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Loss and Possibility

Heiner Goebbels Meets Alice Tully Hall

by DAVID YEARSLEY

On Friday last in New York City Spring seemed to bolt out of its hole. Temperatures skipped past 80 degrees and Central Park was full of people leisurely taking in the glorious afternoon and early evening.

I’d driven down from Upstate New York tangent-wise along stretches of the Susquehanna as it curves through New York into Pennsylvania, the interstate traversing the squalor of Scranton (Joe Biden’s hometown never looked worse) into the bleak Poconos, then east towards the Delaware. Though not as desolate as the malls of the Ramapo Hills of New Jersey, the brown and barren winter woods just an hour from the city made the sudden lushness of midtown Manhattan and the Park all the more striking.

Such was the magic of the city at its most alluring, that only a few people remained oblivious to the beauty of the day and marched along with cell phones applied to their heads. The external world was so gorgeous there was no way and no need to ignore it. In the city where, at least from the official American viewpoint, the War on Terror began, few were thinking about the interventions and conflicts across the seas. Just being outside in shirtsleeves was enough.

I was headed to the New York premiere of Heiner Goebbels’ Songs of Wars I Have Seen.

The evening was kind not only to people but to buildings.  Everything looked good in the golden hour. After wandering through the Park I turned back towards the West Side and to the newly refurbished Lincoln Center.

I hadn’t been to a concert in Alice Tully Hall, the renovation of which was completed last month, in at least a decade. My occasional trips to the Met and the other mighty venues facing the central plaza of the complex hadn’t led me across 65th street to Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, the small concert venue in the same building as the Juilliard School, or the Jail Yard, as some affectionately call it.  Even with spring cavorting down Broadway on the most seductive Friday early evening imaginable, there were probably dozens of student virtuosi defiantly self-incarcerating themselves in the practice rooms somewhere behind the stone facing. 

The old Jail Yard was square and squat and fortress-like; architectural form accorded with function: get ye into the bunker and practice till ye be worthy of release. The renovated place, designed by the firm of Diller, Scofidio and Renfro that also did the High Line project, comes to a sharp point at the corner of Broadway and West 65th Street. Below the tip of this cantilevered snout, imposing and almost graceful, is a sunken outdoor meeting area that leads through revolving glass doors to a vast café, this new entrance hall to the building at least ten times bigger than the cramped box office of yore.

The space between street level and the overhang is formed by an angle cut into the building to make room for the glass-encased café. At street level a much smaller triangular plane of concrete congruent with the structure above is pitched upward. On this lower triangular plane are steps where one can sit (a more appealing proposition in good weather, but not impossible even in bad) to take in the pre-concert dramas of the foyer, to wait for concert-going friends, or simply to read the paper—or talk on your cell phone.  Together with the massive slab hanging above it, this amphitheater—which could serve as one of the smallest and best outdoor performing spaces in New York—makes me think of a giant mouth, as if a block-sized stone shark had just come splashing out of the Hudson and swallowed a modernist glass box (perhaps an Apple Store) before swimming down Broadway to Columbus Circle to take a big, beautifying bite out of the hideous Trump Tower moored there.

With the city teeming outside and with one of its new buildings greeting the spring with a rare New York street-level architectural embrace, the offerings inside Alice Tully Hall seemed particularly timely. The brilliant German composer and collaborative installation-and theater-maker, Heiner Goebbels, was in town for the above-mentioned New York premiere of his “Songs of Wars I Have Seen,” with the first half devoted to the Sampler Suite, from his largest orchestral work, Surrogate Cities (1993-4), a sprawling creation that involves texts, striking three-dimensional stage sets, and a range of recorded texts and music. The Sampler Suite is much easier—and cheaper—to put on than the full-on work, Surrogate Cities, from which it derives. “Songs of Wars I Have Seen” is smaller-scale in its conception; it was commissioned jointly in 2007 by one of the world’s premier contemporary music chamber orchestras, the London Sinfonietta along with the period instrument ensemble, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Both groups were in New York for this performance.

It is ill-advised to try to describe too quickly the diverse creations of Heiner Goebbels, of whose work I learned only last year. But suffice it to say that his own term, “performance event” is better than “concert.” Even at shows such as this that approach more nearly the conventional, Goebbels employs many theatrical effects, even if relatively simply ones, as in the use of stage lighting to dramatize shifts in emotional register, to coincide with a new instrumental combination, to foreground a soloist, and to draw attention to silence and space. In contrast to ambitious installations and multi-media affairs, such as the no-man, five mechanized-piano Stifters Dinge, whose American premiere took place at the Park Avenue Armory in December of 2009, the Alice Tully evening was logistical child’s play, merely using recorded sound and lighting effects.

Shifts and shadings between light and dark were everywhere in the Sampler Suite, a title that puns, intentionally or not, on Goebbel’s use of sampled sounds in all movements, and the idea of sampling the treats of the suite, its collection of tasteful dances being the ultimate 18th-century sampler set.

The Allemande, Courante, Gavotte and kindred gallant genres were the cosmopolitan currency of 18th-century European musical life at court, but you’ll be hard pressed to hear in Goebbels’ confrontation with the suite allusions to the great practitioners of the genre, Bach and Handel. Rather, Goebbels seems to see the forms as revenants of what one might call the courtly or aristocratic city; perhaps the piece is, among many other intangible things, a rumination on urbanity in at least two senses—the urbane and the urbanized; the witty and wired. Yet what remains from the past in Goebbels’ suite is a rare element of poise in the present. This atmosphere obtains right from the opening drum wallop of the Sarabande: N-touch.  This opening salvo ushers in pulsing harmonies and high, slashing strokes from the violins; this texture is driven by a dance-music drum track and punctuated by the live trap-set work of the Sinfonietta’s David Hockings—his industrial blasts on the floor toms and electric jolts from the snare were a long way from the stately progress of Louis XIV through his favorite dance, the Sarabande. Yet however possessed by the drive of the modern city, one could still see the majesty of that monarch as if in the manic light of the dance clubs of New York. The inside of Alice Tully has also been redone in luxuriously veneered and acoustically beneficial walls providing an almost courtly setting for Goebbel’s sometimes hard-edged response to the nobility of the suite; the new interior also worked to set off the starkness of the lighting even more vividly.

Among the Sampler Suite’s many witty, moving, and provocative movements and moments, the most memorable is the Chaconne: Kantorloops. In the 17th- and 18th-centuries a chaconne meant a repeating bass line in triple time. A chaconne is a musical loop: precisely because it moves forward through its repeating cycle, it is constantly brought back to its own beginning.

There are intimations of this long tradition in the basses at the beginning of Kantorloops and again towards its end. Like so many chaconnes, this one is elegiac, backward- looking. After a deep and foreboding introduction, a sampled voice of from a 1920s recording of a Viennese Jewish cantor (hence Kantorloops) singing in falsetto carries out over the orchestra, his cantillations troubled by unsettling harmonies from  the strings and blasts from the brass. Then towards the end of this six-minute piece, the darkness of the music beneath these recordings of extinguished voices becomes richly sonorous, accompanying the monophonic voice with lush chains of luxurious seventh chords. The sweetness of the sound above the disembodied voice is uncanny, unsettling, even for its delicate rapture. One could even say the music becomes heavenly, shimmering in the white light of the high strings, before they too drop out as the lone cantorial voice ascends upward, towards the  high-pitched, overtone-rich sonority of a lone, bowed bell. I don’t doubt that the composer would recoil at the word transcendent, but this moment is so blindingly and heart-breakingly beautiful, I can think of none other. (Here is the Kantorloops movement in the much fuller orchestration of the large-scale work Surrogate Cities from which it is taken.)

The Sampler Suite concluded its ten movements with more dialogic phrasing between past and present. The final Air moves with a tentative grace through searching harmonies, seemingly at odds with the stately ease of its Baroque ancestors. These uncertain gestures are suffused with the intermittent sound of an air compressor or some similar hiss heard from the sampler. One could simplistically ask if this is meant to put the air back into the lightest of the suite’s movements or mischievously to deflate it.  Has this suite run out of steam or was industrialization the only forward? Or both and neither? The piece ends in a paradoxical atmosphere of melancholy and humor, with the mingling of loss and possibility that hang in the air of all modern cities.

Next week:

Goebbels’ Songs of Wars I Have Seen

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu