Disordered memories in an attic
A museum of phrases: Eraritjaritjake, by Heiner Goebbels, based on texts by Elias Canetti, at the Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne
What is a composer? Etymologically, it is someone who composes, puts together. But what does he put together? For Adrian Leverkühn, in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus – and even in the more conservative musiclovers do not see it this way – the world was still in order. A composer composed his own works from the twelve notes of the tempered system. For John Cage this was not enough, as it was the complete universe of sounds that the composer, in his opinion, had to make audible. But since La Monte Young used a splinter of wood from a Bösendorfer to make a ‘piece for piano’ nothing has been quite the same in the world of composers. Since then, Richard Wager and Mr. Bösendorfer both deserve the title of ‘composer’, the Ring and a grand piano serving their vocation as total works of art. And perhaps that is not so bad.
What is a musical play? From an historical point of view, it is a work destined for the stage in which people sing, speak, act and, occasionally, dance. For the inventor of musical theatre, it was too much. Spoken dialogues? They existed already in operettas, before the Revolution. Dance? An unnecessary addition, typical of the Latin mentality. It was time for a totally musical, theatrical work. But the hierarchy inherited from the past was still all too present: the musicians, in the orchestra pit, played; the singers, on stage, sang; the conductor, on his rostrum, took care that nothing was heard that the composer had not intended to be heard. But that time is past, since instrumental theatre and the anti-authoritarian movement took over the universe of music. Henceforth, singers play instruments, the orchestra is on the stage, the conductor takes part in the action by humming. Not only do all have the possibility, they also have the obligation to contribute to the composition.
What is an artist? Let’s be clear about this: he is not only the inventor of beautiful things. Eclecticism and objet trouvé, serigraphy and play-back, quotation and theory of the open form have destabilized the notion of the value of the original. And is the artist perplexed, under the dome of the XXIst century? He has become ingenious.
One might see Heiner Goebbels as a composer of musical plays. And as an artist, giving full meaning to the term ‘composer’ – author of musical theatre: he associates sounds and words, images, movements and lighting which do not necessarily belong to him. He puts them together in a production which he initiates, but is not limited to him. He is the modern composer, par excellence. And one of the most tonic, it has to be said. He has just written a new work for the Théâtre de Vidy-Lausanne (where two of his musical plays had already been presented – Max Black and Hashirigaki) – Eraritjaritjaka, ‘a museum of phrases.’
Anyone who knows Heiner Goebbels’ work will have no difficulty recognizing him here, even if the music is borrowed mainly from Chostakovitch and Ravel, Gavin Bryars and George Crumb, J-S. Bach, Ciacinto Scelsi and Alexeij Mossolove, even if the texts – including the title, a mysterious word from the Aborigine language – are all taken from the works of Elias Canetti. For the art of transposing everything into gesture, with the help of the language virtuoso, his favourite actor André Wilms, the art of weaving links between global vision and acoustic signals, this can only belong to Heiner Goebbels. And makes him a composer, in the literal sense of the word, assembling others’ materials.
And this is what happens: the four musicians of the Dutch Mondriaan Quartet, dressed in black, come on stage and start to play, as if this were a chamber music concert. Nothing suggests a musical play but it looks as though the programme of the string quartet will continue. But because we are in a theatre and conditioned as playgoers, we start to observe the musicians’ movements. We notice how the musical phrases are prolonged into the arm movements, how the head movement of the first violin transmits the melodic theme to the second violin. And suddenly, in the harmonious rhythm of the four musicians, we also distinguish the musical summum of the piece. Goebbels uses the audience’s expectations to communicate something of the structure of the music and this reminds one of John Cage’s iconoclastic concepts of exibition: when, in a glass cabinet, a Greek vase with images of warriors is placed next to Polynesian shrunken heads, the object does not tell the same stories that it would if placed with a collection of other ancient works of art.
Suddenly the musicians stand up, take their chairs and go to the back of the stage. But the music that they were playing continues – on tape – increasingly interrupted by sounds, increasingly violent, as if paper or cloth were being torn. A luminous line appears, like those that indicate the safety issues on planes. As the noise becomes louder, the line becomes broader as if someone was lacerating the black ground to transform it into a square of white light. These interactions between optic signs and acoustic signs are characteristic of the whole play.
André Wims starts to say, and act, Canetti’s texts: texts drawn from his many autobiographical works, from his novel Auto-da-fé and from his essay Mass and Power; observations on human behaviour, Canettis’ ‘minima corporalia’, converted into images, simultaneously grotesque and utterly convincing. While he is reciting the impressive passage on relationships with animals, taken from Man’s Territory, a little remote-controlled robot crosses the stage, an ‘electric insect’, which seems to have come directly from a George Crumb composition, Black Angels: “Every time you observe an animal attentively, you have the feeling that a human is hidden inside and is laughing at you.”
Heiner Goebbels, Klaus Grünberg, his lighting specialist, Florence von Gerkan, responsible for the costumes, and Bruno Deville, live video cameraman, do not overdo the accessories or the signs. But each action echoes other moments of the performance so that the totality is aspired into a vertiginous complexity. Halfway through the play (one and a half hours with no intermission, accompanied by the string quartet only), André Wilms put his coat on and leaves the theatre. The video camera follows him and films his departure through the foyer, his taxi ride through Lausanne, the flat where he lives, right up to the attic in disorder. The images are projected on to the façade of a house, the backcloth. Imperceptibly, the play has become a film. But the actions appears to be taking place in real time, the television news is of that day (the Dutroux court case one evening, the enlargement of the European Community another...), the clock shows the time that it really is in the theatre, Wilms tears the page for that day off a calendar. And then, on stage, the windows open, we see a flesh and blood André Wilms writing on a typewriter, while the video system projects the same scene. Where are we? In a theatre? At the cinema? Where is reality, where is fiction? Our sense of disorientation is consolidated by Bach’s Art of the Fugue. Goebbels is trying to decipher the secret of our reality, without revealing it. He has succeeded.
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (DE), 22 April 2004