Music as Theatre
Heiner Goebbels, Ensemble Modern
Adelaide Festival, March 12
In Black on White, subtitled 'a musical play', professional musicians in ordinary dress occasionally form a static ensemble, but often they are on the move, choreographed across a vast space into small and large groups, playing while standing, while walking, sometimes oddly seated (crouched over keyboards or their backs to us), singing, changing instruments, taking turns at conducting and at speaking. This is musical performance as theatre. The music is in large part committed to memory, save the moments when the musicians carry small score sheets with them, rest them on the rows of benches that fill the space, stick them on their instruments, leave them behind.
Black on White begins with an almost empty stage. A musician draws a glass across an autoharp, another arranges a pendulum to casually strike the strings of an electric guitar laid across a bench. Black on White also begins with the sound of writing, an amplified pen scratching across paper, and the murmur of a voice. Other musicians enter, the playing apperently informal, but fast assuming shape as they also 'play' - a dice game, bat and ball, the throwing of soft balls at amplified gong and bass drum - and then transforms into a powerful united ensemble.
Later the sound of pen against paper recurs. A wall of paper receives projections and shadows (echoing the Edgar Allen Poe Shadow text) until it crumples later to reveal double the performing space through which almost the entire ensemble will march across the bench tops like a brass band (for this work they all learned to play brass instruments). One 'proscenium arch' midway down the space falls floating as if in slow motion to the floor raising dust and scattering score sheets left on benches. The flautist sets fire to the paper that held his tea bag before his Debussyian duet with whistling kettle; as the paper burns it takes off up over him, sparking and disintegrating. Huge washes of light flare up, reframing the music, the space, the play with the acoustic. Many of the instruments are amplified but the play of near and far, especially in the 'brass band' and solo koto exchange, is fully exploited. Fluorescent lights flicker up from beneath every bench, lengthening the space. A light is dragged slowly along the floor by its power cord throwing up travelling shadows of the benches as giant tables.
Musicians read Poe (the trumpeter alternating his playing with reading), Eliot, Blanchot aloud, the recorded voice of the late Heiner Mueller fills the space, a violinist screams into the microphone over the bridge to complete a musical line. Different musics compete and coalesce, hard against soft, form against form - a saxophonist wails with be-bop intensity against a wall of elegiac brass, snapping to silence as the first proscenium falls. The world of Black on White is of words on paper, notes on score sheets, shadows on a paper screen, musicians against shifting white light. Paper crumples, burns, falls , prosceniums collapse, notes disintegrate. In the final darkness violins creak and twitch and fade. Not a few thought this the performance of the festival.
The Ensemble Modern perform unselfconsciously and with an ease that belies their considerable task. In a generous two hour illustrated talk (to be reported in RealTime 25), Heiner Goebbels told us that having been commissioned by the Ensemble Modern to create a work for them he went to the first week's workshop without a note in his head and asked them what they couldn't do or hadn't done. By the end of that week he knew what he would create with them.
Realtime (AU), April/May 1998