16 March 2003, John Rockwell, NY Times
Portrait (en)

Call him what you will, he`s too busy to be bothered

HEINER GOEBBELS is proud of the jurisdictional confusion he provokes. Are his works theater? Music? (Classical? Rock? Jazz?) Or music theater? He has done them all, separately and together, and he doesn't seem to mind how he is categorized. "I'm easily bored," he said recently from Berlin. "I like very much to change my professional field every seven years." Whatever he is, he is very good at it, and he has three prominent forums to display his varied wares in New York this year. Wednesday through next Sunday, his music-theater piece "Hashirigaki" will be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater. On July 13, a concert piece with staged elements, "Eislermaterial," a kind of sound collage created around the music and recorded interviews of the East German composer Hanns Eisler, will be part of the Lincoln Center Festival. And on Nov. 14, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic will give the American premiere of a new 20-minute orchestra piece, "From a Diary." Of these, "Hashirigaki," which means talking while walking or flowing script (this poetically charged word has multiple meanings), is the most imminent and the most overtly theatrical. Created in 2000 at Le Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne in Switzerland, the 80-minute piece is built around the talents of three women, one short (Yumiko Tanaka, from Japan), one medium-sized (Marie Goyette, from Canada) and one tall (Charlotte Engelkes, from Sweden); their disparate heights are part of the gentle humor of Mr. Goebbels's staging. (There is also an unseen backstage keyboard player.) The piece has no plot in any conventional sense, being a series of tableaus, although it does rise to a kind of seraphic vision of airy contentment. The three women wander about the stage like Pina Bausch dancers, sometimes miming, sometimes talking, sometimes singing, sometimes playing instruments. The instruments include the theremin, that early electronic device beloved of sci-fi directors from the 1950's, and the Japanese koto and shamisen, played by Ms. Tanaka in traditional regalia. Otherwise the fey costumes echo those Oskar Schlemmer designed for his historic 1920's "Triadic Ballet"; the set and brilliant lighting recall Robert Wilson. Most bizarrely, it might at first seem, is the juxtaposition of the dance and mime and traditional Japanese music with texts from Gertrude Stein's epic novel of 1908, "The Making of Americans," and songs, sung by the three women, from the Beach Boys' 1966 classic album "Pet Sounds," sometimes with the original words and sometimes with new ones. As reasonable people might ask: Huh? But the amazing thing about Mr. Goebbels's wildly heterogeneous musico-poetical-theatrical collages is that they almost always work. They cohere, they compel, they beguile. And they cohere without any forced hybridization of the components. "When I bring different fields and genres together, I don't meld them," he said. "I keep the integrity of the various elements." Aside from the force of creative personality, what seems to bind Mr. Goebbels's diversity together is his theatricality. Mr. Goebbels's highly unusual first half-century (he is 50 now) gives some clue to his dizzying assortment of influences. He was born in the modest German city of Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, near Mannheim, in the western part of the country, and brought up in nearby Landau. He studied piano and cello as a child and took up the guitar as a teenager. He has lived in Frankfurt ever since he went there in his late teens to study sociology. Those studies placed him squarely in the left-radical German student movement that had erupted in protests in 1968. While still studying sociology, he played in various free-form bands, and in 1976 he decided to study music formally, which he did for four years at the Frankfurt conservatory. From 1976 to 1981 he led the So-Called Left-Radical Brass Band, which played all over Europe. And from 1982 to 1992 he was the musical glue (as keyboard and guitar player) of a four-person progressive rock band called Cassiber, which included Chris Cutler, the percussionist from the noted British art-rock band Henry Cow. Cassiber recorded several albums and broke up after a big farewell concert in Tokyo. Mr. Goebbels said his biography was a little hard to recount because he was always doing several things at once. In his 20's he was composing incidental music for theater and films. He did free improvisation with the likes of Fred Frith, Don Cherry and Arto Lindsay. He established a long-term relationship with the prestigious Frankfurt new-music group Ensemble Modern. The Ensemble Modern was one of several major influences and encounters in his life. Hanns Eisler, who died in 1962, was a convinced Communist (he wrote the East German national anthem) and a collaborator of Bertolt Brecht's. Mr. Goebbels said that from Eisler's work he learned that he could combine his political and musical passions. In 1980 he met the East German playwright Heiner Müller, whose texts and spoken voice became the verbal component o numerous Goebbels works. In particular there were some striking radio plays in which, as in "Eislermaterial," pre-recorded words were sometimes heard straight but sometimes wildly fractured into quasi-musical elements. (Mr. Goebbels had long been interested in the integration of words and music; one of Cassiber's albums incorporated extensive texts by Thomas Pynchon.) And he met Manfred Eicher, who has recorded nearly all of Mr. Goebbels's music since the mid-80's on his ECM label. It was the radio plays, some of which (with Müller's encouragement) he subsequently staged, that provided his avenue into stage direction. "Radio offered a limited space where I could develop my ideas," Mr. Goebbels said. "Now I can do it live, on stage with actors. But I had to develop it first for myself." He began staging his works in the mid-80's, around the time he became associated with the Ensemble Modern, which has pitched in enthusiastically in his pieces that require musicians to act (such as "Black on White," which received its United States premiere at the 2001 Lincoln Center Festival). His theater pieces have evolved from semi-staged concerts to full-blown opera, as in "Landscape With Distant Relatives," first seen late last year in Geneva. So far, he has not directed a play without music, but he says he is on the verge of that, with an Elias Canetti project scheduled for next year; Canetti won the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature. "Hashirigaki," which preceded "Landscape With Distant Relatives" in the Goebbels canon, succeeds most immediately because of the magical - his word - matching of the Stein text, which he first heard when Robert Wilson read from it at Müller's funeral in 1996, and the Beach Boys songs he had played as a child. Mr. Goebbels's piece is his lightest and most sweetly charming. "The Beach Boys music is kind of floating, not touching the ground," he said. "It has something to do with the bass lines not quite connected to the tonal center. The combination of that with the Japanese music wasn't clear to me when I began, but it turned out very well." By now, Mr. Goebbels is fully integrated into the world of European high art, winning prizes and teaching a course in theater theory and practice at the University of Giessen. (He composes and rehearses only during breaks.) But he is still no more immune to criticisms about his low-art antecedents than an American might be. He professes a bohemian indifference. "If you talk to other German composers and critics," he said, "I'm sure you would hear some of that. The ignorance is sometimes really remarkable. But I don't care." (John Rockwell)