The tale may be apocryphal, but I know someone who swears that while visiting the home of a friend of a friend he observed a number of ECM CDs propped up on the mantelpiece. He pointed to one of the discs and said, "That's a terrific album!" To which the householder replied: "Actually, I wouldn't know, I haven't got round to playing it. Mostly I buy these CDs for the covers." I mention this because the photograph fronting Heiner Goebbels' Surrogate Cities is stunningly beautiful, and the packaging of his CD ...is sumptuous.
When the artwork and the design concept are so strong, there's a possibility they'll overshadow the music. That doesn't happen here. Goebbels' music is accomplished and compelling, and within the last twelve months no CD of 20th century composition has impressed me more. Surrogate Cities is the seventh album he's recorded for ECM since 1980, of which only the first was an improvisation project. During the '80s he was a member of the avant-rock group Cassiber, and he had a long and fruitful association with the saxophonist Alfred 23 Harth. Since 1985, when composition became his primary concern, he's worked extensively with texts. Kafka, Heiner Mueller, Hugo Hamilton and Paul Auster are featured on Surrogate Cities, and even the prefacing quotes in the CD booklet are well-chosen quality lit.
The overall concept is cities: their contours, their history, their function, their inhabitants. But the texts selected by Goebbels make only oblique or glancing reference to these potentially very dense and refractory topics. The textless compositions 'D & C' (for large orchestra) and 'Suite for Sampler and Orchestra' address the concept in the abstract language of music. The concerns of the former are architectonic and generalisable to many cities. The tenor of the piece is established by the five portentous blows with which it begins (a reference to Kafka's story 'The City Coat Of Arms'), and which punctuate it at regular intervals. The sampler suite is concerned with stratification, slicing vertically through a city to reveal hidden aspects, subterranean layers, an archaeology of meaning. Actually, several cities are evoked by way of brief ambient samples: Berlin, New York, Tokyo, Lyons and St. Petersburg. The music samples - David Moss Dense Band, Third Person, Entouch, Otomo Yoshihide, Karl Biscuit and Xavier Garcia - are every bit as enigmatic and brief. Only the lengthier samples of a handful of Jewish cantors (taken from cleaned-up 1920s and '30s recordings) are readily identifiable as such. The suite progresses more by way of deft juxtaposition than organic development, and subtly configured Baroque quotations allude to the history of western music.
The dramatic and intense 'The Horatian - Three Songs' (adapted by Mueller from Livy's tale of moral ambiguity) is sung by soul-jazz diva Jocelyn B. Smith. She and David Moss (who performs on 'Surrogate') have disciplined voices, but their timbral range and expressivity are considerably greater than those of singers from the classical tradition. Both of them sing on 'In the Country of Last Things', which combines a narrative (Moss) about loss and uncertainty with wordless elegiac vocals (Smith). The subtlety of performance on this composition is typical of the CD as a whole.
AVANT (oa), 1/2001