebbels's enthusiasm and his gift for the most unlikely juxtapositions.
Eislermaterial is simultaneously a tribute, a disinterment and a deconstruction; but it is also an enchanting and affectionate portrait of one of the most fascinating and underrated figures in 20th-century music, put together by one of the most original composers working today.
The Guardian (GB), 23 August 2002