Finding a dark lyricism in modern ruins
HANOVER, N.H. - The German composer and director Heiner Goebbels writes plenty of music for the stage but he dislikes traditional opera, with its naked displays of emotion. In their stead he aims for a more subtle modern theater of gesture in which every small detail counts. When his pieces are at their best, light, image, movement, and music combine to form exquisitely drawn stage pictures that are often deeply articulate yet somehow communicate below the level of everyday language.
That at least is the case with his latest piece, a heady and haunting work called "I went to the house but did not enter." Goebbels calls it rather modestly "a staged concert in three tableaux." Written for the Hilliard Ensemble, the excellent British vocal quartet that specializes in early music, it was co-produced by a number of European houses and also received commissioning support from two schools in this country - the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Dartmouth College, which hosted its regional premiere here at the Hopkins Center on Thursday night.
It is a work that challenges on many levels, including that of finding words to account for its peculiar power. Goebbels has set passages from the works of T.S. Eliot, Maurice Blanchot, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Beckett. The texts themselves are reflections - sometimes thorny, occasionally impenetrable - on aging, mortality, and various dark 20th-century themes, yet Goebbels and his set designer Klaus Grünberg have found a rather magical way of offsetting all the verbal abstraction with stage imagery of immense detail and precision. The combination has the effect of drawing in the viewer at the same time as he is kept at a distance, creating something like the liminal space alluded to by the work's title, at a threshold between interior and exterior, reason and intuition.
The first tableau opens with several minutes of complete silence. Only the ticking of a clock can be heard as we watch four men in formal dress meticulously dismantle a bourgeois dining room. When the music arrives it is a lean and beautifully somber setting of Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." In the second scene, we see the facade of a European suburban home while the four Hilliard singers, appearing in windows and in a garage, recite Blanchot's elliptical text "The Madness of the Day," written around 1948 though published years later, in which a postwar world seems to coolly enact its own insanity.
Following on the heels of the Blanchot, a setting of Kafka's "Excursion Into the Mountains" turns existential anonymity on its head, finding a strange joy and camaraderie in the fantasy of an alpine sojourn "with a pack of nobodies." The final tableau, given over to Beckett's late and highly experimental prose piece "Worstward Ho," is set in the opulent interior of a hotel room; a slide projector clicks through various images of childhood but no one seems to care.
Goebbels's a cappella vocal settings are astute and very sensitive. As magnificently rendered by the Hilliard performers, the music has a kind of church-like purity and the flow of chant, yet it is also laced with pungent dissonances. It is music that manages to sound both old and new at the same time. The scenes themselves, especially the first and last, also play out with the meditative solemnity of ancient rites. The composer seems to wander through these texts like modern ruins, a faded landscape pregnant with meaning yet also full of secrets it will not share. The whole approach called to mind an observation by the art historian T.J. Clark, who once commented that "modernism is our antiquity . . . the only one we have."
There is a yearning and melancholy that permeates the staged settings but the mood never quite descends to the level of despair. Even the final Beckett text, for all of its bleakness and semantic quicksand, hints at the possibility of forward motion despite the Sisyphean nature of our plight. Beckett writes: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Goebbels's spare, pulsing music in this final tableau takes its contours directly from Beckett's short halting sentences and sounds like some primeval incantation. The stage imagery here is striking too. A singer stands by a hotel window that is filled with a mysterious light, shining from a place unseen.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.