Heiner Goebbels

Interview by Dan Warburton & Guy Livingston,1997

The opening scene from La Reprise in Paris

Heiner Goebbels is hard to pin down. He travels constantly; started his own rock band, but now writes something closer to opera; works in up to five languages simultaneously, and borrows with equal concentration from Prince, African folksong, and J.S. Bach. La Reprise, his latest “musiktheater” production, was premiered in Paris this spring. Black on White, written for the musicians of the Ensemble Modern over a period of intense rehearsal during two years, premiered this summer at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. Paris Transatlantic had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Goebbels in Paris at the ATEM theater on April 27th, 1997 about these and other recent works.

Born in 1952, Mr. Goebbels studied sociology and music in Frankfurt am Main. Musical director of the Frankfurt Theater from 1978 to 1980, he has worked since as a composer, director, musician, and producer of radio pieces. In 1982 he launched the experimental rock group Cassiber. Though not as overtly political as he used to be, he still deals with themes of fear, jealousy, race, and colonialism. He layers this art with intense ambiguities created by constant shifts between foreground and background and the use of multiple languages, principally German, French and English. Many comparisons can be drawn to the world of film-making, and indeed the works of Wenders, Hartley, and Jarmusch deal with many of these same issues. Particularly, Wenders’ Wings of Desire strongly resembles one of Goebbels’ multi-layered productions. But the composer himself is only slightly aware of the work of these other artists.
La Reprise is the latest of three works in the “musiktheater” genre. The German term is as precise as possible, given that his works are far too theatrical to be opera, and far too operatic to be theater, not to mention that all three characters in La Reprise act, sing, and play instruments. The multi-faceted actor-musicians that Goebbels needs to produce these works are few and far between, and his style of working also ensures that there will be few rivals to his position as leader of a new avant-garde. Typically his works develop over very long periods of time, using improvisation and hours of rehearsal to create the foundation material (always based on specific texts and music) which he then transforms using splicing and editing techniques to create a libretto. Much later, he brings the libretto back to the musicians, and they resume rehearsals in earnest for the production.

Goebbels pays more attention to visual elements than any other musician around, and inevitably, the sets themselves play a crucial role in the drama. Ou bien le débarquement désastreux (The Disastrous Voyage), based on texts by Joseph Conrad, uses among other things a gigantic wall of orange hair, into which the performers would occasionally be swallowed. At a focal point in the action, in an atmosphere heavy with fear and apprehension of the jungle, the enormous wall ominously began to undulate like a living thing, moved by a simple but brilliant system of fans backstage. Goebbels takes an active role in all these artistic elements, and his use of the term “musiktheater” (also used currently by George Aperghis and occasionally about Mauricio Kagel and Newt Hinton) harkens back to the innovations that Wagner had in mind with the “Gesamtkunstwerk.”

La Reprise (The Rehearsal or Repetition) is a concatenation of ideas of love, jealousy, double-entendre conversations, and both the joy and ennui of repetition. Goebbels seamlessly integrates texts of Kierkegaard and Alain Robbe-Grillet with quotes from the film “L’Année dernière à marienbad” and the Prince song, “Joy in Repetition.” The astonishing set, by Goebbels and Erich Wonder, is simply a curved wall, on a circular platform hidden in the floor. On the platform is a grand piano. In the wall, which circumscribes one third of a circle, (leaving the rest open) is one small window. The wall, which is very red, rotates occasionally, while sometimes the piano rotates in the other direction, or remains in one place, with the wall revolving in sinister slowness around it. Naturally the wall conceals as much as it frames, and the three performers can be glimpsed occasionally through the window, or arrive suddenly on stage, concealed by the moving wall. Sitting the public, one feels like a movie director, whose every nod to the camera-man vertiginously and instantly inverts the whole frame of reference. This is the genius of Goebbels, who is one of the most intensely creative directors in Europe today.



I was just talking to someone from the newspaper Le Monde who wanted to know about the evolution of--and the difference between--a live show and a recording. I consider these to be two totally different media. We were speaking about Ou bien le débarquement désastreux... [The Disastrous Voyage, a music and theatrical piece about travel, fear, and colonialism] he loved the show but he didn’t like the recording. I think it was that his memory of the show was too strong. There’s a certain intensity which you can get on stage that doesn’t make sense on a CD, which is quieter, more discreet--so I can hear it more often--in theater it’s only once, so it has to have a certain impact.

We’ve been tempted to discuss the points in common between La Reprise and the Débarquement. I take it you consider them to be two completely different pieces?

Yes. They represent two different ways to approach artistic work. A lot of artists and also stage directors (and not necessarily bad ones) will basically always do the same thing throughout their lives. They’re not embarrassed to say that. In a way, they’re always directing the same play. They work a lot, they do four or five pieces a year. I see my approach differently--I’m really quite lazy; I might do one piece a year, or every two years, and I try to discover a new area, to learn something about a subject I don’t understand. In 1994, I did a huge orchestral piece called Surrogate Cities, for ninety-piece band and others, and after this I was totally tired of composing, so I composed words. That’s basically my challenge for this piece, La Reprise, because it’s a composition of words, and as you heard, there’s not much of my own music at all.

To what extent do you still consider yourself a composer? Have you ever considered yourself as a composer in the traditional sense of the term?
Sometimes when I’m composing, in the sense in which we usually use the term, I consider myself more as a director; which means, for example in Débarquement, I worked with the African musicians, with the structure of their songs, their material, and composed my music to this as a kind of confrontation to it... I suppose you can compare it with the work of a director who looks for the actors and tries to put them together, integrate them into a greater, balanced structure. Sometimes as a director I think I work very much like a composer in terms of rhythm, working with scenes and how they relate to each other. So I think my two professions, being a director, being a composer, are quite difficult to separate.

I’m a big Prince fan, I always have been.

How has your audience changed over the years, bearing in mind that you worked in rock and improvised music before “becoming a composer”?
I have to say that for me it’s not such a change, because even in ‘76, ‘78, during the period of the Goebbels/Harth duo, and later Cassiber, I always worked as a composer for huge theaters like this--I worked at the Schillertheater in Frankfurt, and also in Vienna. So I had this kind of theater audience, but at the same time this more sub-cultural, jazz-pop scene, with a different public. Now I consider this process more as bringing these two aspects of my own work together, keeping the impact of a live concert, the experience of an improvising musician, and trying to lead it forward towards a dramatic theater event, with an audience. So I think the audience can be mixed. Especially in Paris; I remember for Ou bien le débarquement... it came from literature, from contemporary music, from popular music, from art... I think this is also one of the reasons why I stopped Cassiber, because I saw that the audience was becoming a kind of scene, predictable, you could tell from their clothes in the street where they were going that night. I tried rather--and this was what I considered a challenge for me--to seduce a new audience.
You see, the problem is that I don’t belong to any scene. I don’t belong to the contemporary composer scene, nor do I belong to the theater director scene.

But surely these last two years a lot of things have started to come together; people are listening more openly to all sorts of new music, the barriers are coming down. Do you feel more optimistic about the situation of new music in 1997 than, say, five years ago?
It’s difficult to say. I wouldn’t make such a statement... I’m not sure there has been such an enormous change in the landscape. I see it rather as a kind of... desperation, the fact that certain institutions are opening up to different projects.
I see a lot of decisions made too quickly, I see a lot of very desperate reactions. Some institutions are losing their audience, losing their terrain, their self-understanding and are now desperately looking to open their borders. But this is not something you can do overnight. Since I consider my work to have a sense of long-term continuity--what I’m doing now is a continuation of what I was doing in the Seventies--I’m a little bit skeptical about these random mixtures, combinations, fusions in the wider sense of the word... If it doesn’t work, it becomes counter-productive.

Talking of fusion, how did you come across the Prince song “Joy in Repetition” that you use in La Reprise?
I’ve loved this song for... when was Graffiti Bridge? Six, seven years... It’s one of my favorite songs. I was watching MTV live at Paisley Park just a few weeks ago, and I was very interested to see that he performed it again... so he must love it too. (Grins) I’m a big Prince fan, I always have been. So when a friend of mine gave me this book of Kierkegaard, which mentions repetition in the title, I immediately said: “Oh yes: ‘Joy in Repetition’” When I started to do this piece I didn’t have answers... it was more a process of sharing with the audience the possibilities of repetition, in terms of seduction, voyeurism... All these elements of the Kierkegaard text are also present in the song, in concentrated form. Even when projects are very different, my approach is quite similar: a lot of things just come together, by chance--which for me is always a good sign, a sign to keep on working. For example, the names which the Robbe-Grillet and Kierkegaard texts use--Marie, Jean, Jens--these are the names of the actors I use...! Quite by accident. I love it when that happens, because...

...you know you’re on the right track.
That’s right! What I do is not necessarily an academic analysis, it’s just dealing with a subject, looking at a subject, sometimes for over a year, trying to find the points where accidents can happen... Then I work very quickly.
Where does the process start? Does somebody call you up and suggest an idea to you, or do you suggest the idea you happen to be working on at the time?
It depends. Ou bien le débarquement was just a wild card. I had two basic ideas: to work with André Wilms, and to work in French. And everything else came after. The text was actually the last thing to come. In La Reprise it was different, in that it started with the text. With my new piece Black on White [see insert box for review] it was different again; it was more choreographic, it started more with a feeling of how to use twenty musicians in a large space. That led me to figure out certain scenes, which led to a particular story... The point where it starts is always different.

Do you see any parallels between your work and that of film directors like, say, Wim Wenders, or Hal Hartley?
I must admit I’ve never been all that into Wenders, except maybe the early works... but the cinema is quite important for me, and has been since the early Eighties. With my film [Schwarz auf Weiß: see review] with the Ensemble Modern, it’s conventional film language, documentary film language. There are many things that you can’t do, not in your first movie: you have to be very careful, adapting the film language to the music. I have to say I’m disappointed with the standard of film music today, very disappointed, considering that music is such an intrinsically important element... There are exceptions, I think, like Breaking the Waves, or the new Jim Jarmusch.

Do you compose at the piano, or at a writing desk?
Never at a writing desk, and not so much at the piano either, but very much in my studio, with samplers, and MIDI pianos. If it’s a question of writing for specific performers, then I usually know what they can do before I start working. Then we have a two-week session working with the material, and then I compose.

But to what extent does the piece depend on those specific performers? If somebody came back to you in five years’ time and said they wanted to do Ou bien le débarquement désastreux and Yves Robert (trombonist) wasn’t available, would it be the same piece?
On the contrary, I want other people to do the pieces, because I think the material has its own consistency. I could imagine a real stage director using this particular composition of texts in his own way... I would really appreciate that. There are some plans in Germany to do that.

Many of your works have used texts by Heiner Müller, with whom you collaborated on several occasions. Tell us about working with him.
The most remarkable thing is that our encounters were very short. But intense. He wasn’t really outspoken as such, but... easygoing. Common sense: I’d give him a call and tell him about the project, and then at the end, he’d make a little remark, like: “Why don’t you read this too?” Or I’d invite him to concerts. It was never a huge, complicated process, our collaboration. There was always a very quick understanding. For example, when we did the premiere of Man in the Elevator, we made a whole libretto, in two languages. We wrote the structure of the texts, and a few hours before the dress rehearsal, he read it, liked it, and so we did it. That’s how we worked! You would be wrong to think we were sitting together for weeks and months in advance.

In La Reprise you use texts from Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Project for a Revolution in New York.
Yes. With Robbe-Grillet--who came last night to see the show--of course I informed him I wanted to do this piece, and he agreed because he already knew my work before, and he loved Ou bien le débarquement... He trusted me. It was La Jalousie that drew me first: I composed this chamber music piece based on it, and when we performed it in Paris a couple of years ago, he came to the concert and liked it a lot. Basically what I did with the composition of the texts for La Reprise was to look in Robbe-Grillet’s work for dialogue scenes which could bring the Kierkegaard essay to life; so I went through all the books I know saying “Where’s the dialogue?” There were two dialogues in Project, there was one dialogue in Djinn, and a nice dialogue in [Last Year in] Marienbad. There are a lot of things that interest me in Robbe-Grillet’s work--maybe one day I’ll do something more with it--but here I just quoted a few scenes.

When you were with the group Cassiber, you did a whole album (A Face We All Know) with texts by Thomas Pynchon. Is Pynchon still important to you?
He just published a new book. [“Mason & Dixon”-Ed.] I haven’t read it yet. Until a few years ago, nobody knew who Pynchon was--I mean, yes, he was well-known as a writer but nobody knew who he was--there were a lot of rumors about who the writer Thomas Pynchon might be, because he was anonymous... I was worried about being able to get permission to use his work, but I sent a fax or something to his publisher in New York and the answer came back the next day, saying “yes.” I like his writing very much.

What about future projects? What can we look forward to?
I’m doing nothing new this year because I’m traveling too much. I’m doing three things next year: the first is a project with the Ensemble Modern about Eisler, the second is a new theater piece in Lausanne--but I don’t know anything about what I’m going to do yet--and the third will be a huge orchestral composition for the fall. There is a plan to release Surrogate Cities too. We have already recorded it, but we still have to mix it down.

Can we invite you to play “Desert Island Discs”?
What’s that?

It’s a famous British radio program where a celebrity has to imagine themselves banished to a desert island and has to choose their ten all-time favorite records. What would you take?
I’d need some information about the island--is it an island which is very comfortable and boring, where I’d need some excitement, or is it an island which is hostile, where it’s difficult to survive, and where I’d need something to calm down?

It’s both.
You want to know right now? Is the plane going soon? (Faced with the silent brute intransigence of his interviewers he realizes he has no choice but to answer.) OK, I’d choose “O Corpo Sutil” by Arto Lindsay--very smooth, soft. (Long pause) I’d choose... some Bach. Something by Prince, maybe “Graffiti Bridge.” I’d take “Witchi-Tai-To” by Jan Garbarek. I’d take the first This Heat album. Yes, I’d definitely have to take some Chet Baker. How many is that? Five? Six? That’s probably enough. (Pause) I wouldn’t choose any of my records.

Copyright 1997 by Paris Transatlantic Magazine. Interview by Dan Warburton, with Guy Livingston, in Paris, Spring 1997. Both photos are from the production of La Reprise (The Rehearsal). For somewhat related material, see the Newt Hinton site, or our interviews with Luc Ferrari and perhaps Peter Greenaway...