The Inappropriateness of Words: An Interview with Heiner Goebbels
Heiner Goebbels is a prolific German artist, composer, and director who has created compositions and theater works for ensembles and orchestras around the world. His work often defies easy characterization, using unconventional musical composition and theatrical staging to push the boundaries of contemporary performance art.
This year’s Fringe Festival will feature two of Goebbels’s pieces: Stifters Dinge, a performative installation with no actors, only machines, sounds, and whispers, and Songs of Wars I Have Seen, a musical composition performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Tempesta di Mare, interspersed with text from Gertrude Stein’s World War II memoir Wars I Have Seen, recited by the members of the orchestras. Stein’s text, which uses plain language to describe her own experience during the war, is juxtaposed with orchestrations that span centuries of musical styles, played on modern and period instruments. FringeArts asked Goebbels about the many sources of inspiration for the piece, as well as the relationship between the two works he is presenting in this year’s Festival.
FringeArts: How did you encounter Gertrude Stein’s writing?
Heiner Goebbels: The first experience I had with the meditative musicality of her prose was when Robert Wilson recited some paragraphs of her book The Making of Americans during the funeral service for German author Heiner Müller. It was a moving encounter with literature, which is so hard to describe: a novel, a poem, a litany, an incantation? And with other excerpts of this book I created my music theater work Hashirigaki in 2000.
FringeArts: What inspired you to adapt her memoir into Songs of Wars I Have Seen?
Heiner Goebbels: I got the idea to work with some of that text for my opera Landscape with distant relatives, which I created in the context of 9/11, because of the difficulty and the inappropriateness of personal words when trying to talk about an experience of violence and disaster.
FringeArts: What kind of directions do you give to the musicians who speak the text?
Heiner Goebbels: Not much. I don’t want them to be too prepared, I don’t want the reader to be cleverer than the listener. But anyway, Stein’s Wars I Have Seen has this light everyday approach to speech, so it is better and more convincing if the reader has an untrained voice.
FringeArts: Why did you choose to incorporate Matthew Locke’s score for The Tempest?
Heiner Goebbels: Gertrude Stein has a cyclical concept of history. She says “history is repeating” and compares the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries with the violence in Shakespeare plays. So it was quite consequent to confront my music with music which was composed by Locke in the 17th century as a curtain tune for Shakespeare plays.
FringeArts: What connections do you see between Stifters Dinge and Songs of War I Have Seen?
Heiner Goebbels: What characterizes both pieces is the empowerment of the audience to make up their own mind. In Stifters Dinge because nobody is on stage to represent its center or meaning. In Songs of Wars I Have Seen because Gertrude Stein’s descriptions of her own experiences during World War II are very ambivalent: the way she combines political judgements with personal impressions is very irritating, since she speaks about sugar and honey with the same intensity as about throwing bombs on the Italians. That is very disturbing, sometimes even full of humor. You have to make up your own mind about her words.
FringeArts: Thanks Heiner!
—Alyssa Kerper & Chirstopher Munden
What: Songs of Wars I Have Seen
When: September 7 + 8, 2018
Where: FringeArts, 140 North Columbus Boulevard
Created by Heiner Goebbels
Photos by Lee van de Velde