Wartime Songs for Gertrude Stein

There have been New York premieres of several noteworthy works recently, including major new violin concertos by Harrison Birtwhistle and James McMillan. But easily the most interesting was the grand finale of Lincoln Center’s Tully Scope Festival on March 18: Heiner Goebbels’s “Songs of Wars I Have Seen,” which uses passages from the remarkable book of the same name by Gertrude Stein. Despite being not only Jewish and American but also a lesbian and a modernist, Stein managed to survive Vichy-era France without too much privation, and the book is essentially a distillation of her diary from that period.

Goebbels (of no relation to the infamous Nazi Minister of Propaganda) is a German composer of substance and subtlety who creates rarified, difficult-to-categorize, large-scale works that embrace or even cross over into other art forms, and which often marshal a distinctive army of collaborators. To call Goebbels’s music eclectic is to state the obvious, but it is also misleading. He believes there are no new sounds to be discovered, and his compositions combine or reference a wide range of sources without being derivative.

Goebbels’s scores are often collage-like, with large swaths appropriated from other works, and they frequently include overlays of literary texts. Many of his works also include sets, acting, robotic machines, lighting effects and other theatrical elements. Although it’s easy to get the feeling that all the ingredients in Goebbels’s works are so much postmodern flotsam and jetsam, everything is carefully chosen and executed. As a composer who came of age among the radical left of 1970s Germany, almost all of his compositions reflects a deconstructionist, post-apocalyptic worldview, and manifest a Brechtian “distancing effect.” That said, this particular presentation was far more concert-like than most of his other presentations seen here recently.

Goebbels’s performances have always featured the finest players, and in this case he had the luxury of casting the spectacular musicians of both the new music outfit London Sinfonietta and the period music group Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), which includes ancient instruments like the theorbo. Some of the music incorporated in “Wars I Have Seen” is from 17th-century composer Matthew Locke’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” because of Stein’s frequent mention of Shakespeare in her book. The artistic parallel is dubious, but it does allow one to admire Locke’s music sensitively performed by the OAE. Throughout the work, each of the female English musicians read excerpts from Stein, beginning with her observation that one eats a great deal of honey in wartime, since sugar is the first thing to disappear. Stein’s words and descriptions have resonance precisely because they are so mundane and matter-of-fact.

The work ended with trumpeter Alistair Mackie playing an imaginatively discursive solo, accompanied by a rich hum created by the OAE players rubbing Japanese singing bowls (“rin” — not, as the program notes have it, “chime tones” played on “antique cymbals”). As the first composer to have used singing bowls in concert back in the 1980s, I was delighted to see yet another colleague using this musical idea. This final section was sonic “honey” as opposed to the “sugar” of the ancient strings.

Raphael Mostel
The Jewish Daily Forward / Blogs: The Arty Semite (US), 21 March 2011