Look up Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868) and you will find out something
about an Austrian writer who seems to have been almost entirely
overlooked beyond the boundaries of German-speaking Europe.
Heiner Goebbels’ connection with Stifter in this piece
involves a painstaking observation of nature, a sort of assimilation
and interpretation of the world and its phenomena, all of which
have resonances for Stifters Dinge. Goebbels is an artist
who is unparalleled in his pursuit of integrity and accuracy
to his vision of a project, and uncompromising in terms of production
and performance. You can be sure that nothing is accidental,
and such a sense of preparation and attention to detail is what
we sense in Stifter, and Stifters Dinge.
Unpromisingly, this is a work with a highly unusual and engaging
visual/theatrical element which is inevitably absent on a CD
recording. The booklet describes a stage with five grand pianos
“nested together and placed on end, all provided with
equipment which will produce sounds from the interior or exterior
of the instrument…” This is only the start of the
story, and there are some photos that demonstrate a stage which
is hard to describe - and one which moves about and seems to
have a life of its own. In fact the sonic content of the sound-only
version creates such landscapes for the imagination that we
can generate plenty of images, their shapes and content guided
by finely nuanced and graphically descriptive sounds and texts.
The human voice plays a vital role in all of this, and the initial
soundtracks include incantations recorded in Papua New Guinea
in 1905 which are hauntingly abstract. One of the movements,
Trees, has a text by Adalbert Stifter read with Ivor
Cutler-like restraint by famous actor, Bill Paterson. This is
interesting, and is shot through with dramatic sounds - relating
to the scene on-stage, but Goebbels chooses to leave the text
‘dry’ and it might arguably have been more interesting
and integrated if the voice was also given some treatment. Later
on we also hear from William S. Burroughs, Malcolm X, Columbian
Indians and an antique recording of a traditional Greek song.
All of these add to a narrative feel in the piece, as well as
a touch of theatrical structure.
From the outset there are little musical fragments and rhythmic
elements which repeat or return in cycles - leitmotief
perhaps. A movement called The Rain has the pianos perform
some Bach while the water falls around and an interview is heard
in French. The pianos can have a Gamelan effect at times, and
are more often than not used as tuned percussion. Associations
with Conlon Nancarrow are unavoidable, especially in the swiftly
moving El Sonido section. The layering of mechanical
sounds reminds one of clockworks of varying sizes; the kind
Harrison Birtwistle is keen on exploring.
This is a remarkable and surprisingly rich and stimulating work,
and very much worth hearing in its own right, even divorced
from its theatrical origin. Yes, it’s contemporary music
and no, it’s not filled with tunes to which you can hum
along, but it is romantic in feel, with the same kind
of invisible virtuosity which you find in a Brahms Ballade.
As the sonic equivalent of beautifully conceived and well-constructed
installation art this is visual stimulation for the ears, and
as such has a great deal to offer.