A musical mystery tour

THE box office staff at the Edinburgh International Festival are sure to be having a laugh. That’s because anyone calling for tickets for the new Heiner Goebbels show will have to make an attempt at pronouncing the title. And exactly how are they supposed to pronounce Eraritjaritjaka? t’s the first question I put to Goebbels - the director and composer who works at the intersection of classical music and theatre - but he leaves me none the wiser.
"Just make it very simple," he says, rattling the title out in a way that doesn’t sound simple at all. My rough interpretation is this: you should put the stress on the two ‘it’ syllables and deliver it with a groovy jazz rhythm. Otherwise just call up and ask for the Heiner Goebbels show.
A piece of music theatre that depends on a clever visual surprise - I won’t ruin it for you - Eraritjaritjaka features Amsterdam’s Mondriaan Quartet playing the music of JS Bach, Gavin Bryars, Ravel, Shostakovich and others. They are joined on stage by actor André Wilms reciting enigmatic texts by essayist Elias Canetti. During the multimedia performance, Wilms takes a journey into a house where all is not what it seems.
How does Goebbels describe it? "That’s one thing I don’t have to do," he says. "With all my work I try to make this question difficult. What drives the attention of an audience is the unforeseeable, and the secrets and the mystery of a performance. That’s what I’m trying to work on. It starts like a string quartet concert, but you shouldn’t expect it to stay like this."
He suggests it’s an opportunity to experience the ideas of Elias Canetti, a Bulgarian writer better known on the continent than in Britain, even though he lived here as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Vienna from 1938 until his death in 1994.
A sometime lover of Iris Murdoch, Canetti published a study of mass behaviour and totalitarianism, Crowds and Power; a novel, Auto-da-Fé which won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981; two autobiographies, a number of absurdist plays and several books of aphorisms.
It is these elliptical and unconnected aphorisms that Goebbels uses in combination with "some of the most beautiful string quartet music of the 20th century". Audiences who saw Goebbels’ previous shows at the Edinburgh Festival, Black on White and the Beach Boys-inspired Hashirigaki, will know not to expect the conventional. "A wonderful lady after the show said to me it was like being in a picture of Magritte," he says. "Nobody was ever able to describe so precisely what I intended to do."
THE PERFORMANCE is the third instalment of a trilogy, though their relationship is only thematic and it does not matter that the first two parts, Ou Bien le Débarquement Désastreux and Max Black, have not been seen in Edinburgh. There are two factors that connect the three parts. One is actor André Wilms, who starred in Deborah Warner’s A Doll’s House and Aki Kaurismäki’s Juha. The other is that each piece was inspired by a writer’s informal notebooks: Ou Bien... combined writings by Joseph Conrad with African music, while Max Black teamed notes by Ludwig Wittgenstein with electronic music.
"It’s not very well known that Canetti published five or six little notebooks of observations he made during the day, in the newspaper, looking out of the window, looking into people’s eyes on the tram, on the subway," says Goebbels.
"He looked with his sharp, uncorrupted mind. I’ve been working only with these little notes, these aphorisms, on animals, the world, relationships, human beings, education, on a lot of subjects. What I love so much in this genre of non-dramatic literature is that you can attend to somebody’s thinking. I try to make it visible or audible."
By "non-dramatic" he means there’s no narrative that holds the text together. The language is non-linear. To create a show of this nature is a slow and steady process of workshopping and experiment. After dwelling on the idea for a couple of years, Goebbels spent a week improvising with Wilms last October, at which point there was too much text and too much music. After further whittling down and shaping, the show was ready to premiere in April, the language inspiring the selection of music.
"I’m trying to find metaphorical reasons for the choice of music," says Goebbels. "There are lines to be drawn through the music of the piece. One could be music that has been dedicated to similar subjects, such as Shostakovich and Mossolov, who were always dealing with authoritarian structures and political experiences.
"On the other hand, there is a chronological line through the piece which starts with quite an early string quartet from Shostakovich and goes up to an American string quartet from the end of the century."
In the notoriously conservative world of classical music, you’d expect Goebbels’ approach to be controversial. The string quartets might be central to Eraritjaritjaka, but the musicians are rarely positioned in the usual faces-to-the-audience arrangement and are frequently upstaged by the visual effects. Goebbels’ experience, however, is that audiences and players have a hunger for more imaginative staging, and it’s rare for the traditionalists to get indignant.
"We have to be aware that every concert is a performance - and a performance in a visual sense," says Goebbels, who is a professor at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies in Giessen in Germany. "If we don’t reflect that then we are not moving the genre ahead. In the construction of the piece there’s something that gives a new perspective on what we thought we knew already. How can music be visible? That’s something I try in Eraritjaritjaka: not only how the mind can be visible in a very entertaining way but also how music can be visible."
The simple act of putting a string quartet on a stage with theatre lighting is enough, he says, to change an audience’s perspective. "The treasure of the string quartet repertoire is so rich that if you change a little bit about it, it will immediately change your focus.
"Even if you’ve been seeing string quartets for 20 years, you will suddenly discover the elegance of an arm; you will see the communication between musicians when they have to play the fugue of Johann Sebastian Bach over a distance of eight metres, because they are sitting in the corners of a square. It’s tiny things that can make the architecture of music visible in a very pleasant way."
In this, Goebbels is less an iconoclast than a sensitive artist genuinely interested in - and often respectful of - the boundaries between the different art forms. "There are a lot of boundaries," he says. "But it is very interesting to cross them.
"It is very interesting to pretend, for example, that the whole night will be a string quartet evening and to end up with a live, hand-held video which nobody would expect at the beginning. There are a lot of different laws and preconceptions to be respected, but it is very nice to go back and forth."

Marc Fisher
The Scotsman (GB), 22 August 2004