Out with the Old, In with the New
Praise for an Obscure German Composer
(....) The opposite was true at On the Boards this weekend, which presented two pieces of music, one by experimental German composer Heiner Goebbels, the other by 17th-century Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. The first act—Monteverdi's operetta about two knights, one man and one woman disguised as a man, who fight in a forest—was positively soporific. (Except for the balding Stephen Stubbs passionately playing his chitarrone. Stubbs's head-bobbing and his long-necked instrument, which looked and sounded like a lute on Viagra, stole the show.) But the second act, Songs of Wars I Have Seen (Goebbels's musical adaptation of Gertrude Stein), was surprisingly odd and rapturous.
Dozens of musicians sat on the stage with a semicircle of women in front, most of whom alternately played violins and read chunks of the text. Goebbels treated the prose like another instrument, bringing out the musicality in Stein's seemingly offhanded observations about life during wartime: "It's funny about honey, you always eat honey during a war, so much honey there is no sugar, there never is sugar during a war, the first thing to disappear is sugar, after that butter, but butter can always be had but not sugar."
Goebbels, who rarely travels to the United States but attended the performance at On the Boards, is famous for his staging as well as his compositions. His Stifter's Dinge (recently at Lincoln Center, not seen here) is a piece for zero performers, two stagehands, a wall of pianos, and bubbling pools of water. But Songs of Wars I Have Seen, performed by Seattle Chamber Players and Pacific Musicworks, is all about adventures in sound. It resembles a combination of the cosmically fractured symphonics of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time and Frederic Rzewski's spritely, playful piano-work around his dramatic reading of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis. Rzewski's 1992 piece is notable for its playful treatment of Wilde's lugubrious prison poem about "the zanies of sorrow... clowns whose hearts are broken"—that tension is part of its genius.
Likewise, Songs of Wars I Have Seen is defined by tension. Stein's deceptively colloquial prose is a slick surface hiding rugged, polyphonic topography, while Goebbels's composition bobs and weaves between almost pastoral peace and brooding, martial passages. (In its dramatic structure, Songs of Wars I Have Seen is also reminiscent of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.) Together, the two evoked life's lurching shifts in focus from the domestic—sugar, honey—to the noisy clash of nations. It was marvelous. recommended
The Stranger (US), 9 March 2010