A rare and stunning performance of musical poetry
Seattle Chamber Players and Pacific Musicworks put on a striking version of 'Songs of Wars I Have Known'
Heiner Goebbels is a well-known European avant-garde composer whose works have rarely been performed in the U.S. This is too bad, if “Song of Wars I Have Known,” a stunning hour-long chamber work, is representative. The Seattle Chamber Players heard a Goebbels’ piece at a Warsaw festival, and immediately determined to present one in Seattle. This they did, March 4-6, with the early music ensemble Pacific Musicworks, under the auspices of On the Boards.
“Songs of Wars I Have Known” is based on texts of Gertrude Stein (written in 1943, published in 1945). Stein’s inherently musical poetry is made up of sounds and rhythms as much as it is syntax and semantics. The poems document women’s experience of war, sitting at home, rather than out on the battlefield. Because of rationing, the women use honey instead of sugar; they listen to BBC and Voice of America on the radio; they hear the threatening sound of airplanes overhead. They read Shakespeare — Richard III and Macbeth — and ponder the historical and timeless quality of war.
It was apparently Stein’s references to Shakespeare that inspired Goebbels to use fragments of Matthew Locke’s music for The Tempest (1674) as a recurring part of his composition. And of course, the Locke should be played on period instruments, with the mellow sounds of Baroque strings.
Goebbels’ piece is the only one I’ve ever heard that successfully combines the timbres of period instruments tuned at A-415 with “modern” orchestral instruments tuned at A-440. In addition, there are electronic sounds, controlled both by a keyboard/computer sampler onstage and by CD playback from the sound booth. While this is a piece of “chamber music,” it does require a conductor, and the Estonian Anu Tali, who had conducted the piece several times previously, did a fine job of coordinating everything.
The most striking thing about the stage set-up is the gender separation. The women performers (Baroque strings, harp, and some woodwinds) sit at the front of the stage in a sort of “living room,” with the soft lighting of floor lamps and table lamps of varied sizes, shapes, and colors. The male instrumentalists (brass, percussion, keyboard, lute, and some woodwinds) sit at the back of the stage, with harsh theatrical lighting and a bare light bulb hanging down overhead. The women serve as the narrators/storytellers, reading the poetry individually and as a group chorus, in addition to their instrumental duties. I particularly enjoyed violist Laurel Wells’ rapid-fire delivery and the partly-sung narration of bass player Moriah Neils.
I happened to talk with Paul Taub, the flutist, after the performance. He said that the flute part could be played by a male or female (who would be seated in different parts of the stage, depending on gender). Also, the flute part could be played on a wooden Baroque flute pitched at A-415 or on a modern silver flute at A-440. So there’s a certain amount of flexibility in the orchestration and in players’ gender.
The “song” portions of the piece (Stein poems of different moods) are occasionally separated by instrumental interludes, and the piece ends with a striking trumpet postlude (played beautifully here by Tony DiLorenzo) — strange, microtonal riffs over the eerie harmonics of Tibetan prayer bowls, “stirred” by most of the other performers on stage. This is trumpet not as martial fanfare instrument, but as mournful graveyard soloist. “Songs of Wars” ends with prayers for the dead, not with victorious hymns.
(Maria Coldwell is the executive director of Early Music America, the national service organization for the field of early music. She has a Ph.D. in musicology from Yale University. She served as executive director of the Early Music Guild of Seattle from 1991-99.)
crosscut.com Public Media (US), 8 March 2010