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GOEBBELS (b. 1952)
Landscape With Distant Relatives
David Bennent (voice);
Georg Nigl (baritone)
Ensemble Modern and Deutscher Kammerchor/Franck Ollu
Original stage production by Grand Théâtre de Genève
rec. live October 2004, Théâtre des Armandiers, Nanterre, Paris
ECM NEW SERIES 1811
(476 5838) [79:57]
Is this an opera? The German composer Heiner Goebbels - not
related to Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels -
says it is, but only in a ‘formal sense’. That said, it clearly
steps outside all the conventions we associate with the genre.
Moreover, it makes for quite spectacular music theatre even
when confined to audio and rapidly moves to completely engulf
the listener. “The acoustic part of it has a life of its own”,
claims Goebbels, and rightly so!
In the theatre, the piece runs to about two and a half hours
of music and stage action from each and every participant:
from speaker to singer to individual members of the very small
orchestra. The musicians not only play their instruments,
but also dance or act on stage as well. This not only causes
a lot of heavy traffic between orchestral pit and stage but
also substantially contributes to the feverish exhilaration
of the piece. This is very much poly-stylistic in sound and
appearance, with intriguing pastiches of pop, rock, jazz,
classical and world music, ravishing images and sculptures,
awkward public meeting-places and ponderous nineteenth-century
salons. Along the way we get spectacular shifts from small
talk to grand projection, from brilliantly sketched light
gestures and pinpoint sounds to heavy ominous drama. A switch
is instantly turned and there we are, out of the bright and
light-hearted into a musical ambush.
I agree with Goebbels that the acoustic part of the piece
has it own life. Even so, this is the kind of stage production
that would strongly benefit from a DVD recording. Both music
and words are telling, but the listener is deprived of the
images and actions that make it ‘all happen’. Solely judged
by ear, the piece might sound incoherent, strongly fragmented,
chaotic even. The added scenery and actions on stage make
it what it really is: an opera of imagery, or even an image
breaker. You need to see the building to understand and appreciate
its consummate architecture.
The entire work, built layer upon layer, does not contain
any visual or aural focal resting point. There is no centre,
as with the fascinating paintings by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
who is one of the posthumous ‘contributors’ to Goebbels’ ‘Landscape’.
In Poussin’s masterly painted projections the whole perspective
remains flawlessly intact, either watched close-up or from
a distance. The distance at which the painting is observed
does not change its original perspective, by diffusion. His
paintings reflect the great arts of the Renaissance, but in
a quite extraordinary way, by revealing distant people, houses,
trees or other objects in unprecedented detail, as if they
were close to the observer. One may be gruesomely killed in
the foreground; others in the background are enjoying bathing
or fishing. They do not seem to notice the gruesome events
or if they do they might not even care.
Poussin: “The painting shows the extreme paradox of figurative
tragedy in the foreground against softy and peaceful friendliness
in the background.” Leonardo da Vinci: “The left part of your
painting makes me curious about the right one.” This ‘fictive
dialogue of the dead’ is part of Goebbels’ overwhelming ‘Landscape’
– a work dominated by so many contrasting, even confusing,
paradoxes that leave the audience either lost or provide food
Here are the work’s 27 chapters:
1. Il y a des jours (intro - instrumental)
2. Non sta (Giordano Bruno)
3. The sirens (Gertrude Stein)
4. Ove è dunque (Bruno)
5. Les inachevés
6. Tanz der Derwische - Emplie de (Henri Michaux)
7. In the 19th century (Stein)
8. Triumphal march (T.S. Eliot)
9. Homme-bomme (Michaux)
10. Schlachtenbeschreibung (Leonardo da Vinci)
11. Well anyway (Stein)
12. Did it really happen? (Stein)
13. Kehna hi kya (Mehboob)
14. Et c’est toujours (Michaux)
15. Il y a des jours (Michaux)
16. La fronde à hommes (Michaux)
17. Just like that (Stein)
18. Bild der Städte
19. Ich leugne nicht die Unterscheidung (Bruno)
20. Krieg der Städte
21. On the road (Stein)
22. And we said goodbye
23. On the radio (Stein)
24. Different nations (Stein)
25. Out where the West begins (Arthur Chapman) - Train
26. Je ne voyage plus (Michaux) - Freight train (traditional)
27. Principes (Nicolas Poussin)
All the music is by Heiner Goebbels except Kehna hi kya
(which is by Allah Rakha Rahman) and Out where the
West Begins, by Estelle Philleo.
One of the work’s many great moments is the ‘Triumphal March’,
in which mocking dark sounds, vehement singing and shouting
create the appropriate ‘musical atmosphere’ for T.S. Eliot’s
poem Coriolan (1931). These great lines resound:
Stone, bronze, stone, steel, stone, oakleaves, horses’ heels
Over the paving.
And the flags. And the trumpets. And so many eagles.
How many? Count them. And such a press of people.
We hardly knew ourselves that day, or knew the City.
This is the way to the temple, and we so many crowding the
So many waiting, how many waiting? What did it matter, on
such a day?
Are they coming? No, not yet. You can see some eagles. And
hear the trumpets.
Here they come. Is he coming?
We can wait with our stools and sausages.
What comes first? Can you see? Tell us, it is
5,800,000 rifles and carbines,
102,000 machine guns,
28,000 trench mortars,
53,000 field and heavy guns,
I cannot tell how many projectiles, mines and fuses,
24,000 aeroplane engines,
50,000 ammunition wagons,
now 55,000 army wagons,
11,000 field kitchens,
1,150 field bakeries.
What a time that took. Will it be he now? No,
Those are the golf club Captains, these the Scouts,
And now societé gymnastique de Poissy
And now come the Mayor and the Liverymen. Look
There is he now: look:
There is no interrogation in his eyes
Or in the hands, quiet over the horse’s neck,
And the eyes watchful, waiting, perceiving, indifferent.
Now they go up to the temple, Then the sacrifice.
Now come the virgins bearing urns, urns containing
Dust of dust, and now
Stone, bronze, stone, steel, stone, oakleaves, horses’ heels
Over the paving.
That is all we could see. But how many eagles! and how many
(And Easter Sunday, we didn’t get to the country,
So we took young Cyril to church. And they rang a bell
And he said right out loud, crumpets.)
Don’t throw away that sausage,
It’ll come in handy. He’s artful. Please, will you
Give us a light?
Et les soldats faisaient la haie? ILS LA FAISAENT.
From here to Schlachtenbeschreibung or How to describe
a battle is a small step. Leonardo da Vinci’s manual tells
us how to paint a battlefield: the images of extreme violence
and atrocities which can never be properly measured. He believes
the simple answer is in using the appropriate colours: “You
will paint the ruddy faces of the warriors … and paint the
pale faces of those who surrendered …”
Yes, it is about war and devastation, presented in a most
disturbing fashion. It juxtaposes the sixteenth century’s
political turmoil and its ancient armament against the twentieth-century
equivalent with its unprecedented extermination machinery.
The two ‘landscapes’ seem to be quite different yet their
nature is the same. Gertrude Stein offers a variety of perspectives
on the subject in her famous book Wars I have seen (1945),
a prime example of avant-garde styling. While dealing with
the vast philosophical issues of political conflict and war
Stein’s approach is light as a feather: as if two neighbours
are talking to each other over the fence.
Goebbels: “This allows readers to discover their own focus,
and my music does the same.”
Here are a few fragments from Stein’s Wars I have seen:-
Did it really happen?
Did it really happen, oh yes, she said, it does happen
and it did happen. Well so life goes on, we had just been
reading Shakespeare Richard the Third, and the things they
say there do sound just like that, so why not, anything is
so if the country makes it so, and a century makes it so when
it is so, just like that […] History does repeat itself, I
have often thought that that was the really soothing thing
that history does. The one thing that is sure and certain
is that history does not teach, that is to say, it always
says let it be a lesson to you but is it? Not at all. Not
at all because circumstances always alter cases and so although
history does repeat itself it is only because the repetition
is soothing that anyone believes it, nobody nobody wants to
learn either by their own or anybody else’s experience, nobody
does, no they say they do but no nobody does. Yes nobody does.
Just like that
We spend our Friday afternoons with friends reading Shakespeare,
we have read Julius Caesar, and Macbeth and now Richard the
Third and what is so terrifying is that it is all just like
what is happening now. Macbeth seeing ghosts well don’t they,
is not Mussolini seeing the ghost of his son-in-law, of course
he is you can see him seeing the ghost of his son-in-law,
his last speech showed that he did, and any of them, take
the kings in Shakespeare there is no reason to why they all
kill each other all the time, it is not like orderly wars
when you meet and fight, but it is all just violence and there
is no object to be attained, no glory to be won, just like
Henry the Sixth and Richard the Third and Macbeth just like
that, just like that, very terrible and just like that.
Medieval means, that life and place and the crops you plant
and your wife and children, all are uncertain. They can be
driven away or taken away, or burned away, or left behind,
that is what it is to be mediaeval. And now and here 1943,
it is just like that (…)
Philosophical murmuring in a light way, but at the same token
it really goes to the heart of all matters. This is the mirror,
this is our life. It is not amusing. On the contrary, it is,
again, most disturbing. Conflict and war are our alter ego,
in all times. No wonder that Goebbels was so deeply affected
by what happened on September 11. He might therefore have
felt it necessary to include the Dance of the Darvesh (or
Derwisj). Darvesh literally means ‘from door to door’, resembling
the begging monks and other members of the strictly aesthetic
and religious Sufi movement, living in poverty and sobriety,
distant from material possessions, practitioners of the soul
searching and inner mystical dimensions of the Islam, but
at the same time source of wisdom, poetry, enlightenment,
medicine and poetry. Goebbels confronts us with colliding
cultures and philosophies, his associative imagination crosses
unknown borders, along the diffuse lines of hell and sentiment.
We hear some Indian film themes (including a Hindu love song),
stylishly and typically Bollywood, as we follow the path to
Hollywood, with its westerns, country and western music and
camp fires all included (in Out where the West begins).
The very end of ‘Landscape’ is most telling: Freight Train,
a traditional song:
Freight train, freight train going’ so fast.
Freight train, freight train going’ so fast.
Please, don’t tell what train I’m on,
so they won’t know where I’m gone.
When I die, Lord, please bury me deep,
Way down on old Chestnut Street,
So I can hear old Number Nine
As she comes a-rolling by.
Freight train, freight train (…)
When I am dead and in my grave
No more good times here I’ll crave,
Place the stones at my head and feet
And tell them all that I’m gone to sleep.
This rather soft image might in fact release another and more
sinister one: of freight trains travelling through Europe
taking the Jews to the extermination camps, most of the victims
oblivious to what was going to happen to them. Another example
of what each and every audience should do: think, think, think!
Goebbels’ thought-provoking ‘Landscape’ carries several distinctive
main themes. There is the ambiguity residing in art and in
daily life and their dispersed intersections. Then there is
the very nature of political clashes and their teeth-baring
implications on the battlefield. Aren’t we all, going back
in time, distant relatives? This hypnotic and fascinating
music either precedes or follows the great variety of images,
it stays with you from start to finish. This is thanks to
Goebbels’ moulding, stretching or compressing of his material
into these amazingly accurate sketches. It is as if we are
strolling through this museum with its tableaux alternating
the horrifying and the beautiful. Goebbels’ Pictures at
an exhibition is filled with life and death, expressed
through historical events telling us that they do not really
differ from today’s events. All is highly fragmented. Any
sense of sequential chronology is wilfully missing; there
are holes and missing links – just like life. This is neither
the kind of logically laid out ‘summary of events’ we may
find in most history books, nor is it very likely that the
piece can be fruitfully performed without his own ‘intrusions’
as producer and director.
He finished the score in Geneva, in October 2002, most of
it having been written that summer. But a lot of it was still
to be worked out at some later stage, a process which began
at the first rehearsals in December. The ‘Landscape’ as an
ongoing workshop. Finally it as a ‘work model’, leaving its
performers with ‘about ten percent improvisation’. In that
sense the work is never to be finished.
This is reactionary, and in part, even offensive music theatre.
It defies traditional taste or preferences. The images, texts,
sounds and stage actions are provocative – just as they should
be. This CD – without those stage images, but with clearly
audible stage actions - does not change that at all. As Goebbels
has said, the audio aspect has a life of its own. Indeed,
there is plenty to reflect upon. This is, in no small part
due to the magnitude of what is said, chanted and played,
in a wide range of forms. What we hear is a tremendous outburst
of creativity that seems to make this inconceivable aural
spectacle indestructible. This is definitely not some kind
of instant curiosity that was unearthed during the performance.
Instead we hear a well-prepared masterpiece with a magical
touch. This production is as committed as one could possibly
imagine, with the audience clearly gripped by the stage and
pit dynamics. If there is ’about 10 percent improvisation’
(the score tells it for sure), it is unquestionably not probability-based.
It should – and does - emerge from the musical and stage action
itself. This is a most prodigious and unsettling performance,
uncompromisingly direct and emotionally highly charged. Each
and every person involved seems entirely under the skin of
the music. It is nothing short of exceptional. Even condensed
into sound only this is an experience not to be missed.
Aart van der Wal
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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