Dazzled by the future

At last here is progressive music that makes sense

Sometimes, alas too rarely, a critic stumbles across a new work that is so ingeniously conceived, so mesmerising, so far ahead of the rest of the field, that the only immediate response is a dropped jaw, a dazed grin and a gulped croak of 'bravo'. I entered the Royal Lyceum with no great expectations of Black on White, a 'music theatre piece for 18 players' written last year by the 45-year-old German composer, Heiner Goebbels. Seventy-five thrilling minutes later I staggered out with renewed faith in the musical avant-garde. Once every decade or so, the progressives do actually manage to make a bit of significant progress. I gues that Black on White is it for the Nineties.
On a stage packed with dozens of bare benches, the players are required to be both conventional musicians and unconventional actors in a series of enigmatic tableux. Some are funny and quirky. There is a marvellous hard-driven rock opening, for instance, with half the instrumentalists playing the music and the other half playing mad games of badminton, skittles and dice.
Some are whimsical and poignant, such as the scene in which a lonely piccolo player concocts a haunting lament while waiting for his kettle to boil. And others are downright menacing: there is a terrifying moment when an entire brass band advances on the audience, bench by bench, while repeatedly hammering out two baleful chords.
Described in this piecemeal fashion, Black on White probably sounds like some born-again Sixties frolic. But running through the work, unifying it and giving it richness and direction, is a thread of dark and deep elegy. Black on White was written as a memorial for the German theatre director and writer Heiner Mueller, and a recording of Mueller reading Edgar Allan Poe's morbid parable, Shadow, is a recurring feature.
Time and again in Black on White some striking musical or visual image of mechanistic brutality is conjured up, only for a single player - a wailing saxophone, say, or a bluesy trumpeter - to rise above it with a fierce or tender assertion of individuality. The metaphor is left deliberately open-ended: it could be a rebel making a political stand against oppressive conformity; or the creative artist raging against the dying of the light: or the human spirit transcending some crushing misery or terror. But when, near the end, the entire ensemble sits in silence and watches a metal pendulum, suspended from the stage roof, eerily strum back and forth across the strings of a Japanese Koto, the feeling of being drawn into some timeless ritual of mourning is overwhelming.
To evoke such intense emotional states Goebbels draws on a huge range of musical styles: everything from big-band jazz and Hungarian-style cimbalom music to African chant and appearances by a didgeridoo and an air-raid siren. His staging is no less eclectic, mixing classic Expressionist effects - shadows, silhouettes, bare bulbs - with stunning group scenes in which the musical ensemble moves with the precision of a well-drilled ballet company.
In less competent hands, such a collision of disparate elements would be a mess. But this synthesis of music, mime, lighting, projection, speech and electronic sound is marshalled with dazzling assurance. And executed - by the magnificently versatile players of the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern - with the total conviction that comes from having lived with the composer through the creation of the work.
The trouble with presenting such a piece on the final two nights of the Edinburgh Festival is that it makes much of what has gone before sound desperately hackneyed. Especially other pieces of new music! [...]
(Richard Morrison)

Richard Morrison
The Times (GB), 1 September 1997