Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Stifter and things

Lincoln Center Presents
Stifters Dinge (Stifter's Things)
Presented in association with Park Avenue Armory
Heiner Goebbels, composer/director

Tonight's performance of Heiner Goebbels' Stifters Dinge was a strange thing. There was virtually no advance press for the event and I actually forgot it was taking place until a few days ago. When Lincoln Center put on Zimmermann's Die Soldaten at the Armory two years ago, it seemed like there was an endless parade of previews and reviews and the entire run sold out. I'm not sure if Lincoln Center or the press just had less interest this time around (with Die Soldaten, at least, we knew it was a major work; there is no recording of Stifters Dinge, and I'm not sure a recording would do it justice).

Is Stifters Dinge a major work? Probably not. This bizarre theater piece featured no live performers but was not entirely electronic---it was essentially a grouping of contraptions on the stage which created both music and visuals. The music, featuring five player pianos and a number of percussive gadgets, was reminiscent of Nancarrow in rhythmic complexity and propulsion. But it is difficult to judge the music on its own terms---there were large stretches of silence, often punctuated by recorded readings of texts by Adalbert Stifter (a German Romantic whose writings on natural history formed the basis for the work) and William S. Burroughs and an interview with Claude Levi-Strauss. And there was a theatrical element to the music: the actual movement of the keys and strings (the upright pianos were stripped of their outer facades) became a kind of choreography to the more rhythmically intense passages.

The work was somewhat effective theatrically, but lacked a cohesive narrative and mostly felt like a series of abstract vignettes. A couple of Goebbels' images, though, struck me as particularly profound. The most intense moment of the piece stemmed from a powerful quotation of Bach's Andante from the Italian Concerto BWV 971, performed by one of the player pianos. While this unsentimental interpretation played, the lighting emphasized the five pianos' placement within a mock-forest, about fifty feet from the audience. Goebbels and his stage crew pumped fog into the Armory, and rain dripped into pools of water, which were placed between the pianos and the audience.

With this imagery (and, in some ways, the entire work), Goebbels makes a powerful and compelling statement about German musical tradition. The piano and Bach themselves become entirely divorced from humanity, without a human performer. But this separation from humanity, rather than a mechanization, emphasizes this music as part of the natural world. All five pianos, surrounded by trees, appear as if rising out of some undiscovered civilization.

This resonates with the Levi-Strauss interview, played through speakers during this sequence, in which the anthropologist speaks about his belief that there is no longer any place on earth that has not been discovered by man. In a clear act of Vergangenheitsbewรคltigung, Goebbels confronts the historical lineage of German music by separating it from mankind. If Hitler's co-opting of Beethoven and Wagner for propaganda purposes, and the cultural reboot of Zero Hour, exploded any notions of continuity in German music, Goebbels agrees. He sets the Bach outside history, as a kind of uncharted territory oozing out of an unknown forest. In the sampled interview, Levi-Strauss speaks about his lack of faith in humanity---like Goebbels and Stifter, he finds faith in objects and in nature. Goebbels thus reinvents a sense of faith in Bach after it was destroyed by the Nazis (what Alex Ross calls a "loss of moral authority"), by recreating the music as an object of nature rather than a humanized (and thus, fallible) entity.

And then, like any good European postmodernist, Goebbels turns the entire notion on its head. The fog dies away and the wall of pianos, on movable tracks, lurches towards the audience to reveal the forest and trees as artifice. Bach is replaced by intensely virtuosic (can something be called virtuosic if it lacks a human performer?), mechanical passagework a la Nancarrow. It seems the Romantic, perhaps 19th-century (in countless lieder, the piano represents nature) notion of these objects as natural is destroyed. Goebbels pulls away the curtain and audience is left with what is clearly a machine.

Update: Tony Tommasini has a very favorable review providing invaluable description, photos, and a video trailer to give a better idea of the performance. He sees some political resonances in the work which didn't occur to me. Tommasini remarks that Goebbels "has a keen feeling for how to structure and layer an 80-minute piece of music drama." Although Goebbels probably has an idea of how to create a cohesive theater work (I'm not familiar enough with his other pieces to judge), I feel that Stifters Dinge lacks the kind of structure and pacing that befits music drama.

Next up on Seated Ovation: John Adams blogging and Contact!

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