Notes from Surrogate Cities: from novel to opera
My novel Surrogate Cities has been incorporated into an opera –
a soundscape of urban life – by Heiner Goebbels, with intriguing
We like to think of the modern metropolis as having a soul, a living heart, a pulse. The
city has always contained human qualities. But is this not also true in reverse? Does
our behaviour and our neurosis not reflect the clatter of our cities?
Today at the Royal Festival Hall in London that glorious urban clatter will be
presented in the most spectacular form of an orchestral composition called Surrogate
Cities. The celebrated opera from the German composer Heiner Goebbels will be
performed for the first time in London by the Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra.
The city is a living thing. It breathes. It keeps the beat. It has trouble sleeping at night.
It possesses human energy, human characteristics and human failings. It has a mind full
of idiosyncratic logic, full of memory coming up through the streets, full of shining
dreams and homelessness. Even the graffiti is an act of belonging.
In reverse, the human mind has now taken on all the messy features of the city. We
have developed a mentality of clustering and privacy, of public spaces and park benches
to be alone. We think in patterns of safety and adventure. We abandon parts of
ourselves like electrical appliances thrown down a railway embankment. We have
graffiti written on to our bodies. We hear the city inside our heads like an atonal
symphony, full of clanking and scraping and silences between.
Perhaps, too, we may now have reached an evolutionary moment in which our
technology has turned the earth into one large virtual city, forever connected and
disparate at the same time. It feels like standing at the centre of a traffic island, with
the noise of the world all around us.
When I first went to Berlin in 1974, the city became a place of refuge, an adoptive home
to which I fled to escape my childhood. It was a place which attracted miscreants and
migrants and draft dodgers. It took on the role of a sanctuary, a place which felt more
like a remote urban island because it was still amputated and excluded by the Berlin
Since then, Berlin has transformed itself into an open city, a diverse and layered
habitat, like many other cities, full of newcomers who have made it a surrogate home.
It has become a thriving artistic haven at the centre of Europe, persistent with memory
and monuments to the past. It is full of ghosts and real people, the living and the dead,
crossing the street together at intersections between the past and the present.
My first novel was set in Berlin and published in 1990 under the title Surrogate City. It
tells the story of migrants thrown together in the process of taking shelter in the city at
a time before the wall came down. The book begins with a description of a young
woman running through the streets and continues to follow her story as a stranger in a
city where she has come to give birth to her baby.
The writing in the book reflects, as much as possible in words, the sound and the
rhythm and the peeling façade of the city. The human relationships mirror the
structure of rational chaos which I associate with Berlin, where all contradictions and
mistakes are accommodated under the surface.
It describes the city as a place which has been reclaimed from the sea, where building
workers dig up sand, where people hear phantom sounds of the sea beneath the traffic,
where they frequently wonder if the sea will one day claim back the city and they will
find themselves once more at the bottom of the Baltic.
For me, the city contained all the temporary quality of human lives. It became the
story of adoption, of surrogacy, of transience and misunderstanding and incessant
questioning. All the noise of the city, in other words, resolving itself in the lives of
people who seek belonging there.
In 1994 Goebbels conceived his opera, which took its title from the novel. It
incorporated the passage of the young woman running through the streets, along with
selected texts from the American author Paul Auster and the Berlin dramatist and poet
Heiner Mueller. Goebbels took his inspiration for this innovative opera from a
complex range of sources, weaving texts and tonal impressions into an orchestral
drama which perfectly describes the formless form of the city – a breathless, huffing,
drumming, lyrical architecture of sound and words.
The composer called it a "sampler suite". The life of the city stacked up in collected
artefacts found lying around. He was looking for ways to explore the experience of
urban life on a sensory level, not as a straightforward portrait but more like a
"constantly changing collaboration". His intention was to read the city as a text and to
translate something of it's mechanics and architecture through the organisation of
orchestral instruments and voices.
I went to see the opera in Berlin some years ago where it was performed by the Berlin
Philharmonic under the direction of Simon Rattle. It gave the impression of colossal
space, which I remember from Fritz Lang's film Metropolis. The opening piece trails
off with the plaintive voice of David Moss evaporating like a lament over the city. Moss
brings the story of the woman running through the city to a breathless end in an
extended rap, dissipating in a babble of questions. I even recall hearing that rhythmic
cranking noise that comes from under the carriages of trains.
More distant layers of history play out under the heartbeat of the city through Mueller's text, with its description of war between the cities of Rome and Alba which evokes all the guilt in our memory, as well as the haunting voice of a synagogue cantor. I had missed an earlier performance of the opera at La Fenice in Venice, where it was directed by Andrea Molino and accompanied by video footage taken from various cities. The design, which can be seen on YouTube, included images of overhead tram wires and train carriages and dying light in the sky – all composed into a visual score which further explored the complex texture of urban spaces. In Berlin, the opera was transferred by Rattle into the truly urban setting of a disused bus depot in the former East. This allowed the space to be used for a dance interpretation, with a cast of non-professional dancers. Young and old people volunteered to take part in a performance which seemed to add great dignity to that symbiosis between the city and its people. It took the opera out of the purely imaginary musical sphere and created the illusion of ghostly inhabitants crossing the stage.
HUGO HAMILTON The Guardian (GB), 5 March 2012
The Guardian (GB), 5 March 2012