Songs of Wars I Have Seen
A new work by Heiner Goebbels is one of the most beguiling experiences contemporary music has to offer. His finest pieces, more than a dozen of them now, defy categorisation, for Goebbels blurs the boundaries between music and theatre, and rock, jazz and classical traditions more consistently and potently than any other composer alive.
As always, a simple description hardly conveys the imaginative power with which Goebbels brings together the most unlikely material and makes it merge in a unique and unforgettable way. Songs of Wars I Have Seen, commissioned by the Southbank Centre, was composed for the combined forces of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, who provide the strings and most of the woodwind, and the London Sinfonietta, who supply the brass, percussion and keyboards. It is a meditation on the effects of war on women, refracted through extracts from Gertrude Stein's memoir of living in Vichy France during the second world war. The women in both orchestras take turns to recite the texts - touching, mundane, comically surreal - in an intimate, conversational style that builds into an incantation akin to a Greek chorus, while their colleagues, conducted by Sian Edwards, conjure the sound environment around them.
The juxtaposition of modern and period instruments brings a built-in historical perspective to the music. But Goebbels underlines this with excerpts from Matthew Locke's 1674 score for The Tempest, so that his own music, with its insidious rhythmic samples and haunting melodic riffs, unpredictably slips across four centuries. Such moments could seem contrived, but Goebbels makes them magical, just as his ending, with a haze of temple bowls through which a trumpet threads a lonely lament, becomes the perfect image to sum up the bittersweet poetry of this extraordinary musical experience.
The Guardian (GB), 14 July 2007