Amfion pro musica classica

Iitti Music Festival opened with avant-garde music: Heiner Goebbels in Finland


The wooden church of Iitti, which serves as the concert venue

Iitti Music Festival started last Wednesday  for the 12th time, so it can be said to be a tradition. Every successful festival seems to follow the recipe: one famous artist who knows the place, who is homme ou femme de terrain, as it is said. In Iitti she is of course the pianist Laura Mikkola. Iitti is a charming, small country place, with a wooden church with good acoustics, a nice cafeteria, delicious local food for buffets and coffees, about 100 volunteers to prepare all, some sponsors and a cultural history – for instance, Bertolt Brecht was in Iitti when writing his Puntila.

The opening concert on June 11 at Iitti Church, which is like Mikkeli’s wooden church in miniature, first featured Sibelius, namely the melodrama Skogsrået recited by Hannu-Pekka Björkman and played by Andres Mustonen, Florin Szigeti, Katariina Ruokonen, Jakob Kullberg, Pauliina Koskela, Maria Luhtanen and Kristian Attila. The piece is always suggestive to be heard; the Sibelian ‘driving force’, as the Estonian composer Leo Normet used to say, appears there. Melodrama may seem to have vanished as a genre, but this is not true. It is the winner – namely in the form of film music. What else is cinema music than just speech upon tones?

Malinconia is a brilliant concert piece for cello and piano from the early output of Sibelius, performed brilliantly by Jakob Kullberg and Laura Mikkola. After the intermission we heard the lovely Forelle Quintet by Schubert, always gemütlich and attractive, which has the rare combination of using also a double bass. Famous musicians played it, among others, Andres Mustonen from Estonia, violin, Vladimir Mendelssohn, alto, Petri Mäkiharju on the double bass, at the piano again Mikkola and the cellist Kullberg.

Heiner Goebbels in a dialogue with Eero Tarasti at IItti Music Festival June 11,2015

Heiner Goebbels in a dialogue with Eero Tarasti at IItti Music Festival June 11,2015

Yet, between these enjoyable classics we heard the world premiere of Heiner Goebbels’s Surrogate Cities (1994) on the text of Hugo Hamilton; it was a seven-minute trio version (at the piano Mikkola, on percussion the skilful Japanese Kazutaka Morita) abridged from the original, huge one-hour orchestral piece with 100 musicians, as the composer told in the dialogue with him before the concert. The text portrays urban spaces from shopping centers to slums, but this fragment was about a woman who runs through a city, which is nowhere else than Berlin. She rushes through landscapes, but why? There is an anguished and hurried atmosphere which Björkman expressed very convincingly.

Heiner Goebbels is not unknown in Finland; he has been performed by Avanti, and he has visited the Finnish Broadcasting Company. For the dialogue I asked beforehand five younger Finnish composers, Facebook fellows, what they thought of Goebbels and what they considered his major work. The answers were interesting and told a.o.: He is well known as a theater-oriented composer who has collaborated with Heiner Müller; this friendship has been compared to the relationship between Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht. A well-known piece is his Songs of Wars I Have Seen on Gertrude Stein’s texts portraying her war experiences in France under Vichy in 1943 (yet the issue here is that what is told consists of completely everyday matters, weather, food and noise of bombers only at a distance).

Others said: He is famous for radiophonic works; he would hardly write any string quartet or piano pieces (the composer admitted in the dialogue that he never just writes music like Pierre Boulez). Moreover, one said: “Strange guy, academic, a sociologist if I recall, studies in the theater discipline. Discovered his field between theatre and opera. As an experimentalist and innovator has a remarkable position in the European scene. His roots are in the axis Müller-Eisler-Brecht; he has been able to ‘brand’ himself, good social skills; I cannot mention any major work of his, perhaps he is himself his major work.” Again one said: “As a German his music is stylistically more many-sided and postmodern than many an angry German modernist. He has a lot of style quotations and visual narratives.” Then my friend and colleague from Paris Professor Ivanka Stoianova wrote to me:

Je connais bien Heiner Gœbbels, il faisait partie de notre catalogue Ricordi München, j’ai bien suivi son travail que j’ai toujours trouvé très intéressant, mais je n’ai rien écrit sur lui! (Moi-même je suis étonnée…) C’est quelqu’un de très bien, très intelligent, cultivé et inventif, surtout dans le domaine du théâtre musical. Il a beaucoup travaillé avec l’Ensemble Modern (ils ont, peut-être, beaucoup d’information sur son travail). Je ne connais pas son nouveau livre, bien sûr. En tout cas, ce sera une très belle rencontre avec lui pour toi! Tu peux lui dire bonjour de ma part et que je serais ravie de le revoir/ré-entendre à Paris et de lire son livre. Il est venu ici plusieurs fois avec de beaux spectacles!

In fact, the book mentioned here is the quite new essay collection by Goebbels entitled Aesthetics of Absence. I could not get it because only one copy is in a Finnish library, and it was checked out.

Now my questions to the composer were the following:

You have just published a book Aesthetics of Absence, almost like Struttura assente once by Eco in 1968. You always have some kind of philosophical aspect in your activities: time, space, subject stemming from Immanuel Kant’s categories. You quote philosophers like Merleau-Ponty and others. You like intellectual writers from Canetti to Gertrude Stein. Would you tell something of this and your new book? John Cage seems to be important to you. Did you know Daniel Charles, author of For the Birds? Aesthetics of freedom, liberty, deliberation is central for you like for Cage. The spectator should be active, creative like once in the French nouveau roman etc.

“Yes, from John Cage I have staged his work Europeras, which deconstructs the traditional opera. I took all its parameters, singers, costumes, scenery, orchestra separately and treated them at random by chance with a computer. This is against the traditional opera in which one just receives and emotionally identifies oneself with the ‘message’ from stage. The important thing does not happen on stage but in the mind of the receiver. I am against a totalitarian theater in which there is no free space for a spectator.”

You move in all arts; you are very interartistic. Do you take yourself primarily as a theater man or a musician, a composer? You have the same dilemma as Richard Wagner, theater or music. Nietzsche criticised the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk: It was for him dilettantish to try to combine various arts.

Goebbels strongly refused any analogy with Wagner.

There is much collage and citation in your music: Zofia Lissa wrote about the functions of musical citations; Yuri Lotman said that the quoted element must remain strange in its new environment; Lévi-Strauss spoke about ‘bricolage’.

“I do not cite or quote any composer with the idea that I would then compose my own work upon it. I have the respect for the music and composer whom I cite. I am rather confronting it as such with my music.”

 You are also a kind of anthropologist. For instance, your work Eraritjaritjaka refers to the Australian aboriginal language and quotes a word which means “longing for something which has been lost forever”. For me this evokes also Bruce Chatwin and his Songlines! Your music represents multiculturality and also the mixture of genres and styles. We have in Finland Erik Bergman who also used different cultures as his musical source. Do you consider yourself a postmodern composer?

Goebbels did not want to put himself into any such category. “Yes, the aforementioned piece was based on Elias Canetti’s work with the subtitle ‘Museum of Lost Phrases’. My theme was to create Abstand, distance. Abstand um das Publikum zu motivieren. Die Bühne wird vom Publikum besetzt, weil es nie genau das sieht, was er erwartet.

Is there a political aspect in your output? Are you Adornian in your aesthetics? How much are you indebted to Hanns Eisler and Brecht’s epic theater? Verfremdung?

“I do not see that the political moment in music or theater would be in any message transmitted from stage to audience. The political is purely in the form, in the new utopian form of communication which I try to create in the space of the arts.”

 My last questions were: How do you see the future of classical music amidst popular culture? Do you feel the dichotomy between popular or commercial music and classical music is relevant for you?

“Good popular music is not the commercial one. You have to separate these issues. The best popular music written, say, in the 1980s was not at all the most marketed one.”

— Eero Tarasti


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