Four Gentlemen in Gray
The Hilliard Ensemble performs a staged concert by Heiner Goebbels
What lights a certain composer's fire? What triggers his creative process? And is the development of an artwork a sequential chain of events? For instance, in the case of the stage concert I Went to the House but Did Not Enter, did the composer take historically significant, euphonious texts, create sounds to illustrate and support them, then develop images, then work on the realization? Or for a multi-faceted creative personality like Heiner Goebbels, does it all start to emerge at once, the inchoate becoming ever more concrete? At what point in the creative process do artistic decisions become frozen? When is the work done? The work's constituent elements are so closely aligned with one another, that "concept, music, and direction" — all covered by Goebbels — feel inseparable. Is the compositional process solitary, the realization a well-coordinated team effort? I have no answers, just many questions.
This evening's work — at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele for four performances as part of a ten-month tour to France, Spain, Italy and the US, among other countries — debuted at the Edinburgh International Festival in August 2008. It consists of three separate tableaux on four different literary texts. The sole performers are the four singers of the Hilliard Ensemble. They sometimes sing a capella, and are sometimes accompanied by a subtle electronic soundtrack.
I went to the house and did not enter: zum Vergrößern klicken / click to enlarge
I Went to the House but Did Not Enter is quieter, more meditative, smaller in scope than other Goebbels works performed in Berlin in recent years. We are not directly spoken to, or shaken up in our assumptions. One theme of the text is alienation. In The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock, we feel how difficult it is to render one's experience precisely, to define one's terms, as all is subjective. In Maurice Blanchot's The Madness of the Day, the speakers have an out-of-body / in-body experience — feeling pain and observing themselves doing so at the same time. And in the sentence fragments of Samuel Beckett's Worstward Ho, we hear "the voice", "dim", "worse" — "What when words gone? None for what then." All the texts are shaped as stream-of-consciousness monologues distributed across the four gentlemen in gray.
At Surrogate Cities and Landschaft mit Entfernten Verwandten, I recall being overwhelmed by the quantity of sound, the eclectic combination of jazz and electronic elements, the colorful visuals. Here the set is simple, ingenious but not lush. Musically, much here is set on one tone, or in narrow intervals. A brief break into harmony in the short Kafka text — tones a third or fourth apart heard simultaneously — comes as a surprise, almost as a relief.
The Hilliard Ensembe
The performance by the Hilliard Ensemble is masterful. The work seems tailor-made for the somber, earnest ensemble in their gray wool British costumes, wearing suspenders and hats. Could it be performed by any four other singers?
This is a work of maturity. There's never any hurry or impatience. The basic emotion is a kind of distanced, adult wonder, which is what we feel as well.
16 November 2008