The symphony in the present tense
Heiner Goebbels: Surrogate Cities The Queensland Orchestra and Soloists
Conductor: Andrea Molino QPAC Concert Hall, July 18
What is a city and what is our relationship to it? Can we exist in it? Can we not? A city is a place of turmoil and confrontation, an endless metamorphosis in which the individual is engaged in an ongoing struggle for psychological and emotional life, if not physical life. Surrogate Cities is a symphony that tells us about our own life and times, as city dwellers.
Written in 1994, Surrogate Cities incorporates several elements: a suite for sampler and orchestra, comprising the typical components of a suite -sarabande, allemande, courante, etc; several texts set for voice and orchestra; and the work 'D and C for Orchestra', written on those notes. It is an epic work, this rendition occupying nearly 90 minutes. The structure of the work is itself a metaphor for the city, an aggregate of forms and styles, different in its detail in each location, but following universal principles.
The music is intense and cacophanous, evoking factories, blaring car horns, the squeal of traffic, the endlessly pulsating city. The numerous percussion instruments include sheets of metal plate, rattled and hammered as if we live in a percussive world. Listening to this work can be as overwhelming as the busy city itself. The few quieter passages are the more potent-we know they are the calm before the returning storm. The orchestra and singers were all microphoned, and the public address system relayed all the sound, so that the audience heard it from 2 sources. As well as doubling the aural intensity and diffusing the sense of directionality, the use of the PA symbolised the technology of our culture, placing it in parallel with the pre-recorded samplings.
The music of soloist David Moss's own ensemble was amongst the sampled sounds. A variety of musical idioms is heard-snare and kick-drum rhythms mimic rock; there are jazz and soul elements; there is the sound of the Jewish cantor; and a moment of Romantic piano, a brief respite from the noise, perhaps suggesting a quieter moment in one's own room. In sampling Moss' music (he is also a percussionist), the distinction between performer and composer is dispelled. The use of sampling is a well-known artistic strategy that theorists suggest characterises the postmodern, the condition in which we presently live. Here, it becomes a metaphor for the present world, an intertextual amalgam of forms, structures and histories.
Goebbels' choice of texts ranges across parables and poetry, all of which touch on the experience of being human at the end of the 20st century. He draws on Paul Auster, Franz Kafka, Heiner Muller, Hugo Hamilton and Italo Calvino to create what is in effect an oratorio on secular themes, the city now occupying the ground of the church. Hamilton's text, 'Surrogate' focuses on someone who is running, ever disconnected. The central text is Muller's three songs on the story of the Horatian, a tale of heroism in war and siblicide, wonderfully delivered by Jocelyn B Smith, as relevant today as ever in a world in which no-one is entirely innocent or guilty. Goebbels' Surrogate Cities recalls the great choral symphonies such as Beethoven's 9th, and also Shostakovitch's 14th, which (with solo voices) muses on an
existential death. These were landmark works, as is this.
Here, spoken word, taped, sampled sounds, all kinds of unusual percussion instruments, including torn newspapers, bundles of sticks being rattled, a stainless steel mixing bowl-the sounds of civilisation-bring the symphony into the present. Goebbels has managed to avoid the pitfall of many composers who try to blend heterogeneous forms, by weaving his own original form with just a few threads of others, rather than simply adding them on top of each other. 'D and C for Orchestra' is intended to evoke city buildings; these replace the forests and fields of the Romantic repertoire. It also suggests a dance, returning regularly to a pulsating theme driven by double basses and contrabassoon and heightened by a clanging triangle and massive brass forces. Passages in 'D and C for Orchestra' recall the fatal dance in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and the music for his The Soldier's Tale, with their dynamic, irresistible energies and the sense of the inevitability of the drama of life being played out. Generally, this was a splendid performance of an immensely difficult work.
The orchestral elements are frequently an amalgam of disparate sounds and textures that do not depend on thematic or harmonic development, and strict direction is required to keep the event together. Expressionistic music of this kind requires concentrated effort by each and every performer. Above the performers' heads, spotlights shone through hazy vapours to evoke headlights illuminating smog, heightening perhaps unnecessarily the theatricality of the performance. The work itself is metamorphosing, for example new elements were added in this performance and the sequence was quite different from the CD version (ECM New Series 1688 465 338-2).
The soloists were superb-David Moss's vocal range is prodigious, from baritone to countertenor. Goebbels' writing would be unrealisable without such a performer. Smith and Moss are not merely singers. Some of the texts Moss delivered were babble, a meaningless abstraction of the sound rather than the content of conversation, recalling the work of Berio, and requiring consummate skill to bring off. Smith's performance was superb; both are vital to the success of the work. On stage, their presence is dramatic, operatic in its intensity. Heiner Goebbels has created an extraordinary synthesis out a disparate array of musical forms and instrumentation in Surrogate Cities. The auditorium was not quite full-those who should have
filled the empty seats but didn't will live to regret it. Surrogate Cities is a masterpiece and a fitting opening to the Queensland Biennial Festival of Music.
Realtime (AU), July 2003