MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Heiner Goebbels Brings His Surrogate Cities to Seattle

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Seattle Symphony in Heiner Goebbels’s Surrogate Cities; photo by James Holt

Last night’s program was a landmark not just of this season but of the Ludovic Morlot era. By the end of the concert, which was devoted exclusively to Surrogate Cities by Heiner Goebbels, the thrilling sense of having just shared a one-time experience had palpably swept through the audience.

It was clear that this full-throttle performance by an expanded Seattle Symphony and guest artists Jocelyn B. Smith and David Moss had been an unprecedented evening at Benaroya — opening up new vistas about what a symphony concert can be and how much territory remains unexplored in the context of this revered medium.

The German composer Heiner Goebbels, an especially compelling personality among the postmodern avant-garde (and now 66), emerged in the 1970s as a socially engaged leftist with a radical understanding of the composer’s identity — and responsibility. His interest in the stage and film and in popular musical idioms is anchored in a fascination with the theatricality of musical performance — hence his close and fruitful association with such figures as the East German playwright Heiner Müller.

Goebbels’s efforts to blur stereotypical distinctions (between composing/performing, for example, or music and other arts, let alone between genres) became a signature well before defying such boundaries was a more widely adopted stance.

Surrogate Cities is a massive, immersive project that began in the 1990s as “an attempt to approach the phenomenon of the city from various sides, to tell stories of cities, expose oneself to them, observe them,” in the composer’s own words. Seattle Symphony’s presentation last night included the world premiere of a brand-new section the orchestra had commissioned: Under Construction, which occurs as the sixth of seven sections, the whole work now lasting close to an hour and a half.

Goebbels points out that Surrogate Cities “was inspired partly by texts, but also by drawings, structures, and sounds, the juxtaposition of orchestra and sampler playing a considerable role because of the latter’s ability to store sounds and noises ordinarily alien to orchestral sonorities.”
The work’s title comes from the novel Surrogate City published in 1990 by his contemporary, the Irish writer Hugo Hamilton, which provides the text used in the seventh, final section, “Surrogate.”

The pluralization here is characteristic: Goebbels’s manner is omnivorous (though in a sense different to Luciano Berio, whose musical rivers drifting with postmodern flotsam evoke another category of aesthetic response) — as with John Cage, everything is up for consideration as part of the total art work.

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Jocelyn B. Smith, vocalist, and Ludovic Morlot with Seattle Symphony; photo by James Holt

At the same time — and Morlot brought this out brilliantly — Goebbels shows a connection to some surprisingly traditional ideas about working out musical motifs and cells and establishing coherent architectures. It is in its arresting juxtapositions — of rigorous, “serious” orchestration with all-out aural assault from aggressively amplified samples, instrumentals and radically different kinds of vocals, symphonic logic and surreal sound images — that Surrogate Cities casts its spell, provoking unexpected thoughts about the repertoire and suggesting the overlooked musicality of daily life.

Goebbels also created the lighting design that in some ways functions like a second conductor. Over 150 cues call for lots of different moods: from luminous gold to mystical, intimate blue or the shadows of a dodgy nightclub, later followed by a kind of rock arena flamboyance. The composer has here discovered a new “art of transition,” the lighting assisting the transformations in character of his urban soundscapes.

The vast orchestra meanwhile became a veritable spectacle, swelling to fill the Benaroya stage, with five percussionists perched atop a raised platform upstage. Their “extra” instruments (balls swirling in a glass bowl, shaken sheets of foil) enhanced the character of Goebbels’s orchestration as inherently theatrical.

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Heiner Goebbels, David Moss, and Jocelyn B. Smith (l-r); photo by James Holt

Prominent roles for two vocalists are integral to this symphonic spectacle. Jocelyn B. Smith was a highlight during a movement of three songs (“The Horatian”) recounting a story from ancient Roman history, her mezzo in the tragic refrain about inevitable violence plummeting deep into the soul of each syllable.

David Moss, an unclassifiable vocalist and improvisational genius for whom Goebbels tailored parts of the work, was a trippingly tongued, one-man vocal orchestra, commanding an improbable spectrum of pitches and complex rythms (imagine Elliott Carter penning patter song).

A lengthy section that blends sampled sounds with the orchestra (including an especially moving use of Jewish chant preserved on “scratchy recordings from the 1920s and ’30s”) brought to mind more recent efforts, such as the electronica brand with which Mason Bates initially made his name — to the detriment of the latter, which seem distinctly pedestrian by comparison.

Goebbels can summon the energy of a rock band from his forces, but without “dumbing down” the orchestra: he makes room for subtle dynamic differentiation and fascinating timbral combinations of the live instruments and his palette of sampled industrial sounds. An especially exciting moment was the carefully built, superheated crescendo Morlot elicited in the final section, leading to Moss’s vocal outburst, “She’s been running…”

“The associations I have are with a realistic, certainly contradictory, but ultimately positive image of the modern city,” according to Goebbels. “My intention was not to produce a close-up but to try and read the city as a text and then to translate something of its mechanics and architecture into music…”

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. Anonymous says:

    It was awesome, wasn’t it!

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