Him What You Will, He's Too Busy to Be Bothered
By JOHN ROCKWELL
Theater. On July 13, a concert
piece with staged elements, "Eislermaterial,"
a kind of sound collage created around the music and
recorded interviews of the East German composer Hanns
Eisler, will be part of the Lincoln Center Festival.
And on Nov. 14, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic
will give the American premiere of a new 20-minute orchestra
piece, "From a Diary."
is proud of the jurisdictional confusion he
provokes. Are his works theater? Music? (Classical?
Rock? Jazz?) Or music theater? He has done them
all, separately and together, and he doesn't
seem to mind how he is categorized.
"I'm easily bored,"
he said recently from Berlin. "I like very
much to change my professional field every seven
Whatever he is, he is very good
at it, and he has three prominent forums to
display his varied wares in New York this year.
Wednesday through next Sunday, his music-theater
piece "Hashirigaki" will be at the
Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey
Of these, "Hashirigaki,"
which means talking while walking or flowing script
(this poetically charged word has multiple meanings),
is the most imminent and the most overtly theatrical.
Created in 2000 at Le Théâtre
Vidy-Lausanne in Switzerland, the 80-minute piece
is built around the talents of three women, one short
(Yumiko Tanaka, from Japan), one medium-sized (Marie
Goyette, from Canada) and one tall (Charlotte Engelkes,
from Sweden); their disparate heights are part of
the gentle humor of Mr. Goebbels's staging. (There
is also an unseen backstage keyboard player.) The
piece has no plot in any conventional sense, being
a series of tableaus, although it does rise to a kind
of seraphic vision of airy contentment.
The three women wander about the stage
like Pina Bausch dancers, sometimes miming, sometimes
talking, sometimes singing, sometimes playing instruments.
The instruments include the theremin, that early electronic
device beloved of sci-fi directors from the 1950's,
and the Japanese koto and shamisen, played by Ms.
Tanaka in traditional regalia. Otherwise the fey costumes
echo those Oskar Schlemmer designed for his historic
1920's "Triadic Ballet"; the set and brilliant
lighting recall Robert Wilson.
Most bizarrely, it might at first
seem, is the juxtaposition of the dance and mime and
traditional Japanese music with texts from Gertrude
Stein's epic novel of 1908, "The Making of Americans,"
and songs, sung by the three women, from the Beach
Boys' 1966 classic album "Pet Sounds," sometimes
with the original words and sometimes with new ones.
As reasonable people might ask: Huh?
But the amazing thing about Mr. Goebbels's wildly
heterogeneous musico-poetical-theatrical collages
is that they almost always work. They cohere, they
compel, they beguile. And they cohere without any
forced hybridization of the components.
"When I bring different fields
and genres together, I don't meld them," he said.
"I keep the integrity of the various elements."
Aside from the force of creative personality, what
seems to bind Mr. Goebbels's diversity together is
Mr. Goebbels's highly unusual first
half-century (he is 50 now) gives some clue to his
dizzying assortment of influences. He was born in
the modest German city of Neustadt an der Weinstrasse,
near Mannheim, in the western part of the country,
and brought up in nearby Landau. He studied piano
and cello as a child and took up the guitar as a teenager.
He has lived in Frankfurt ever since he went there
in his late teens to study sociology.
Those studies placed him squarely
in the left-radical German student movement that had
erupted in protests in 1968. While still studying
sociology, he played in various free-form bands, and
in 1976 he decided to study music formally, which
he did for four years at the Frankfurt conservatory.
From 1976 to 1981 he led the So-Called
Left-Radical Brass Band, which played all over Europe.
And from 1982 to 1992 he was the musical glue (as
keyboard and guitar player) of a four-person progressive
rock band called Cassiber, which included Chris Cutler,
the percussionist from the noted British art-rock
band Henry Cow. Cassiber recorded several albums and
broke up after a big farewell concert in Tokyo.
Mr. Goebbels said
his biography was a little hard to recount because
he was always doing several things at once.
In his 20's he was composing incidental music
for theater and films. He did free improvisation
with the likes of Fred Frith, Don Cherry and
Arto Lindsay. He established a long-term relationship
with the prestigious Frankfurt new-music group
The Ensemble Modern was one
of several major influences and encounters in
his life. Hanns Eisler, who died in 1962, was
a convinced Communist (he wrote the East German
national anthem) and a collaborator of Bertolt
Brecht's. Mr. Goebbels said that from Eisler's
work he learned that he could combine his political
and musical passions.
In 1980 he met the East German playwright
Heiner Müller, whose texts and spoken voice became
the verbal component of numerous Goebbels works. In
particular there were some striking radio plays in
which, as in "Eislermaterial," pre-recorded
words were sometimes heard straight but sometimes
wildly fractured into quasi-musical elements. (Mr.
Goebbels had long been interested in the integration
of words and music; one of Cassiber's albums incorporated
extensive texts by Thomas Pynchon.) And he met Manfred
Eicher, who has recorded nearly all of Mr. Goebbels's
music since the mid-80's on his ECM label.
It was the radio plays, some of which
(with Müller's encouragement) he subsequently
staged, that provided his avenue into stage direction.
"Radio offered a limited space where I could
develop my ideas," Mr. Goebbels said. "Now
I can do it live, on stage with actors. But I had
to develop it first for myself."
He began staging his works in the
mid-80's, around the time he became associated with
the Ensemble Modern, which has pitched in enthusiastically
in his pieces that require musicians to act (such
as "Black on White," which received its
United States premiere at the 2001 Lincoln Center
Festival). His theater pieces have evolved from semi-staged
concerts to full-blown opera, as in "Landscape
With Distant Relatives," first seen late last
year in Geneva. So far, he has not directed a play
without music, but he says he is on the verge of that,
with an Elias Canetti project scheduled for next year;
Canetti won the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature.
"Hashirigaki," which preceded
"Landscape With Distant Relatives" in the
Goebbels canon, succeeds most immediately because
of the magical — his word — matching of
the Stein text, which he first heard when Robert Wilson
read from it at Müller's funeral in 1996, and
the Beach Boys songs he had played as a child.
Mr. Goebbels's piece is his lightest
and most sweetly charming. "The Beach Boys music
is kind of floating, not touching the ground,"
he said. "It has something to do with the bass
lines not quite connected to the tonal center. The
combination of that with the Japanese music wasn't
clear to me when I began, but it turned out very well."
By now, Mr. Goebbels is fully integrated
into the world of European high art, winning prizes
and teaching a course in theater theory and practice
at the University of Giessen. (He composes and rehearses
only during breaks.) But he is still no more immune
to criticisms about his low-art antecedents than an
American might be. He professes a bohemian indifference.
"If you talk to other German composers and critics,"
he said, "I'm sure you would hear some of that.
The ignorance is sometimes really remarkable. But
I don't care."