Black on White
Between Bertolt Brecht and le jazz hot, Antonin Artaud and Louis Andriessen, Bernstein's Mass and the proverbial "kitchen sink" lies German composer/theater artist Heiner Goebbels. The Lincoln Center Festival's presentation of Black on White was a completely involving evening of non-linear music theater, never pretentious or artsier-than-thou - and this is no easy trick.
It's an interesting notion: compose a work in which the orchestra (in this case, more like a sinfonietta) does more than the usual assemble-play-leave routine - in other words, make them "characters" in a "drama." As the lights dimmed, the sound of a stylus scratching on parchment was heard while a mysterious, elegant voice intoned in German a gothic text by Edgar Allen Poe and the band filed in to form a tableau vivant on a row of benches that vaguely resembled a locker room. The first bits of music in the piece are a good example of Goebbels' use of disparate elements: the ensemble plays wild and loud unisons over steady jazz-kit drumming, leading to a New Orleans brass band stomp. The piece was full of such strange and powerful moments - yet things never became frivolous or out of control.
Amidst the extravagance were moments of pure, quiet beauty: an achingly melodic piccolo solo (accompanied by a boiling teapot); an elegant section where a koto player ritually assembled her instrument, only to have the rest of the ensemble, all playing brass instruments, fiendishly converge on her; the entire cast playing violins in eerie pantomime; sampled cantorial singing; choral repetition of the words "And a dead weight hung upon us" in the fashion of a jazzy funeral dirge. These moments of repose were well balanced against the more quirky parts to create something that was thought through and complete.
Goebbels' score is skilled and precise, ranging from hot jazz to traditional atonal music to heavy metal rock (after a fashion) to just about everything else; this is pluralism at its most plural, but done with heart and class. The rock element is definitely not the sign of a composer's midlife crisis: Goebbels incorporates it with the taste and panache of an enthusiastic musical collector - it is entirely genuine, never predictable, and always theatrically germane. Black on White is also (perhaps surprisingly) completely notated: listening to the CD (on BMG, but sadly out of print at this writing) gives an accurate account of what will happen in the live performance. Even though the "actors" hurl tennis balls against an amplified thunder sheet, play instruments that are not their own, leap to microphones to deliver poetry, etc., this well-wrought work contains very little improvisation.
The true "star" of Black on White is the Ensemble Modern. They were involved in the creation of this piece, and it shows in things aside from their musicianship such as oboist Catherine Milliken's ferocious, sexy delivery of T. S. Eliot and violist Susan Knight's impressive throwing arm. Though not an overt political statement, composing this piece for a collective (Ensemble Modern is a truly democratic organization, without an artistic director) reflects the composer's politically active past, adding an autobiographical edge.
If there is a proscribed way an artist ought to behave in the 21st century, Heiner Goebbels has captured it. Unlike much avant-twaddle, Black on White is a whole piece of music which comes alive in performance, rather than an unsatisfying performance-art piece which wears its own incomprehensibility like a badge of honor. Getting the musicians out of their chairs is not a new idea (Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony is an early precursor), but to do something like this and have it not come off as a rough-hewn free-for-all is nothing short of wizardry. With Black on White, Heiner Goebbels is the wizard behind the curtain - and we should pay attention.
andante (US), August 2001