March 2003 (Issue 229), Nicholas Till, The Wire
Portrait (en)

Street Fighting Mensch

Combining the critical theory of the Frankfurt School with his streetfighting experiences in the So-Called left Brass Band, former Cassiber improviser and composer Heiner Goebbels is re-engaging with the German musical language via his radio artworks and utopian socialist multimedia theatre, staged on the rubble of high culture. November 2002: Heiner Goebbels is at London's Barbican to catch up with performances of Hashirigaki, one of a number of his theatre and concert works currently plying the international festival circuit, appearing in cities as far afield as Rome, Hamburg, Berlin, Paris, Moscow and Singapore. Goebbels hasn't seen it since Istanbul in March 2002, so it s an opportunity to fine-tune the show, he says, filling the pause with a knob-twiddling gesture as he reaches for the right term - he's as much at home behind the mixing desk as at his writing desk or in the theatre. Like many of Goebbels's theatre pieces. Hashirigaki consists of a series of exquisitely composed tableaux. The musical material consists of instrumental backing tracks from The Beach Boys' Pet Sound, interwoven with wobbly theremin solos, a wheezy portable organ and fragments of Japanese music, all played live on stage by three entrancing female performers. Alongside all this the performers conjure a magical world of poetic images in which they dance, pose, play their instruments, sing along with the lyrics of such classics as "Caroline. No", and speak oddly poignant texts from Gertrude Stein's The Making Of America, achieving an effect which Goebbels describes as "strange, surprising and moving, without people knowing exactly why". He admits that the piece is so precisely choreographed that there is in fact little scope for the three performers - Swiss pianist Marie Goyette, Japanese shamisen player Yumiko Tanaka and Swedish actress/dancer Carlotta Engelkes - to vary the show. But that doesn t mean the work was made in a dictatorial fashion, he quickly adds, insisting that the finished piece was the outcome of a collaborative process between himself and his actor-musicians. Such a characteristic proviso points to the politics underpinning all of his work. It has been a busy 12 months for Goebbels, who has just turned 50. In October last year his most ambitious theatre piece to date, Landscape With Distant Relatives, which he calls an opera despite his reservations about that creaky artform, opened in Geneva. A couple of months earlier. ECM released Eislermaterial, Goebbels's touching homage to one of his earliest spiritual mentors, Hanns Eisler. He has published a collection of theoretical writings under the title Komposition Als Inszenierung (Composition As Scenography), and he is currently working on a major commission for Simon Rattle and The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. In August, he received the prestigious Goethe Medal from the city of Frankfurt Am Main, where he has lived since 1972. But official recognition has not blunted his edge. During his acceptance speech he launched an attack on the cultural policies of the Frankfurt city burghers, who have decimated the cultural provision of the city, forcing choreographer William Forsythe's departure from the famed Frankfurt Ballet company, and the closure of the TAT theatre responsible for many of Goebbels's earlier theatre productions. Clearly Goebbels acknowledges and honours his debts, which are as multifarious as the many facets of a career dating back to 1976. As a keyboard player, he has combined political cabaret and free jazz in a duo with saxophonist Alfred Harth: he's also played rock and improvisation with the art rock outfit Cassiber: written music for dance, film and theatre as well as a string of award winning radio works (a selection was released as Hörstücke by ECM in 1993). Since the early 90s, he has worked as a theatre artist, and as a composer writing orchestral music. In his Goethe Medal speech, Goebbels insisted that he is not at home in any of the recognised ghettos of the contemporary cultural world, a position he evidently relishes. "It's an extreme privilege for me to be able to switch between these professions, which gives me a better distance to look at what I m doing. Its my greatest capital. Distance". with its Brechtlan connotations, is a term he uses frequently. And that unclassifiable status allows him to present his works to audiences who have no presuppositions, creating another kind of distance. "I can only judge if a project works if I have an audience that is completely unprepared", he continues. "I'm not interested in fulfilling an expectation. My big advantage is that my audience is quite mixed, with people whose interests are in contemporary music, or theatre, or visual art or pop." Heiner Goebbels was brought up in a musical family in the small town of Landau, learning piano and cello so that he could join his brothers playing chamber music from the classical repertoire. His other passion was pop. "Even when I was studying classical music, he recalls, from the age of 12, 13, 14 most of the time I spent at home trying to play The Beatles, Beach Boys, Kinks, Jimi Hendrix on the guitar." German film director Wim Wenders has said that American pop music offered a utopian space of escape to a teenager growing up in the prosperous conformity of West Germany in the 1960s. Wenders opens that mythical space through his use of American music in his films. Goebbels has surely repaid the debt in Hashirigak, one of his sunniest and most playful works. In 1972 Goebbels went to study sociology at the University of Frankfurt, home of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, whose chief luminaries were the critical Marxists Max Horkheimer, Theoder Adorno and Herbert Marcuse. Though Adorno had died in 1969, Goebbels acknowledges his influence "in the critical theoretical approach: that s always with me. But I had a lot of resistance to his anti-jazz, anti-Stravinsky, anti-popular music line. I never agreed with that. And he had a big disagreement with Eisler, who is very important to me." The German/Austrian composer Hanns Eisler (1898--1962), renegade pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, friend and collaborator of Bertolt Brecht and committed socialist, offered Goebbels a model for a politically engaged music practice, which he feels was simply unavailable to musicians of the 1968 generation. "It was a lack of the 68 movement that it didn't include culture as an important political question", he asserts. "The leading representatives of 68 listened to The Stones, but they didn't want to think about musical material. It took a while to say goodbye to those fundamentalist categories; to be able in the mid-70s to take the question of aesthetics as a serious political question." Goebbels's discovery of Eisler, in particular his theoretical ideas published in a collection of interviews called Ask Me More About Brecht, led him to undertake formal music studies while completing his sociology degree. Through Eisler, Goebbels felt able "to connect to a German musical history of resistance". Of particular importance was Eisler's dialectical understanding of the relationship between music and society, encapsulated in the phrase "Fortschritt und Zurücknahme" (progress and recuperation). "It means that you can't develop one thing without being more relaxed about accepting another thing," Goebbels explains. "You can't have progress with all elements at once. When he was writing a song for a political movement in the 20s or 30s, or maybe a march, he had somehow to start with using the frame of a march to be able to change the harmony or make the rhythmical structure a bit more unusual, or surprising or irritating. If you want to develop one element you have to accept the convention of another to be able to communicate. "I mistrust the idea that it is possible to be entirely original," Goebbels insists. "We are all full of memories, full of history, full of taste which is not ours, which comes from the past." He also acknowledges a responsibility to his material, always considering the social and historical meanings of the musical gestures he draws on, while recognising that certain forms or sounds may carry too much baggage. He admits, for instance, that a part of his difficulty in setting German words to music (he almost invariably uses spoken text in his works) is because sung German "always has a reference back, a connotation". Goebbels may be uncomfortable with the historically compromised rhetoric of German opera and song, but his arrangements of songs by Eisler affirm what is clearly a necessary retrospective reference. About the New German Cinema of the 1970s, Wenders once wrote: "I speak for everyone who, over the last few years, after a long barren period, has started producing sounds and images again, in a country that has a profound mistrust of sounds and images about itself." Is it possible that Goebbels's desire to re-engage with German musical history was marked by a reaction against the radical abstraction and historical amnesia of postwar musical modernism, and its attempt to erase the corrupted gestures of the Western classical tradition, to restart from Degree Zero (In the words of Boulez)? Although Goebbels denies that his musical development was in any way determined by postwar modernism, the early 70s was certainly the moment when West Germany was painfully, often violently repoliticised. Indeed, he concedes, an aspect of that process was a re-engagement with those aspects of German history that had been repressed in the postwar years - an enduring theme in the cinema of Wenders, Werner Herzog, Hans Jürgen Von Syberberg and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Once declaring that his generation "had no fathers, only grandfathers", Herzog sought out and rehabilitated the great Weimar film critic and historian Lotte Eisner. In Hanns Eisler, Goebbels might well have found a similar grandparent figure to honour. Like many German films of the 70s, Goebbels's work is shot through with angst, often conveying a world existing on the edge of some disaster - whether pre- or post- is uncertain. It's most evident in the apocalyptic tone of his choice of texts, which include those great masters of American paranoia Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Auster and Thomas Pynchon. Indeed, the opening line of Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow, "A screaming comes across the sky", kicks off the recording of Cassiber's 1992 gig in Tokyo, released on ReR with a remix by Otomo Yoshihide. Even more notable is Goebbels's sustained engagement with the work of East German playwright Heiner Müller, whose bleak dramatic monologues are invariably located under the shadow of an "unknown catastrophe", or in "a landscape beyond death". But the characteristics of angst recur not just in Goebbels's choice of words: they are a persistent aspect of his music. Take a four minute sound collage called "No War Toys For Jonathan", included on Goebbels and Alfred Harth's 1981 album Der Durchdrungene Mensch/Indianer Für Morgn, reissued by evva on the 1995 compilation Goebbels Heart. Playing like the soundtrack to a miniature film nor - Struwwelpeter in a games arcade - the scene is set by an insistent high bleep, nervy, anticipatory of something nasty, a device that recurs in many of Goebbels's works. Jagged keyboard interruptions slash the fabric, unpredictable yet certain as a bolt of lightning on a New Mexico plain. Toytown burblings sampled from electronic toys and pinball machines are engulfed by some distant urban crisis: an unsettling backdrop to anguished protests from Harth on tenor sax. A delightfully creepy whistled children's tune emerges, like a Pied Piper luring innocents to destruction. Everything suggested, nothing told. The flipside of menace in Goebbels's music is a frantic intensity ("Cassiber play as if they only have a minute left to live," wrote one critic) that suggests the sheer panic of running on the spot in a nightmare or, in the case of Goebbels's The Man In The Elevator, a 1988 "staged concert piece" based on a text by Heiner Müller, the desperation of someone trapped in a lift. Goebbels concedes that even in a work as relaxed as Hashirigaki he has tapped into the strain of melancholy that shades the later Beach Boys music. "I don't consider myself apocalyptic at all", he quickly qualifies. "But I always thought it was important to face German history. To prevent or overcome it, the only way is to face it, rather than pretending that nothing has happened. That's how I grew up in the 50s." Here he acknowledges ruefully that with a name like his, he couldn't escape at least some unwelcome historical reminders in his childhood, before continuing, "I'm a very optimistic person. I think, but I found it's always good to be aware of that - to take it as a starting point so that you can transcend it." In 1976, Goebbels's encounter with Eisler gave him the impetus to set up Das Sogenanntes Linksradikales Blasorchester, a motley collection of musicians who turned out for political demonstrations and rallies. The ensemble defiantly baptised themselves with the ironic phrase "so-called left radical wind band", a comment made by a friendly critic. "We kept the quotation marks as part of the name," says Goebbels, just to ensure everyone knew they didn't take their pretensions too seriously. Nonetheless, they were closely connected with the Frankfurter Spontis, whose leaders included Daniel Cohn Bendt and the present German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer. The Spontis were one of a number of post-68 movements who combined a Frankfurt School critique of consumerist capitalism with a determination to make Germany face its Nazi past. They took their name from the murdered German socialist Rosa Luxemburg's call for spontaneous working class revolt in opposition to the centralised organisation of Leninism; just as the SLB's raucous, improvisatory musical style offered a clear aesthetic alternative to the rigid party discipline and musical authoritarianism of the communist marching bands with whom it often shared the street. Goebbels recalls a particular confrontation with a communist band which took exception to the SLB's "non-organised and non-dogmatic approach". In the ensuing scuffle, the communists attempted to destroy the sheets of music that Goebbels had provided for his colleagues. If his work with the SLB satisfied Goebbels's need to relate his musical activity to the politics of the day, his desire to reconnect to history was fulfilled in his partnership with fellow SLB member, the saxophonist Alfred Harth, which continued until 1988. From their first album onwards, Vier Fauste Für Hanns Eisler (Four Fists For Hanns Eisler, 1976), Harth and Goebbels took music by German composers such as Bach, Schumann or Eisler as source material for their improvisations. They also set poems and ballads by Brecht, for which they recruited vocalists Dagmar Krause and Ernst Stötzner. Another crucial influence on Goebbels's work with Harth was his first experience of free jazz at a Don Cherry concert at Donaueschingen in 1971, an event he recalls as "very moving". Cherry had assembled "a whole bunch of European free jazz players" (the impressive line-up, including Polish composer Krzyzstof Penderecki, Peter Brotzmann, Willem Breuker, Paul Rutherford, Han Bennink, and Goebbels's future ECM colleague, Terje Rypdal, can be heard on the live recording Actions, reissued by Intuition in 2001). "All those people were really burning for extreme intensity and extreme sounds," enthuses Goebbels. "Don Cherry was able to make them play very simply - to reduce their capacities to some very basic sounds which underneath were ready to explode. He calmed them down with very simple raga melodies. This was a very important experience for me - the tension and balance between complexity and simplicity, between the collective and an individual artist who was able to balance that out." From Don Cherry, Goebbels learned how to create the rhythmic and harmonic structures that served to underpin Harth's tone-blasting improvisations. And from Alban Berg's expressionist opera Wozzeck, Goebbels says, he learned how to forge fragments of found material into coherent musical experiences: he admires its "definite spine whose structure can disappear and yet still hold the thing together". In 1978 Goebbels and Harth were heard by Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler at the FMP Festival in Berlin. Cutler was impressed, and later, after hearing a track from a Goebbels Harth album, he wrote to Goebbels to convey his enthusiasm. But Cutler also mentioned that "I wasn't such a drum machine fan, and that if he ever wanted me to hit things, just to pick up the telephone". Goebbels took him up on the offer and in 1982 Goebbels, Harth and Cutler were joined by vocalist Christoph Anders to form Cassiber, the name taken from Czech slang for samizdat literature smuggled out of prison. The addition of Cutler and Anders opened new musical possibilities. "The thing about Cassiber is that there were four players," explains Goebbels. "Each one had an equally important part in bringing different elements of style, biography, taste and colours into the group. The group was more a confrontation between styles than it was a common aesthetic. We found a way of agreeing to a balanced collaboration between our interests." In the group, Christoph Anders's expressionist declamation was influenced by the new German post-punk groups such as Berlin's Einstürzende Neubauten, who, according to Goebbels, "discovered a new way of working with German texts. This gave me the trust that it might be possible to work with German words in a way that was not preoccupied with their meaning. They were using language in a rhythmical, repetitive way, in which the words were placed under a magnifying glass rather than being sung in a big storytelling [Romantic] Lieder manner." The energy of Anders's vocals, combined with the drive and trippy filigree of Cutler's drumming, freed Goebbels from the need to supply rhythm, allowing his keyboard interventions greater freedom and inventiveness, and proving him to be a sophisticated sampler virtuoso. Samples continue to play an important part in Goebbels's music, even in the later orchestral works such as Surrogate Cities (1994, released on ECM in 2000), which opens with a movement called "Suite For Sampler And Orchestra", a sequence of short numbers with Baroque dance titles in which Goebbels incorporates samples from colleagues such as Otomo Yoshihide, David Moss or Entouch. Goebbels admits the influence of British art rock on Cassiber. But the epic, often strident Sturm und Drang of the group's music, with its debt to both Progressive rock and free Improv, is very different from the pastoral whimsy that characterised so much British experimental rock. And although Cassiber often appeared at jazz festivals, its method and style was a long way from the ascetic purism of Improv hardliners. As Chris Cutler himself says, the object of Cassiber was not "to improvise in the abstract free jazz/ Darmstadt mode". "I never wanted to do that", agrees Goebbels. "I was more interested in the Don Cherry approach, with the intensity and richness of articulations that free jazz allowed to create something structured. In Cassiber, and before that with Alfred Harth, and even with the SLB, we tried to make actual compositions, but using the colour and borderless articulations which I love in free jazz." He sees this approach as a manifestation of Eisler's principle of progress and recuperation. "Maybe that was my role in Cassiber - somebody who improvised the structure, since performers like Alfred Harth or Christoph Anders really went very far in the transgression of sax tone or singing." The tension between structure and freedom that underpins Goebbels s composition is clearly derived from jazz, and is just as clearly political. His method allows space for heterogeneous elements: the improvisations of Harth or, in The Man In The Elevator, of George Lewis and Fred Frith. In the radio Hörstück SHADOW/Landscape With Argonauts (1992) Goebbels weaves a collage of the voices of ordinary people in the streets of Boston offering differing interpretations of a Heiner Müller text, capturing their enthusiasm, bemusement, and even annoyance at the text, and then cuts these against vocals from Sussan Deyhim. In the theatre work Ou Bien Le Debarquement Desastreux (1993) Goebbels incorporates music by kora player Boubakar Djebate. Goebbels is careful to respect the autonomy of these different musical languages, rarely engaging in pastiche or parody. "I try to work with them with the greatest possible respect", he asserts. "I never try to mix them. I try to keep it quite transparent. The African musicians [in Ou Bien Le Debarquement] felt they could do their stuff. They didn't feel they were being exploited. Even when I have a strong aesthetic confrontation between the different rhythms of European or African music you feel the clash, I don't try to cover it up. In dialectical fashion, Goebbels works through contradiction. Working with the high octane technicians of the Ensemble Modern, Goebbels approaches theatre projects such as Black On White or Landscape With Distant Relatives with a period of exploration in which he seeks to uncover the personal attributes of each performer, and subsequently draws on them for the finished work. This method ensures that the musicians cease to be anonymous instrumental cogs in a machine - as is the case with standard classical ensembles - but emerge as people with histories and personalities who then work and play together to construct a musical community. In Black On White, described as "music theatre for ensemble, light and stage", first performed in Frankfurt in 1996 (released on RCA Victor 1997), Goebbels and Ensemble Modern form an image of a society making and remaking itself collectively, starting from the basic elements of space, sound, gesture and language. Many critics have found his outlook nihilistic, but for Goebbels himself the element of spontaneity and playfulness that is intrinsic to his performances offers an alternative to nihilism. "You can only have this impression if you think that music or theatre are there to make statements." Goebbels retorts. "But if you look at the shape or the force or the rhythm, or the joy of the performer, if you look at the intensity of the player, and the humour that comes along with it, then you can't miss the utopian approach in the way I try to do things. "I hate the totalitarianism of some forms of entertainment," he continues. "Which doesn't exclude very serious artworks. Even a left wing writer or communist composer can be very authoritarian in the structure of his work. I depend on the freedom of the listener, and I always try not to have just one theme. As an old anti-authoritarian person myself, I hope to create a more intense understanding than any one that I can intend. It's possible that there are a lot of perspectives I may have missed." But Goebbels is unhappy with the term collage to describe his work, since this implies too casual an approach to his juxtaposition of materials. "I try to achieve freedom for deeper focus," he expands. "My works surround some possible focus, so I think they never allow someone to think just what he wants - this is a postmodern habit that I don't want to get close to. I strongly reject that it would be completely open or random in a liberal way." The different components of his works are always carefully juxtaposed: kora music in relation to the troubled colonial spirit expressed in Joseph Conrad's Congo diary: Paul Valery's reflections on aesthetic sensation in relation to a series of hair-raising pyrotechnic chain reactions in the theatre piece Max Black (1998). Goebbels's work relates more to the dialectical methods of montage deployed by Brecht. French director Jean-Luc Godard or Soviet film makers like Sergei Eisenstein and Dzlga Vertov, than to the Gesamtkunstwerk ideals of multimedia artists. "What I love is distance between things that you would normally expect to be together or close", he emphasises. "I try not to match words and people, words and pictures, music and words in an illustrative way. Distance on stage keeps our senses awake and curious, and actualises our longings and desires for the matches." And Goebbels pays as much attention to the connections between different elements as to the space between them. "I take a lot of care with the links," he explains. "If you work with different elements, you have to compose the links between them - between, say, African kora and electric guitar." One thinks of the exquisite sequenz in Black On White, from a raucous street band stomping all over the stage (echoes here of Goebbels's own past), via a wheezy accordion chord left hanging in the air to a perfectly timed C major triad from the whistle of a boiling kettle, which then forms the fragile accompaniment to a solitary piccolo lament. Goebbels moved into radio and theatre because they allowed him to bring a greater number of components into conjunction with his music. In the late 70s his years as musical director of the Frankfurt Theatre forced him to objectify his musical processes, enabling him to hear his music through other ears and in relation to other texts, images and spaces. His own approach to theatrical staging extends the spatialising tendencies of his music. Indeed, Goebbels likes to describe his method of composition as that of an architect or landscape painter. He compares an image in Landscape With Distant Relatives, in which a formal group of musicians wear sinister balaclavas to Poussin's painting Landscape With Man Being Killed By A Snake in which the painter "contrasts the horror of the events in the foreground with the beauty of the background. You have to consider this image in this context. While they play with the masks, in the background you see a lovely 17th century landscape, and they play something very unaggressive, very gentle. What I like in images is when they don't have an easy way of interpretation. They have an ambiguity." Goebbels often uses found material - documentary street sounds, speech, vernacular musics. In Ou Bien Le Debarquement Desastreux, with its African setting, he builds a Bartokian nocturne that combines elephants bellowing with the hoots, grunts and whistles of the jungle at night. Elsewhere, those instrumental wails are recontextualised as human. In Eislermaterial, he takes Elslers fractured, alienated setting of "I Shall Never See Again", one of Brecht's bleakest poems of exile, and adds muffled whelps and squeals that sound like the suppressed pain Eisler could not bring himself to express. Goebbels's realism extends to his attention to material detail: the rasp of bow digging into string; the textures and rhythms of language prior to meaning; the rustle of paper. The title of Black On White refers to the act of writing, and the piece opens with the amplified scratch of pen on paper, which is equated with the activities of the musicians as their exploratory gestures and sounds mark and define the space. However degraded and alienated, everyday life and popular culture carry within them the hope of utopia. If he hates "political kitsch", he finds value in artistic kitsch. Within all of his works are moments and images of grace that derive from the most ordinary, even banal events. Goebbels reveals the story behind the penultimate scene in Landscape With Distant Relatives. Visiting Bryce Canyon, Utah last year with his family, he chanced upon an old wooden lodge where a group of people were singing hillbilly songs of the old West. They were pretty bad players and singers, but the way they performed, their vulnerability, touched me very much. Goebbels reconstructs this moment at the end of a long interview which has ranged far and wide in its historical and cultural references, managing to convey in this one simple image how music, even at its most banal, allows people to create communities of meaning, value and hope. Considering the range of Goebbels's activities and interests I suggest that he is someone who gets bored easily. "Yes." he agrees, halfway out the door as he delivers his parting shot, "but that's not why we have to end this conversation." (Nicholas Till)