A House of Call – My Imaginary Notebook

Heiner Goebbels in Conversation with Winrich Hopp

The composer and director Heiner Goebbels has written an evening-length orchestral cycle at the initiative of Ensemble Modern and the Musikfest Berlin, which is to be performed on August 30, 2021 during the Musikfest Berlin at Berlin’s Philharmonie by the Ensemble Modern Orchestra under the baton of Vimbayi Kaziboni. The work will also subsequently be performed in Cologne, Düsseldorf, Hamburg and Munich, and in further European cities in 2022. Part of BTHVN 2020, the project was originally scheduled for the Beethoven anniversary year of 2020, but the pandemic forced its postponement. Winrich Hopp, artistic director of the Musikfest Berlin and Munich’s ›musica viva‹ concert series, spoke to Heiner Goebbels about ›A House of Call. My Imaginary Notebook‹, which is, surprisingly, a songbook ...

Winrich Hopp: Dear Heiner, when considering your artistic circle, two composer names keep recurring: the Dutchman Louis Andriessen and the Frenchman Luc Ferrari. It seems to me that you have special sympathy for them, next to John Cage and Helmut Lachenmann.

Heiner Goebbels: Yes, both of them had a different, more »relaxed« relationship with their listeners. I have known and esteemed Louis Andriessen’s work since the 1970s, and we are friends; I was friends with Luc Ferrari – sadly, he left us far too early ... I always perceived Ferrari’s music as an invitation in which the material was not strongly hierarchical. He didn’t try to convince people, overwhelm or shock them. Such a stance of authority towards the audience, which was quite commonly found even among composers of his generation, was alien to him.

WH: I find it interesting that you use the word »relaxed«. After all, there is enormous tension in Beethoven’s music. In Adorno’s Beethoven book, which remained a fragment and was published posthumously, but conceived as a »philosophy of music«, he divided music in general into an »intense type« and an »extensive type«. The »intense type« is driven forward by time, even if it is this type itself which drives time from within. The »extensive type«, on the other hand, has time and takes its time. Of course there are mixed forms. What does tension and relaxation mean to you? Does it affect art itself, or does it describe the artist’s attitude?

HG: »Relaxation« is really a polemic term, for when something is truly relaxed, it can be incredibly boring. What I mean, rather, is whether you meet the audience at eye level, or if as a listener, you have the impression that here is someone who thinks it necessary to enlighten or lecture me from on high. In Beethoven’s case, such an air of superiority did hinder my approach.
I believe that I have been damaged by a definition of repertoire that was narrowed to the classical. In the small town in the Palatinate where I grew up, lucky coincidence would have it that the art deco town hall offered a rich and varied music programme, enabling me to experience the most important soloists, orchestras and conductors of this era. Even Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic came to the Palatinate; that was a big event, and perhaps it impressed me, but it failed to move me. What moved me were the slow movements in Bach’s violin concerti played by David Oistrach, or early, near-theatrical experiences when Celibidache seemed to dance through the air above the podium, when Mstislav Rostropovich made the audience wait for a quarter of an hour, or when the well-known Beethoven pianist Elly Ney played ›Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht‹ as an encore, asking the entire hall to sing along. Suddenly, we transcended the borders of what was a classical, academic concert.

WH: Did that motivate you to compose not just »pieces«, but actually the concert format itself?

HG: Yes, and to alter it. For example, there was an attempt in the 1980s to reconceive Heiner Müller’s ›Mann im Fahrstuhl‹ with jazz musicians as a staged concert – or to work with microphones and lighting in the first concerts with Ensemble Modern, and at least to employ other strategies questioning the stereotypes of the concert form. Only much later did I meet the more complex Beethoven, who has other sides – as Adorno pointed out: the Beethoven of the bagatelles or the fourth piano concerto, or the late sonatas.

WH: Now you have written a new orchestral piece; a format that has not dominated your catalogue of works so far.

HG: So far, there is only the cycle ›Surrogate Cities‹ and a handful of orchestral pieces. With two exceptions, I have not written an orchestral piece in 20 years. I am not interested in having a piece of my own played between Strauss and Beethoven – or rather, before Beethoven and Strauss. Only if I have the possibility of dramaturgically shaping an entire evening can I offer the audience a powerful, inner artistic experience.

WH: In your piece ›A House of Call‹, voices also form a substantial part. These are voices you encountered, found and recorded. As one encounters faces. Or photographs. Actually, they are acoustic moving images.

HG: Yes. I am, however, not interested in the actual faces. In the case of a so-called »acousmatic« voice, in other words, a voice whose source you cannot see, I am more interested in this wish of seeing it – but the wish is not granted. This desire is the most important potential for imagination: Who is singing here? Where is this singing happening? Why? What about? As listeners, we must set the scene for the persons we hear – going on the voices’ aura, the associations, the needs they arouse. The experiences, desires, fears or needs we develop are an important part of coming to terms with acoustic experiences.

WH: Is it merely the absence of body which empowers our imagination and allows us to construct the missing elements, or is it a certain quality of the voice in question?

HG: First and foremost, it is a voice which speaks to us, an individual, idiosyncratic and non-standardized voice. A voice which does not deny its traces in the physical, its history, its experiences. However, my musical theatre pieces are also dominated by this motif that the centre is void, that what we expect to see is missing – and they explore what happens within me, the observer, as a result. For of course, this longing for a centre remains.

WH: Does that mean that as a composer, you construct absences?

HG: I think it can be a more rewarding experience for all observers if the centre is unoccupied. The 150 viewers present in ›Stifters Dinge‹ think up 150 different stories, because there is no one on stage embodying anything and occupying their attention. Yet everyone sees something related to the themes addressed by the piece. I provide a framework; I circle these themes. In ›Stifters Dinge‹ they are questions of ethnology, of ecology. ›Eislermaterial‹ is not unsimilar: of course its material evokes a certain political era and a political attitude. My hope is that we suddenly have the chance to experience and think something quite our own. Thinking our own thoughts – that is also what interests me about Louis Andriessen’s architectures, for example when he opens his opera ›De Materie‹ by repeating the same chord 144 times. It is like an empty building, a shell; what happens inside this construct is left to the viewers or listeners.

WH: Imagine yourself inside a centrally organized space, a concert, opera or theatre performance. Can you manage to decentralize the action through your own perception? To remove even the protagonists from the focus?

HG: Not really. I am less and less interested in performances centred on a soloist, a strong protagonist or a fantastic dancer or virtuoso actor. I am not interested in being reflected there, to identify with it.

WH: In that case, how can you still imagine a song recital, for example?

HG: As I do in my new orchestral work. That is a song recital. It could be subtitled ›A Song Recital‹ or ›A Songbook‹.

WH: But you gave it a different title.

HG: ›A House of Call‹.

WH: That is an expression that has somewhat fallen out of use ...

HG: I like using titles that are unfamiliar. ›Hashirigaki‹ or ›Eraritjaritjaka‹, for example, a word that had fallen out of use. And so it is with ›A House of Call‹. In the 19th century, it still stood for a public space where members of certain trades who found themselves underemployed could find new jobs. Think of carpenters or bricklayers, perhaps also actors and musicians. Concerts should also be public spaces, not the personal expression of the composer in question.
I found the term in John Cage’s ›Roaratorio‹, which was an important listening piece for me. With infinite continuity – like a shaman, really – Cage pronounced individual words from ›Finnegan’s Wake‹. He reads his way through this novel, which in fact has more than 600 pages, selecting only those words which could vertically spell »James Joyce«.
I work with calls, with exhortations, invocations, incantations, with text forms oscillating between litanies and prayers, with poems, with literature. Perhaps, then, ›A House of Call‹ hits the nail I am searching for: all this has the potential to feel invoked by these voices.

WH: Then there are the instrumental sounds, and those are live ...

HG: ... and the orchestra responds to these voices, it reacts, supports and interrupts them, or brings them into the public sphere.

WH: Is it a kind of chorus?

HG: Yes. You could also call it a responsory, a secular one.

WH: The Ensemble Modern musicians have accompanied your output for a very long time – and vice versa. Is the work of rehearsing with orchestras or ensembles different from working with actors?

HG: There’s a big difference. Actually I prefer working in the theatre, as it is a social process, during which I can jointly develop something over the course of many weeks. When I write for an orchestra, it is usually a miserably lonely process. This loneliness is neither good for me nor for the work. Working with an ensemble, however, is different. Many people together have more ideas. And I owe an enormous amount to the musicians of Ensemble Modern, with whom I have been able to invent and perform musical theatre works in this manner for 35 years. Their artistic intelligence and their self-organized method of working make collective creativity so valuable – and this procedural polyphony has become part of my works.