CD Review


© Aart van der Wal, February 2009

Also published by MusicWeb International


Goebbels: Landscape with Distant Relatives (Landschaft mit entfernten Verwandten/Paysages avac parents éloignés).

David Bennent (voice), Georg Nigl (baritone), Ensemble Modern and Deutscher Kammerchor conducted by Franck Ollu.

Original stage production by Grand Théâtre de Genève.

Live-recording October 2004,
Théâtre des Armandiers, Nanterre, Paris.

ECM New Series 1811 476 5838 • 80' •

Link to Heiner Goebbels' website

Link to ECM Records website

Is this an opera? The German composer Heiner Goebbels (1952) - 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 for thought.

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 travelling (Stein)
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 way.
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,
13,000 aeroplanes,
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 trumpets!
(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.