Two Worlds Bridged

The first performance of Heiner Goebbels' 'Songs of Wars I have Seen'

There was an enthusiastic reception for the world première of Songs of Wars I have Seen, the latest music-theatre 'happening' by the exciting iconoclastic German composer Heiner Goebbels, performed at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall on 12 July 2007 conducted with riveting aplomb by Sian Edwards. The work would be unconventional enough merely as a confrontation and synthesis of disparate elements, which Goebbels calls 'two worlds', the Baroque world of Mathew Locke's The Tempest (1674), here played with refined sensuousness by strings of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and that of the pluralistic avant-garde in which the London Sinfonietta projected a mixture of idioms from jazz, to minimalism to atonal, complemented with some atmospheric electronic processing and synthesizers. Yet add to that mixture spoken readings from Gertrude Stein's World War II autobiography Wars I have Seen, written during her time in France in 1942-3, and the potential of the genre expands exponentially, the musical dislocation illuminated in Stein's notion of the recurrence of history.
To underline the swerve into the realms of literary theatricality, the stage was divided into a Baroque foreground of women, and a contemporary background (the London Sinfonietta brass and percussion players) of men; the concert stage was adorned with a few well chosen, relevant props, small forties style table lamps for the players, and bowls which the players stir in the final scene that suggest both the monotony of wartime cooking as a symbol of endurance, and Tibetan prayer bowls, a more exotic layer of experience conveyed in the shimmering, reverberating resonance of almost electronic timbre.
Setting the broader context of the war-time scenario and the contrast of idioms, the first half featured a Baroque and a contemporary musical commentary on war. The first was Biber's colouful Battalia a 10 of 1673, in which the OAE's vivid dynamic contrasts and articulation elicited exciting bite especially in the witty drunken sliding around in the second movement -- 'The Dissolute Gathering with al Kinds of Humour' -- rife with out of tune folk songs from different European countries. Then, after a beautifully poised Andante, the March tune was boldly intoned by a violin imitating a fife over a double bass impersonation of a military drum; yet the final lament, with its overlapping suspensions and daringly unpredictable chromatic side steps, capped it with suitably moralistic 17th century sobriety.

Then came the London Sinfonietta's UK première of Goebbels' exhilarating setting of a Leonardo Da Vinci 'Battle Description', Schlachtenbeschreibung, a remarkable text in which he sets out some rules of how o paint a Battle scene. The text, in German, was eloquently sung by Roderick Williams, soaring above the ensemble's machine like momentum that veered from jazzy tonality to a more astringent chromaticism in the middle section depicting the gory aspects of the scene. The ten minute work had an intriguingly satisfying climactic structure fuelled by the tension between vocal and instrumental elements, an aspect which seems to be at the heart of Goebbels' aesthetic.
That tension is felt in Songs of Wars I have Seen in the rather curious amalgam of oddly varied extracts from Stein's first hand reflections of 1943 wartime Paris with a postmodern melange of musical styles, yet as a music theatrical experience, it somehow all makes sense. The musical material as a whole is far from original or even complex, yet always deftly scored and arranged. Its role in relation to the moods of the text, sometimes directly contrary and thus ironic, sometimes ambient to Stein's distinctive free associative style, was to enhance, complement and underline the larger poetic structure. Bringing to bear his extensive experience of theatre to the concert stage, Goebbels introduced a rather daring practice of asking professional instrumentalists to speak texts in a naturalistic way. Its potential hazard is the possibility of amateurish acting, but the advantage is that the many different accents and inflections somehow generalize Stein's individual experience, appropriating it for a larger group, for society at large; here it seemed to express a rather British wartime stoicism and humour.
The extracts of Gertrude Stein seem to be chosen to illustrate a personal rather than political angle, exemplifying her associative repetitious literary style and range of themes from poetic flights of fancy to factual descriptions, from mundane musing on the scarcity of honey, sugar and butter during wartime, to the lofty inspiration of Shakespeare in interpreting the recurrence of history and war, and more interesting reflections on the role of radio and the different national signatures for each radio station. At the heart of it is as Goebbels himself observes, the sense of history recurring, so that in 1943 Stein can write 'the world is ... just as medieval as it can be' and that 'it is disconcerting to know ... that any time not only that you can be told to go and you go but also that you can be taken.'

The text's detached sense of uncertainty and anxiety, its tone of irony, is reflected by and deflected into Goebbels' postmodern musical collage both as background accompaniment to the extracts, often as a drone, or ostinato, and as illustrative commentary. The extracts were read in turn by each of the string players -- all women, who thus stand for Gertrude Stein herself, and some passages are rhythmicized, uttered as a refrain by all together, as with the phrase 'not anything had meaning and everything is just like that'. In between and during the texts we hear electronic ostinatos and hissing drones, suggestive of radio 'static', intermingled with musical snippets, extracts from Locke's The Tempest played by the OAE strings (Margaret Faultless, Miranda Fulleylove, violins, Jane Atkins, viola, Helen Verney, cello, Chi Chi Nwanoku, double bass) and a variety of memorable contemporary textures, a slowly pounding dramatic drum beat, a synthesizer bomb 'explosions' sequence, a jazz combo syncopated texture coloured with vibraphones, brilliant trumpet and brass solos, an atonal flute and clarinet duet illuminating the almost eccentric anecdote of a chicken theft, a richly coloured harpsichord solo and an incandescent theorbo interlude by Elizabeth Kenny.
Whilst this is all good fun, and certainly an important ingredient in Goebbels' recipe is a sense of fun, the main expressive contrast remains that between the slinky string textures and cadences of Mathew Locke and the 'new music', that which is intended to reflect Stein's bridging of two worlds through the historical comparison of Shakespearean and contemporary warfare. At the start one hears the dislocation of past and present as a separation of worlds, yet the work's progress and process, the transitions, both gradually overlapping and sudden, surprising, brings those worlds closer and closer together. In both text and music there appears to be a cathartic coalescence of the trivial and the transcendent so that, by the final stage of the work, concerned more with generalities of war and peace and the personal experience, the confrontation of Baroque and contemporary had indeed shifted to a more complementary, and quite beautiful, symbiosis.

Malcolm Miller
Music and Vision daily (GB), 19 July 2007