Tuesday, 28 April 2009
Heiner Goebbels - Songs of Wars I have Seen
This is a short clip from Heiner Goebbels's Songs of Wars I have Seen. It's badly recorded so make huge allowances. The reality is much better. Reality and image are good ways through which to enter Goebbels's world. For nearly 40 years now he's experimented with different ways of expressing ideas. Most of us are conditioned to thinking more or less in boxes: what Goebbels does is that mysterious space between boxes, where ideas overlap and change.
Most cross-genre hybrids don't work because they're approached as self-conscious novelties, from outside in rather than from within. In Songs of Wars I have seen, the duality comes from the very meaning, or possible meaning of the piece and thoughtfully worked through.
The texts come from Gertrude Stein's wartime diaries, where she jots down random thoughts. Her words seem embarrassingly banal. Why is she rambling on about honey when people just like herself are being murdered all round Europe? You want to scream in protest. But that's exactly why Songs of Wars I have seen works so effectively. It overturns your assumptions about what it's like to live in such situations. War turns Stein inwards, as if she can only escape the horror of reality by burrowing into trivia. "People go mad" she says, "quietly and slowly".
Goebbels recreates the claustrophobia of Stein’s world by shrouding the stage in darkness, lit only by fragile table lamps, which look as if they might go out at any time. The female musicians are huddled together, as if in a domestic prison. They’re musicians, not singers or actors, so when they read Stein’s texts they sound indistinct, but that’s the point. They, too, are in a world not of their own making. If they sounded polished or “thespian”, the impact would be lost. When they play, though, they create the poignant depths Stein dares not articulate".
Above the women are ranged a menacing counterpoint of percussion and brass, and above them all float eerie sounds like the crackling of radio waves or the rumbling of machines. It’s like bombardment, distant but persistent, creating the tense anxiety Stein tries so hard to suppress. Sometimes it does overwhelm, and the voices are silenced. A trumpet calls out from the background, deliberately distorted.
Stein ruminates on Shakepeare and on the Middle Ages. History seems to come round and round in endless repeat. Is barbarity part of the human condition? How do decent people cope?
Hence Goebbels's seamless blend of early music and modern, theorbo with sound desk. At the end words cease. The musicians leave their sophisticated instruments and turn to Tibetan prayer bowls, which make eerie, circular sounds, while behind them the whirring electronic background drones on.