Masterly memorial

Black on White, Barbican Theatre, London

Heiner Goebbels' Black On White is a defining achievement in contemporary music, one of those rare works that reorders our perception of what music theatre is and what it can be.
It seemed extraordinary and unclassifiable when the Ensemble Modern, for whom the piece was written and who realise it with a virtuosity and commitment that are sometimes hard to believe, introduced it to the Edinburgh Festival two years ago. The London premiere on Thursday demonstrated that it has lost very little of that power to amaze and enchant. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the show is a little less slick that before - tonight's performance at the Barbican will be the 50th the Ensemble has given - but it is still unique.
Black on White operates on several planes. On one level it is a memorial to the German dramatist and director Heiner Mueller, a close collaegue of Goebbels, who died while composition was in progress. Mueller's recorded voice is heard at several points during the 70-minute work reading from an Edgar Allan Poe short story, which is one of the elements binding the structure together. Leading on from the tribute, it becomes an exploration of the whole business of creativity, too, of putting black on white - words on paper as Mueller did, notes on staves as Goebbels does.
But most allusively of all, the whole relationship of instrumental performance to dramatic gesture is redefined. The musicians are required to do many other things besides playing their instruments superbly: they play skittles with brass mutes, use the lid of a harpsichord as a chequerboard, throw tennis balls at a metal sheet. The soundworld combines conventional music - driving bass riffs, delirious instrumental breaks and bluesy laments - with the sounds of the surreal byplay; at one point the piccolo player solemny fills a whistling kettle with water and brings it to boil, before playing a intricate little solo around the sound of its whistle.
There is a whole emotional world there, with moments of menace and moments of eloquent stillness. The ending is heartstopping: to the sound of a Japanese Koto strummed by a swinging pendulum, the ensemble makes a silent salute to Mueller's memory. Catch it while you can. Black On White is a masterpiece.

Andrew Clements
The Guardian (GB), 3 July 1999