Round peg in a square hole

Everything Heiner Goebbels touches turns to music - words, pictures or sound. He tells Andrew Clements about breaking the rules
Brian McMaster's benevolent reign as artistic director of the Edinburgh festival may not always feature contemporary music as prominently as it might or should do, but it has made a regular feature of the works of Heiner Goebbels.
It was at Edinburgh in 1997 that the first Goebbels piece to make people sit up and take notice, Black on White, was brought to Britain by Ensemble Modern, and there have been more premieres in subsequent festivals - the theatrical Eislermaterial and Hashirigaki, as well as the concert work Surrogate Cities. Next week, Goebbels' latest work makes its British debut at the festival - Eraritjaritjaka, first seen in April in Lausanne, Switzerland, completes a trilogy that Goebbels has built around the French actor André Wilms.
Eraritjaritjaka (the title comes from the Australian Aboriginal language Aranda, describing a desire for something that has been lost) is a typical Goebbels achievement, bewitching to look at, as compelling, mysterious and intricately layered as everything he produces, and just as hard to categorise.
The text is made up of quotations from the notebooks of the Nobel prize-winning writer Elias Canetti, creating what Goebbels calls a "musée des phrases", and he has compiled the score in the same way, to create an equivalent "museum" of the string quartet. A live group (the Mondriaan Quartet of Amsterdam) plays music that surveys the whole historical span of the quartet repertoire: Shostakovich's Eighth and the Ravel Quartet feature most prominently, but there are also shorter extracts
from a range of composers from Bach to Gavin Bryars.
Then there is the theatrical staging - directed as always by Goebbels himself and making much use of real-time video - with Wilms delivering Canetti's words as a monologue to a counterpoint of mysterious encounters and everyday activities.
It all sounds contrived, but it's a perfect example of Goebbels' dramatic alchemy. He brings together material from very different cultures and artistic genres and makes them cohere in an extraordinarily powerful way, cutting across all the usual categories of the performing arts in the process.
In Black on White, for instance, a recorded interview with the dramatist Heiner Müller (to whose memory the whole work is dedicated) is one starting point. A short story by Edgar Allen Poe is another; the musicians are required to sing, recite and move around the stage while playing Goebbels' score. Hashirigaki is woven from a novel by Gertrude Stein and the backing tracks to the Beach Boys album Pet Sounds, and draws in elements from Japanese music as well.
Goebbels says he only thinks of himself as a composer "from time to time", and points out that much of what he does (such as everything in Eraritjaritjaka apart from the very end) does not involve his own music at all. But everything about his pieces - the way in which the layers of image, text and sounds interact, the way the performers move and relate to what is heard - is entirely musical, arranged in a totally composerly way.
In any case, he has never felt constrained by the usual stylistic pigeonholes that make it easier to deal with all contemporary art forms, but music especially. Goebbels wouldn't fit into them in any case, and puts that down to his fundamentally anti-authoritarian outlook, and to growing up in a family in which he could encounter classical music and pop on equal terms.
Though he was born in 1952 in south-west Germany, he has been based in Frankfurt for more than 30 years. His home is a 10-minute walk from the city's central station, a few blocks from where, in the 1970s, when he was studying sociology at the university, he lived in a squat as part of what he describes as an "undogmatic" group of leftwing students that included Daniel
Kohn Bendit and Joschka Fischer, now the German foreign minister. Despite all the music in his upbringing, Goebbels never considered it as a possible career, expecting he would do something with more social relevance, though he played in jazz and rock bands in his spare time.
What changed all that was his discovery of Hanns Eisler - the pupil of Schoenberg and long-time collaborator of Bertolt Brecht who fell foul of the Un-American Activities Committee in the USA after the second world war and returned to the fledgling East Germany, where he became a leading intellectual figure and composed the country's national anthem. Goebbels got to know Eisler's songs in the mid-1970s, and at the same time discovered a book of interviews in which Eisler laid out his belief that music and politics could be reconciled. Goebbels abandoned his ideas of a career in sociology in favour of studying music, and putting into practice what he had learned: "In a way," he says, "Eisler changed my life."
More than 20 years later, Goebbels acknowledged that debt in Eislermaterial, a spare, haunting tribute to the composer incorporating both Eisler's original songs and some of the music Goebbels had written in the 1970s.
Written again for Ensemble Modern, the piece is minimally theatrical; the musicians sit around the edge of the stage, creating an empty space with a bust of Eisler at the centre: "My staging of Eislermaterial is extremely shy, so that people have to come closer to the music rather than the music seeming too upfront ... I don't think such a setting would work with any
other 20th-century composer."
Theatre has played an important part in his career from the outset. In the late 1970s Goebbels was the musical director at the Schauspiel in Frankfurt, where he worked with directors such as Ruth Berghaus and Hans Neuenfels, and it was there he met Müller, who was to be the next major influence on his work.
They worked together for a decade, producing a number of Horspielen pieces for radio that reflected both Müller's views about the importance of words and how they should be delivered and Goebbels' views on how text and his music should be combined. "My thinking about literature and my thinking about the relationship between words and music comes a lot from Heiner Müller," he admits, and it's no accident that his first international success, Black on White, should have become a memorial to Müller, who died while it was being composed.
Yet Goebbels' vision of theatre is very much his own. The trilogy of pieces conceived for Wilms - Or the Hapless Landing (1993), Max Black (1998) and now Eraritjaritjaka - shows how vivid that imagination can be and how every piece occupies its own utterly distinct world. "Whenever I work with André Wilms I find I use texts that are not dramatic, which are not written for the stage, because those tend to concentrate on relationships and emotions rather than on the thoughts behind the words. That's why I like
to use notebooks - from Francis Ponge and Joseph Conrad in Or the Hapless Landing, Valéry and Wittgenstein in Max Black and now the notebooks of Canetti for Eraritjaritjaka. I deliberately didn't use Canetti's plays or much from his only novel Auto da Fe; I'm looking for words or images or music that open up perspectives, not narrow them; that's why I favour those texts."
Yet the words are only one layer of Eraritjaritjaka; there is the music - "I think the string quartet is the field of music that has been most explored. Almost every 20th-century composer has composed for string quartet" - and the staging, in which everything has a role to play. "When I balance these different elements they have to coexist, and for that coexistence I work on all of them - the set and the lighting as well as the music and the text - from the very first day of rehearsals. The later a medium arrives in the process, the more illustrative its role becomes. But you only have this freedom [to alter things during rehearsals] when you don't have to follow a dramatic text, and when you don't have to do it in the last three days of rehearsal; by then it is too late."
But Goebbels' refusal to fit into pre-existing categories still causes problems; the Germans, he observes, invented pigeonholes. So last year he completed his first opera - or at least a theatre work, Landscape with Distant Relatives, that he described as an opera, and which was first staged in an opera house, in Geneva. But he admits the label was a trick, an attempt to get German music critics to see one of his pieces. When Black on White was first performed in Frankfurt, in 1996, the premiere took place in a disused tram shed and was more or less ignored by the opera world, simply because the venue was unfamiliar. "So I called this work an opera and all the German music critics came; they even went to Geneva to see it, just because I had called it an opera."

Andrew Clements
The Guardian (GB), 20 August 2004