Giving Voice: Heiner Goebbels’ ‘A House of Call’

There have been quite a few extremely rewarding ‘classical’ releases on CD in recent weeks, ranging from Robert Levin’s seven-disc set of the complete Mozart piano sonatas performed on the composer’s very own fortepiano (ECM), through Igor Levit’s selection of pieces by Liszt, Wagner, Mahler and Henze on Tristan (Sony) and Christian Immler and Andreas Frese’s pairing of song cycles by Robert Schumann and Jörg Widmann on Das heisse Herz (Alpha), to Besilvering (bastille musique), Holst-Sinfonietta’s collection of chamber works by the excellent if underrated young British composer Luke Bedford. All these are ambitious, intriguing, beautifully performed albums which offer, in their own different ways, something genuinely fresh and, well, unusual. But perhaps the most ambitious, intriguing and unusual of all – unsurprisingly – is the latest release from the German composer, director, dramatist and artist Heiner Goebbels. (It’s hard, really, to know how to describe someone who creates such strange hybrid works, but being so uncategorisable in no way diminishes the appeal or value of his output.)

Performed by the Ensemble Modern Orchestra under conductor Vimbayi Kaziboni, Goebbels’ A House of Call (the title is an allusion to Finnegans Wake) comes with the subtitle ‘My Imaginary Notebook’. The piece – which runs around 100 minutes – consists of 15 movements grouped into four parts and. with the exception of an Introitus inspired by Pierre Boulez and one entitled Under Construction, it comprises Goebbels’ responses to various vocal recordings he has heard or collected over the years. In his brief note, he alludes not only to Joyce but to John Cage and Roland Barthes; more usefully, perhaps, he explains that the composition is ‘a cycle of calls, invocations, incantations, prayers, acts of speech, poems and songs for large orchestra. But it is not the orchestra that calls, it is confronted with voices: it presents, supports, accompanies, answers or contradicts them… A House of Calls is… a phonographic collection from my imaginary notebook, which does not follow a systematic approach, but whose sources have emerged from many journeys, chance encounters, scattered research on artistic projects, sometimes also on projects that were never fully realised.’ In other words, as with many of Goebbels’ previous works, we cannot expect to understand everything in a straightforward or strictly logical way, but should go with the flow of associative connections and counterpoints. I’ve been taking this approach to his work ever since I first came upon it in the 2000 album Surrogate Cities, in which he also experimented with the recorded voice – here is another, later account of part of the Suite for Ampler and Orchestra which opened that album – and which is as good a starting point as any if you’re unfamiliar with his magpie-like collagist’s brand of music, words and other sounds. (He might not agree with such a description, of course, but I have to evoke his distinctive work somehow.)

Heiner Goebbels

A House of Call begins with what sounds like the members of the orchestra practising lines and tuning up, before drifting seamlessly into what sounds like Boulez’s Répons but will in fact be a spirited, deconstructive and eventually explosive response to Répons; and the piece ends with members of the orchestra chanting, to minimal instrumental accompaniment, words from Samuel Beckett’s Worstward Ho: words which in effect ponder the question of what might remain when words are gone. (The repetitive, literally monotonous chant, with slowly shifting harmonies eventually ascending gently and tentatively towards a kind-of-climax, at once strangely radiant and resigned to its own disappearance, sounds at times intriguingly like the melodically austere lines written by Michael Mantler for Jack Bruce in the former’s No Answer, a 1976 setting of words from Beckett’s How It Is.) Between these two poles – the first emerging, creation-like, from silence, the second returning to silence, as if there is nothing left to be said or no one left to say it – lies a rich array of responses to sound, and in particular to the sound of the human voice.

The first three movements, grouped as Stein Schere Papier (Stone Scissors Paper), are perhaps the least immediately engaging, because they deal less with vocal colour: the Boulez beginning is followed by a Sisypheanly repetitive, orchestrally percussive response to a fragment of Heiner Müller text evoking the notion of ‘Always the same stone’, then by a monumental, mechanistic piece accompanying/transforming sounds emanating from a Berlin construction site. Thereafter, however, with Grain de la voix, Wax and Violence and When Words Gone – each part separated into four movements – Goebbels takes as his starting point recordings, some recent, others from old wax cylinders, of humans singing, reciting, conversing, praying, giving orders or whatever; he embellishes, enlarges, subverts, interrogates, combines or otherwise takes inspiration from the originals as he deems appropriate. In 1346 a recital of a poem by the Persian master Rumi sees the orchestra shadowing the voice in close harmony, before it takes off to behave like a massive vocoder; in Achtung Aufnahme, Nun danket alle Gott and Ti gu go Inîga mî (Some of them say), Germany’s racist-imperialist past in Africa is first hauntingly acknowledged (with German orders being tersely delivered and Namibian women and children being made to sing a German hymn) then gloriously overturned through a Haneb chant that gradually builds to an infectiously light dance rhythm before exploding into a wild sax solo reminiscent of free jazz. The cumulative effect is extraordinary: one of the great things about Goebbels’ music at its best is its capacity to surprise; and here he makes constantly imaginative use of a large orchestra which in addition to the strings, winds and percussion includes fine contributions from an accordion, dulcimer and electric guitar. If you want to get some of idea of the range of his musical palette, you can watch some excepts from the piece here, complete with Goebbels speaking a little about the piece.

What’s it all about? Impossible to say, really: the limits of language, the remarkable resonance of sound, the magically transformative power of music. Or something like that. What can be said is that Goebbels takes existing sounds and turns them into music that is something delicate and lyrical, sometimes spiky and thunderous, always exhilaratingly imaginative – and surprisingly coherent; there’s an alchemy at work here. Along with Surrogate Cities and the subsequent Eislermaterial (a wonderful tribute to/reworking of Hanns Eisler’s music, also performed by the Ensemble Modern), it is arguably the finest release of Goebbels’ music to date. (I’m not alone in this assessment; critics Andrew Clements and Rob Cowan have enthused about A House of Call, and a composer friend of mine rates it as his best work yet by far.) The good news, if you happen to be in London next March, is that the London Philharmonic will be performing it live at the Southbank Centre. I bought my tickets months before I heard the album. That’s how good Heiner Goebbels is.

And if you’ve read this far, and are interested in what Goebbels was up to back in 1976, here as an extra treat, from an album of duets he recorded with saxophonist and clarinettist Alfred Harth, is his characteristically idiosyncratic take on Schumann’s Ich grolle nicht.

A House of Call is released by ECM. It will be performed in Vienna on 19 November, in Porto on January 21, and in London on 25 March. You can find out more about the piece and about Goebbels here or at http://www.heinergoebbels.com. Portrait photo of Heiner Goebbels by Rainer Wohlfahrt courtesy of ECM.

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