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When Brian Met Gertrud 

Heiner Goebbels on Hashirigaki, and more

Wednesday, Oct 9 2002
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Photo by Mario del Curto

"I NEVER CREATE A THEATER PIECE ON A subject which I entirely understand. My interest is an artistic investigation, and if I find a theme that interests me and which I might not be able to precisely describe, then I try to invite the audience to participate in surrounding the empty center which needs to be discovered."

That's German composer-director Heiner Goebbels giving the basics on his "sound-plays," which might be described as theatrical works that explore the rhythmic, textural and melodic qualities of music in harmony with carefully chosen non-narrative text and visual elements. It's a total art experience Goebbels has developed with enormous critical and popular success in Europe since the early '80s, and which he'll bring to UCLA's Freud Playhouse October 10 to 12 with performances of his Hashirigaki.

The Frankfurt-based Goebbels is a 50-year-old native of Neustadt who studied sociology and later music at university, and began to develop his theories about a new kind of theater amid the non-organized new-left politics of early-'70s Germany. He'd played in avant-rock bands such as Cassiber with Henry Cow's Chris Cutler, while also composing prodigiously for theater, ballet and film, and initially stretched his musical borders with a series of events for German radio that combined his art-rock and improvised-music-tinged sound pieces with text. Ultimately, though, these spheres proved too small to accommodate Goebbels' ideas about redefining a musical space -- ideas that would explore the relationships and, crucially, resonating differences between sound, text and visual images.

"I was never interested in music only," he says, "and I was always interested in the process, and the way music comes up, where it's being situated, who's listening, and also finding another reason for doing music, not only to play with sounds."

Goebbels creates theater for people who prefer the cinema, and in fact much of his work seems as much to do with the filmlike art of editing as it is about anything else. His 1995 theater piece Die Wiederholung (The Repetition) linked the music of Prince with an essay by Kierkegaard and works of French novelist Robbe-Grillet ("this strange triangle between seduction, jealousy, repetition and voyeurism, and not being able exactly to describe the solution for this attraction").

A fortuitous friendship with the ECM label's Manfred Eicher has made possible a series of discs documenting Goebbels' various excursions, such as the 1998 Surrogate Cities, which seduced listeners into vertical, horizontal and interior views of the urban landscape via massive orchestrations played in tandem with samplers and texts by Goebbels' now-deceased collaborator Heiner Müller; the excellent SHADOW/Landscape With Argonauts juxtaposed the words of Edgar Allan Poe and Müller -- read both by professional performers and passersby on the streets of Boston -- with bewitching avant-funk and deliciously harmonized electronic atmospheres. The forthcoming CD of Eislermaterial is a more discrete piece in tribute to Goebbels' chief political-music inspiration, the East German socialist composer Hans Eisler, from whom Goebbels derived his goal of creating a way of art that can speak directly to the people, and not just a cultured elite.

"A way of spoken language and music which is not oppressing the other, so that music and the words can be equivalently incorporated," he says. "It's very important at the beginning of the 21st century to include the perspectives of the audience in a creative way -- not to tell them where to go."

HASHIRIGAKI IS AMONG THE PROLIFIC Goebbels' latest works, and one whose far-flung constituent parts give an intriguing look at how many levels upon which such a new sound-theater might operate. Somewhat typically, Goebbels weaves a golden braid of three seemingly disparate elements: the music of Brian Wilson, the words of Gertrude Stein, and extra music, movement and lyricizing by three woman players whose various sizes (short, average, tall) and nationalities (Japanese, Swedish and Canadian) are also exploited for visual effect.

In Hashirigaki, the use of music from Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds is fitting, since Wilson's music is about feeling -- letting the music speak for itself -- thus Gertrude Stein's tone-based prose is a logical choice to intersplice with that. "I never work with words only by their meaning," says Goebbels. "I always work with words by their color, their rhythm, the melody. In the writing of Gertrude Stein, there's a feeling of not being completely grounded; the vocabulary is quite limited, and she's repetitive, and she asks the reader or the listener to attempt her thinking, so she's continuously moving her thoughts and observing and describing and changing her mind, and this gets a stream of not really grounded but lifted emotions."

That effect is similar to what one hears in Wilson's music, often achieved by using bass lines that don't satisfy the harmonies in the usual ways and thus shift the colors (sentiments and perspectives) of his songs. "He's keeping the motion, keeping things in a hard-to-catch mystery mood. It gives a drama, where you always like to be there, and you never can really arrive."

"MY STAGE WORKS ARE NOT IN THE USUAL sense dramatic -- you don't find screaming actors rubbing around the floor. Drama needs to be something between the audience and the stage, and it should not just happen on the stage; the drama is what's happening between the listener or between the spectator and what he sees or what he wants to see or what he's able to discover. And that interests me more than just the sound of a dramatic theater-going expression, which is very happy with itself."

If Goebbels' work does combine politics with music, his overt ambiguity of images and sound is custom-designed not only to ask the participant to question what he sees and hears, but perhaps even to come away humming a nice little tune.

Hashirigaki is presented at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, Thursday­Saturday, October 10­12.

Reach the writer at jpayne@bluefat.com

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