Varied influences cast a spell in collaboration
'Songs of War' at On the Boards, Seattle
Spoken word, musical theater, sound collage, brass-and-percussion blasts, baroque strings and recurring passages of something slinky, dreamlike and jazzy all combine in Heiner Goebbels' "Songs of War I Have Seen."
The piece, it should be clear, draws on a startling variety of influences as it casts its spell. Under the attentive baton of conductor Anu Tali, it hangs together beautifully. And the performances by Pacific Musicworks, Seattle Chamber Players and a dozen or so guest musicians are close to flawless.
In "Songs," German composer Goebbels takes excerpts from Gertrude Stein's 1945 book, "Wars I Have Seen," and sets them in sharp relief against an ever-shifting musical backdrop. Stein's observations, spoken rather than sung, range from the droll to the disturbing. With their odd inversions and repetitions, her phrases keep landing on details that glitter with eerie vigor: the way people talk to each other more readily in times of danger, the way wars both speed up and slow down time, the way a lunar eclipse is upstaged by Allied bombers approaching ("Eclipses are an amusement for peacetime").
The women in the ensemble do the speaking, using microphones, and they gamely take on their double duty, although their delivery could use more Steinian swagger in places. Precise sound balance is crucial to the piece working, and sound engineers Al Swanson and Julian Martlew merit special mention for keeping each voice strand audible, even when punctuated by trickily timed percussive and brass outbursts, with the whole business often floating over prerecorded sound effects and sonic backdrops.
Trumpeter Tony DiLorenzo closes "Songs" out ravishingly with a slow, note-bending taps-like solo set against a cold celestial tapestry of electronic drones and chimes. Composer Goebbels, in attendance, should have been pleased.
"Songs" came packaged with an opening act consisting of 17th-century Italian composer Dario Castello's "Sonata Decimasesta," which rang a little flatly in On the Boards' big theater, and Monteverdi's "Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda," a dueling-knights tale with a gender twist. The latter raised a couple of titters — maybe from audience members raised on "Monty Python"? — but tenor Ross Hauck, as narrator, brought a fine voice and a persuasively earnest dash to his role.
Still, "Songs" — at slightly over an hour — could easily have stood on its own.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com
The Seattle Times (US), 5 March 2010