International Festival: Radical Views

WITH German composer Heiner Goebbels, the only certainty is that rules will be broken, says Mark Fisher

IT WOULD have made perfect sense had Heiner Goebbels returned to the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) not this year but last. That was when festival director Jonathan Mills was exploring the boundarybetween theatre and music, getting the Wooster Group to add sci-fi drama to a 17th-century opera in La Didone, recalling Monteverdi's pioneering fusion of genres in L'Orfeo and showcasing the old English bardic tradition of Beowulf. A composer and director, Goebbels has spent his career in this same genre-melding territory, creating visually striking shows that are more than just concerts yet always rooted in music.

He's no stranger to the EIF, having made half a dozen visits since his festival debut with Black on White in 1997. That show was a typical combination of texts by some of the world's most elliptical authors – including Heiner Müller and Maurice Blanchot – and an original score that sat at the intersection of jazz, classical and heavy rock. It required the versatile musicians of the Ensemble Moderne to throw tennis balls at a thunder sheet and recite poetry into a microphone. One critic called it a "defining achievement in contemporary music".

Black on White set the template for 1999's Eislermaterial, a centenary tribute to composer Hanns Eisler; 2001's Hashirigaki, in which words by Gertrude Stein went head to head with the music of the Beach Boys; and 2004's Eraritjaritjaka, in which a visual trick made us think the narrator had left the theatre and taken a taxi to a city apartment. Other Edinburgh appearances have included a ballet score for Mathilde Monnier's Les Lieux de La in 2000 and a concert performance of Surrogate Cities by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 2002.

The German composer's fusion of musical forms is not for those who like to keep their pigeonholes tidy. His willingness to bring theatrical techniques into the concert hall makes the ground less certain still. This is the man who recently bewildered and beguiled London audiences with Stifter's Dinge, a "composition for five pianos with no pianists, a performance without performers", featuring projections, recordings and mysteriously moving instruments.

Which is exactly what makes his return to Edinburgh such a thrilling prospect, the more so because the performance, I Went to the House but Did Not Enter, is a world premiere. As ever, the 56-year-old is remaining tight- lipped about the exact nature of the theatrical interventions in the three-act show, but interventions there will be.

"I call it a staged concert because I don't want to raise too many expectations," he says. "But I think the audience will be surprised a lot about the visuality of this whole project. What you can say is that in all my shows, all my collaborative projects with Klaus Grünberg (stage design and lighting] with whom I have worked for the last ten years, visuality is very important."

The performance is a collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble, the British vocal chamber group renowned for its accomplishment in both early and new music. The group – countertenor David James, baritone Gordon Jones and tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and Steven Harrold – is as likely to be found giving first airings to James MacMillan, Arvo Pärt and Gavin Bryars as trying out a cappella renditions from the medieval repertoire.

No doubt it was their combination of versatility and willingness to explore that caught the imagination of Goebbels, but what triggered his specific thinking about I Went to the House but Did Not Enter was their absence of ego. Despite their vocal prowess, they put their individual skills to the benefit of the group as a whole. "I was aware of the beautiful quality of this quartet and I was wondering what options we could develop with the wonderful capacities they have," he says. "They have an intensity that comes not from a solo ego or a conventional idea of presence. The intensity they evoke comes from them being a team of four. They are not opera singers standing at the front of the stage screaming at the audience. They can take themselves back. There's a certain moment when it turns into a different quality. They create a new multiple, polyphonic body of voices."

This was the idea that led Goebbels to the texts that create the three acts – or "tableaux" as he calls them – of I Went to the House but Did Not Enter. The show's title comes from The Madness of the Day, a novel by enigmatic French writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot. In that work, the reader can never be certain of the authorial voice, a characteristic shared with the other two texts, TS Eliot's The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock and Samuel Beckett's Worstward Ho.

"I was looking for texts which defined this role – maybe rather a 20th-century role – in which the individual is not triumphing but rather fragmented, insecure, reduced in options," says Goebbels. "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock is a wonderful early example of the 'I' putting up questions; where the 'I' is not definable as a secure identity. It leaves the reader a lot of options to imagine ourselves in different aspects and fragments.

"On the other extreme we have Beckett with one of the last texts he ever wrote, Worstward Ho. The confidence in language is really very reduced and turned into the musicality of repetitive, rhythmic, Utopian language. There is another text from Maurice Blanchot and we try to find three different options of how to stage them, how to change them into music or sound, considering the different possibilities for the Hilliard Ensemble. My idea is to have three different approaches to the text."

Although the pieces are presented chronologically, representing less and less authorial certainty as we move from Eliot (1915) to Blanchot (1949) to Beckett (1983), Goebbels makes no attempt to force a connection between them. Rather, as a composer, he keeps his own ego in abeyance, giving full rein to the writing. "I try not to superimpose musical ideas on the text," he says. "I try to find the musicality in the text, which means I reduce myself as a composer. The writing is the starting point. I'm very much against using text for your own musical aesthetics, which I see in a lot of my colleagues' works where the texts completely disappear and you don't understand them. My music doesn't try to do more than make these texts transparent and visible. I think the audience will understand everything."

Which is not the same as saying, they will be in for a conventional night with the Hilliard Ensemble. "In theatre, I'm looking for an alternate option to the classical presence," he says. "When you look at Eraritjaritjaka or Eislermaterial, you can see that these moments when not much is happening on the stage, when the actor leaves the theatre in Eraritjaritjaka, for example, that's the moment when the audience is most attentive and relaxed and irritated at the same time. That is something I like very much about theatre, when it's not showing us everything but hiding things and offering space for discovery."

• I Went to the House but Did Not Enter is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, 28-30 August.

Marc Fisher
The Scotsman (GB), 18 August 2008