The City of Cities
Heiner Goebbels: Surrogate Cities
The Queensland Orchestra and Soloists
Conductor: Andrea Molino
QPAC Concert Hall, July 18
The perspective of the 'Sampler Suite' [in Surrogate Cities] is the vertical section of the city: we are offered a look underground at the sewers, the inner workings of the city, at urban history, at what lies buried beneath the surface, at ruins that reveal glimpses of history-like the Scarlatti quotation in the Allemende or a chorale evocative of the Baroque in the Guige. As digital memory the sampler is an ideal vehicle for human memory. Heiner Goebbels, CD Booklet Note
Alfred Hitchcock once wanted to make a film about a day in the life of the city, likening it to the human body and concluding with sewage spewing into the ocean-as if to say, this is all our riches come to. Heiner Goebbels' massive orchestral evocation of the city ends in a different murkiness, the will to survive in the city-"No matter how many times it must always be the first time./In the city, the best approach is to believe only what your eyes tell you.../One step and then another step and then another that is the rule./If you cannot bring yourself to do even that,/Then you might as well just lie down right then and there/And tell yourself to stop breathing" (Paul Auster, In the Country of Last Things). The words fade, the collective breath of speaker, singer and orchestra evaporates-stillness, grim reflection. The city can waste you.
There is other than human and architectural waste in Surrogate Cities, not just the historical detritus Goebbels invokes via quotation and suggestion. It's there in the mechanical rattle, static, hum and distant rumblings of our electronic overworld, the deepening buzz of the everyday, the garbage of surplus coded noise, so familiar we ignore it, until composers and the sound artists use it as the raw material of their creations. They make us mindful of the density of the aural ether we inhabit-its peculiar beauty and ugliness, even its ecology. This noise is a recurrent, nervy presence in Surrogate Cities, but only one layer of the city that Goebbels conjures.
As in Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino's great literary forbear to the symphonic Surrogate Cities, the city is a set of possibilities and speculations, of reverie and wild imaginings. Cities are different in different places, a city is radically different within itself, its totality illusory. The Enlightenment ideal of an ordered, organic city akin to the human body has seemed impossible to sustain since the growth of the industrial cities of the 19th century. These continue to be the creations of aggregation, of conurbation, in which town-planning is essentially a rear-guard action. City growth is still deemed organic, most recently by the proponents of Emergence Theory, but in more complex and multi-layered ways than hitherto imagined-the city most certainly has a life of its own, which we can only share. Goebbels is the ideal composer to realise a multi-layered vision of the city as history, as living cultural artefact and possibility. He doesn't flinch from its ugliness, he embraces its romance and drama, celebrates our tentative relationship with this thing that seems now barely of our own making. The scale and dynamism of the city is portrayed in a monstrous 5 chord motif that suggests awe and anxiety, and, with the sustained, lush string and brass orchestration often suggests an archetypal film noir score-the jazz-inflected, narrative-driven charm of the flowers of city evil. There are echoes of Claus Ogermann's shimmering string orchestra, big-city scorings. There are sharp chord series that alarmingly recall Bernard Herrmann as much as Stravinsky. The history of the cinema is the history of the city. But Goebbel's always rises above reference. The Horation-Three Songs, for example, juxtaposes declamatory operatic narrative, a glorious jazz coda and Heiner Muller's version of a text from ancient Rome about the murderous consequences of loyalty to a city. Jocelyn B Smith sings the songs with an intense sense of drama, switching codes with acute accuracy, finally realising a tormented jazz love lament as the tragedy of a city and a family. The unlikely layering is moving and disorienting, yielding a postmodern intensity that has moved well beyond quotation and playfulness, generating an living archaeological vision.
Throughout, Goebbels juxtaposes his dark, accessible tonality with disturbing counter elements, often from the percussion section-a manic, marching snare drum, sounds live and recorded of crashes and breakings, an insistent thump like an out-of-kilter heart beat, little squeals-like voices in the night- from the violin or viola in the midst of yearning musings. The city rattles and cries. None of these stray too far from the pulse of the work (the jolt of juxtapositions is not the primary essence as it might be in a modernist work) but conjure other places, other layers, other voices, neighbours, streets and, always, the obligatory code-switching of city life. The piano is now Scarlatti, now 'Keith Jarrett', the percussion hip (if not hop) and rock. The singer David Moss is cantorial, David Byrne-ish, Beat-cool, raving post-Berio in the mad gabble of the city. Jocelyn B Smith is one moment an ethereal vocalise muse, placed high above the orchestra, above the city; the next she plucks the microphone from its stand and leans, front stage, lovingly over us as if in the intimacy of a smoky club. Goebbels' choice is for American voices (the same artists are in therecording), not just for song, but the singular musicality of that culture's speech (out of preaching, Whitman, Kerouac, Torme too...Laurie Anderson) and its resonating association with the 20th century city. However, in another layering of cultures and histories, Moss and Smith speak and sing essentially European texts (including those by that intriguing American-European literary hybrid, Paul Auster). The ground ever shifts beneath our feet in Goebbels' cities.
Surrogate Cities is an astonishing experience, vast, insistent, passionate and memorable. It's not musically radical in the usual sense, it's working too hard on and within tradition here to be that, but it is ever provocative in its inherent theatricality and melding of disparate vocal and orchestral voices and texts into an ever-mutating portrait of the city as emblematic of contemporary life, everywhere different, but everywhere the same. Surrogate Cities is postmodernism par excellence, superb music theatre, a symphony that thinks as well as feels, a great way to start a festival of music and debate.
Realtime (AU), July 2003