Baldur Brönnimann / Basel Sinfonietta
Heiner Goebbels: Surrogate Cities

Freilagerplatz, Basel / Münchenstein, 2019-06-23

3.5-star rating

2019-06-27 — Original posting



Introduction, Venue

It was their last concert of the season 2018/2019. The Basel Sinfonietta (see also Wikipedia) offered a concert in an unusual location (yet another one!): the Freilagerplatz in Münchenstein, in the south-east of Basel’s city border. The Freilagerplatz (short for Zollfreilagerplatz) once served as storage area for goods in transit from and to Switzerland (customs warehouse). With the reorganization of the flow of goods into, from, and through Switzerland over the past years, that area has lost its original purpose. Instead, that space now serves as meeting and event area adjacent to the Campus of the Arts / University of the Applied Sciences of Northwestern Switzerland (Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz), museums, restaurants, and apartment houses.

According to the Basel Sinfonietta’s principal conductor, Baldur Brönnimann (*1968, see also Wikipedia), the Freilagerplatz is representative for the development of urban lifte and architecture over the past decades. So, fittingly, he named this concert Stadt Musik (City Music), and the program featured one single composition, Surrogate Cities (1994) by the German composer Heiner Goebbels (*1952, see also Wikipedia). For this, the orchestra used the concrete podium (ca. 1.50 m) at the Northern end of the plaza, and in front of the podium, seating for an audience of around 600 had been set up. It was all open air, as it was the first day of really nice weather, and the start of a heat wave.

Orchestra

Heiner Goebbels’ composition requires a fairly large orchestra, a rich instrumentation, all of which went farther back on the podium that one could see from the audience. Given in open air acoustics, there were microphones in the orchestra, some instruments (such as the concertmaster’s violin) had been equipped with dedicated microphones. There were two loudspeaker towers for the audience on either side of the podium. There were also monitor loudspeakers within the orchestra: without these, the musicians would have felt like playing just for themselves, in isolation.

Soloists

David Moss, Voice

David Moss, voice (*1949, see also Wikipedia), grew up in New York. Wikipedia describes him as composer, percussionist, and self-taught vocalist. Percussionist is his primary education. He is the founder of the David Moss Dense Band, as well as co-founder and artistic director of the Institute for Living Voice in Antwerp. Since 1991, Moss has been living in Berlin.

Jocelyn B. Smith, Mezzosoprano

Jocelyn B. Smith, mezzosoprano (*1960, see also Wikipedia), grew up in New York City. Her primary music education was on the piano. At age 20, she sang in a funk / soul band, and 1984 she moved to Berlin. 1999, Heiner Goebbels invited her to participate as a soloist in Surrogate Cities, and she has been appearing with this work in Europe, as well as in Australia, with orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Besides various social engagements, she has made numerous recordings.

Setting, etc.

The concert sold well. My wife and I took seats in the center of the last row, both for a balanced acoustic +”view”, as well as for the possibility to take photos without disrupting others. All photos are by the author (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved).


The Composer: Heiner Goebbels

Heiner Goebbels (*1952, see also Wikipedia) is one of Germany’s most prominent contemporary composers. As such, he has been prolific in the creation of a wide variety of works. The biggest share of his oeuvre consists of stage works. But there are also numerous works for orchestra (among them Surrogate Cities), ensemble works, and chamber music. Plus, the catalog of his works includes a number of “installative works”, in other words: sound installations. Goebbels is also director, and he is professor at the Justus-Liebig-University in Gießen. He also was artistic director for the International Festival of the Arts “Ruhrtriennale” 2012–14.

Heiner Goebbels is not a composer working in an ivory tower. Early musical experiences happened in rock music, thereafter his work with and for student movements. Over the years, Goebbels’ oeuvre was typically the result of cooperations with other musicians, as well as with authors. He is also co-founded the “Sogenanntes Linksradikales Blasorchester” (So-called Leftist-Radical Brass Band, 1976 – 1981) and the avant-rock group Cassiber (1982 – 1992).

Surrogate Cities (1994)

Surrogate Cities is a composition for mezzosoprano, voice, sampler and big orchestra. Heiner Goebbels created this in 1994 on the occasion of the 1200th anniversary of the city of Frankfurt, and at the same time the 30th anniversary of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie (see also Wikipedia.de). The composition consists of seven sections:

  • D & C for orchestra
  • In the Country of Last Things for mezzosoprano, voice and small orchestra. Text: Paul Auster (*1947)
  • Die Faust im Wappen (The Fist in the Flag) for improvising voice and Orchestra, after a motif by Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924)
  • Suite for Sampler and Orchestra
    • Sarabande (N-touch)
    • Allemande (Les Ruines)
    • Courante (Banlieue)
    • Gigue
    • Bourrée (Wildcard)
    • Passacaglia
    • Chaconne (Kantorloops)
    • Menuet (L’ingénieur)
    • Gavotte (N-touch remix)
    • Air (Compression)
  • Drei Horatier-Songs, three Songs on a motif by Titus Livius (64/59 BC — 12/17 AD), for mezzosoprano and orchestra. Text: Heiner Müller (1929 – 1995)
    • Rome and Alba
    • So that Blood Dropped to the Earth
    • Dwell where the Dogs Dwell
  • Die Städte und die Toten 4 / Argia (The Cities and the Dead 4 / Argia) for orchestra, after a motif by Italo Calvino (1923 – 1985)
  • Surrogate for voice and orchestra. Text: Hugo Hamilton (*1953)

Performance History

Surrogate Cities has been highly successful and has seen performances all over the world. Heiner Goebbels did not conceive this as a stage work, though he did occasionally realize it himself as “scenic concert”, just using light. Nevertheless the composition has also seem performances on stage, with choreography, etc.

Often, the seven “movements” have been rearranged, as it suited the needs of the stage, or of the occasion. Heiner Goebbels mentioned that for the 25 years since the creation of Surrogate Cities, he has never seen an open air performance, and that he was excited to experience this now.

Here, the seven parts followed each other (in the above sequence) without major interruptions (just as long as it took Baldur Brönnimann to switch to the next score, or a singer to move to a different location on stage). There was no intermission. However, 45 minutes prior to the performance, the conductor, Baldur Brönnimann, performed a public interview with the composer. See the pictures at the top of this post.

The Performance

I’ll get back to this in the final sections below, but at this point, let me state that much: in this environment, a performance could only possibly work by “wiring” the orchestra with microphones. The sound was amplified for the listeners, and also for the orchestra, through monitor speakers. Some instruments (such as the concertmaster’s violin) were “upgraded” by attaching microphones directly. The coordination of the ensemble happened through Baldur Brönnimann’s clear, big gestures and body movements (the concertmaster could not do much to help) and through the acoustic feedback, and, of course, through the marked beats from the large percussion section.

For a classic (concert hall) concertgoer (such as myself) it probably took a while to get used to the purely electronic sound of the concertmaster’s violin, or even the flute: one could see them perform, but the sound came down from the loudspeaker towers exclusively.

D & C ” for orchestra

Concept

Goebbels describes “D & C” as “acoustic buildings”, a city’s “structural backbone” (not a concrete description of a particular city)—corners, pylons, walls, facades. Musically, Goebbels describes the piece as “variants on the tones D and C”, with cross-relations to the piece “Die Faust im Wappen“, from which “D & C” quotes the five last fist beats, which repeatedly break up the images.

From listening to the composer’s description, which mentioned destruction as one element, the title spontaneously turned into the abbreviation of “Destruction and Construction”. Or should it rather be “Detriment and Creativity”?

Music & Performance

The music begins loud, noisy, with five dissonant beats (a forward quote to the five fist beats of destruction from The Fist in the City Coat of Arms, see below). Alarming signals initiate a collage of sound planes, scarce melody fragments / motifs in the brass section, interrupted by the recurring, destructive beginning, chaos, traffic (cars at a busy crossing?). This was occasionally intermixed with real traffic noise from the nearby city tramway. Then, there were strongly (if not obsessively) rhythmic segments with the stomping of city life, even industrial machinery. Then again, the city seems to breathe heavily—trying to come to a rest? Not a chance, as the five fist beats and the alarming signals return. And so does the noise of the city machinery: the city eating its own children?

Style?

Goebbels proudly stated in the interview that he “has no style”—meaning, no personal style by which one would instantly recognize the author. Rather, he uses “materials”—a term he adopted from Hanns Eisler (1898 – 1962). He combines those with his personal set of “mounting techniques”. The techniques, the algorithms stand for his personal “style”. When Goebbels states that he “has no style”, this means that he does not create recognizable, specific / identifiable harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic pattern. And people typically don’t recognize a composer’s techniques (collage, layering, etc.) as “style”.

The absence of “style” (?) does not imply that the listener can’t grasp the music. The piece has a clear structure, the layers and their components, and the segments are obvious. The beats / signals may be dissonant, but that makes them all the more obvious and recognizable. And even though Goebbels does not describe a concrete location, the music is pictorial and imaginative enough to make this a very lively and interesting, even fascinating experience.
★★★★

Baldur Brönnimann, Basel Sinfonietta, 2019-06-23 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Baldur Brönnimann, Basel Sinfonietta, 2019-06-23 (© Rolf Kyburz)

In the Country of Last Things for mezzosoprano, voice and small orchestra

Concept

The name of this piece is from the 1987 novel “In the Country of Last Things” by Paul Auster. The novel is in letter form and deals with the (confrontation with the) volatility of human-made structures in a city—and the volatility of one’s achievements in life, of life itself.

Music & Performance

The second piece begins with a descending, “semi-melodic”, operatic gestures in the strings, humming from Jocelyn B. Smith (here part here is no more than an accompanying, illustrating vocalise and humming), then, David Moss was reciting from the left side of the stage, in front of the harp: “These are the last things, she wrote” … in easily understandable American English. It is a reflection on life in the city. Intermittently, the orchestra fills gaps and illustrates the recitation, building up to dramatic climaxes.

Of course, without prior knowledge and understanding of the poem one may understand the text, but it is virtually impossible to fully understand the poetic content and its interrelation with the music. Also, with its approximately 5 minutes, the piece is too short for the listener comprehend and retrace the thoughts, the philosophic concepts and their repercussions in the text. Nevertheless, the composition as such is comprehensible at least on the surface. It makes up for interesting listening. Food for thought, though, and maybe a motivation to go and follow up in the underlying literature?
★★★½

Die Faust im Wappen (The Fist in the City Coat of Arms) for improvising voice and Orchestra

Concept

The title refers to Franz Kafka‘s short story “Das Stadtwappen” (The City Coat of Arms). That tale only appeared after the writer’s death, in 1931, as part of the short story collection The Great Wall of China. “Das Stadtwappen” is about the creation of the Tower of Babel, a truly kafkaesque story about bureaucratic complications, an endless number of emerging obstacles, the absurdity, and ultimately the failure of a project that seems impossible to realize in first place. The tale works towards the prophecy, according to which the city is going to be in five subsequent days by a giant fist—hence the fist in the city’s coat of arms.

Music & Performance

Here now, David Moss moved to the other side of the stage, next to the right of the conductor. No comprehensible text here—isolated words at best—but mere vocal art: babbling, shouting high and low, exclamations, grunting, speech, exulting chuckles, all highly rhythmic, underlined and reinforced by the orchestra, finally weeping. It was all highly artful, no doubt, and highly entertaining. In some ways (albeit very different in nature) reminding of “output” of the vocalist Bobby McFerrin (*1950). Listeners may see this as “circus”, though? There are dramatic climaxes, and the “action is dramatic enough to make this highly entertaining, if not enthralling.
★★★½

Suite for Sampler and Orchestra

Concept

Here, sampled noises from various cities (Berlin, New York, Tokyo, Saint Petersburg, etc.) form the back- and underground to quotes from or allusions to baroque music (Scarlatti, chorales). Actually, the idea is the other way around: the sampled noises represent today’s city life, the baroque quotes / allusions represent the city’s underground life, down to buried layers from a distant past. Formally, the piece is an expanded baroque suite, with the movements SarabandeAllemandeCouranteGigueBourréePassacagliaChaconneMenuetGavotteAir.

As there were no breaks between the segments, the average listener was barely able to identify the “movements” in the first encounter. The Suite is the biggest of the sections in Surrogate Cities.

Music & Performance

The “baroque connection” is evident immediately. Not as a direct quote, but in the melodic and harmonic pattern / textures, motifs that are repeated as in a Passacaglia (though, this was the Sarabande). These are just the under- or background, of course, while there is a more archaic, percussive layer with aspects of Rock music in its motoric rhythm. An idea of Vivaldi’s “Summer” in the high violins (repeated, short trills).

The Courante combines archaic (seemingly random) beats, noises like from a Didgeridoo, again Passacaglia-like structures, combined with sounds from the sampler (not identifiable, also rather archaic). A violin solo (Simone Zgraggen, concertmaster) follows, partly lyrical, sometimes virtuosic, moving up to highest pitches, growing to a dominant voice, then retracting, giving way to a “pure baroque / Scarlatti” piano segment.

Wind noises, virtuosic wind solos, a Jazz improvisation on the piano, beating on wood, chorales in the woodwind and brass section. The call of the muezzin from the tower of the mosque? Rather, it was the singing of a Jewish Kantor, very virtuosic, almost like baroque coloraturas—David Moss, mimicking a tenor and moving up to falsetto voice: beautiful, actually!

Croaking noises from an old “steam radio” sounds from a cash registry; harp and heavy sampler noises, and distant reminiscences from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, i.e, a melody by Pergolesi or one of his contemporaries. Finally just a voiceless breathing noise.

The coordination between piano and orchestra sometimes was a bit shaky, and I also noted a tuning difference between piano and the wind section. Nevertheless, this clearly was the highlight of Surrogate Cities: a rich, multifaceted (set of) movement(s), often enthralling, much more than just entertaining!
★★★★

Drei Horatier-Songs for mezzosoprano and orchestra

Concept

That’s not a reference to the Roman poet Horace, but rather referring to the 1968 drama Der Horatier (The Horatian) by Heiner Müller, which again refers to an old legend about two neighboring cities (Rome and Alba) in a conflict that is carried out by two representative individuals: the Horatian for Rome, the Kuratian for Alba. These two representatives are actually related to each other: the latter is Horatian’s sister’s fiancé. Horatian wins the fight, and when he returned home and sees his sister in tears, he kills her. Müller’s drama deals with the conflict of Rome having both a winner and a murderer in one and the same person.

Music & Performance

Here now, Jocelyn B. Smith could expose her beautiful, highly expressive mezzosoprano / Soul voice, with its vast color and tonal range, from dramatic to lyrical and reflective, contemplative. Fascinating, and highly artful, often phenomenal, for sure!

My only quibbles are in occasional over-amplification: I don’t necessarily need that much volume to hear and enjoy the voice. Overpowering does not add value, I think. And: this may be the aftermath of richness of the preceding Suite—but in the second half of these Horatier-Songs I noted some lengths, a drop / loss in musical tension, a sense of déjà-vu. Maybe I just wasn’t prepared for a lengthy, meditative Soul piece?
★★★½

Die Städte und die Toten 4 / Argia for orchestra

Concept

This piece refers to Italo Calvino‘s fantastic / surreal novel Le Città invisibili (Invisible Cities) from 1972. The quoted segment is about a hypothetical city Argia, in which air is replaced by soil. The roads are entirely buried in the ground, rooms are filled with clay up to the ceiling, and above the roofs there are stony layers forming the sky, clouds.

Music & Performance

A relentless, dissonant, heavy funeral march, shrill, ear-piercing cries from the brass and woodwind sections, archaic drum beats (see the pictures below)—and a sudden transfiguration into the motif from Vivaldi’s “Summer” (sequence of short trills, memories from baroque?).
★★★★

Surrogate for voice and orchestra

Concept

Surrogate” refers to the 1990 novel Surrogate City by Hugo Hamilton. The quote is about a woman who appears to have been running. A reflection as to why, whether she had been fleeing, what from, and so on. At the core, the text states that while running, the woman appears to be like “new”. Quote: “running the streets looks like you aren’t belonging there. As if you were jobless. Un-German. Surrogate.”

For clarification: a surrogate is “a substitute, especially a person deputizing for another in a specific role or office”.

Music & Performance

Surrogate emerges from the previous piece as a mesmerizing, motoric crescendo, first in the cello and bass, then in all strings—reminiscences of “Drumming” by Steve Reich (*1936), or minimal music in general. This then moves into the piano, turns more jazzy, enthralling, percussive, ever growing—and at the climax, David Moss joins piano and percussion, with a piece of artful Sprechgesang, vocal art, turning into a pervasive, feverish fantasies, still growing. Finally: feelings of anxiety, a nightmare, night daemons, scare, or is this rather ecstasy, rapture in transfiguration, pure awe??? Simply fascinating!
★★★★


Thoughts on the Composition

Zeitgeist?

The concert handout mentioned that Heiner Goebbels successfully avoiding creating / following a particular, personal style. I’m not sure whether avoiding a personal style is a desirable goal of achievement, and I don’t want to rate it.

The style in Surrogate Cities may not be personable or instantly attributable to Heiner Goebbels. However, it may still possess some “flavor of Zeitgeist“, predominantly in some of David Moss’ recitations. These to me have the scent of the late 20th century. This makes me doubt whether “Surrogate Cities” will be able to avoid “collecting dust” for the decades to come. Jocelyn B. Smith’s Soul singing, on the other hand, is timeless (Soul as style won’t disappear any time soon), and hence much less of a (potential) problem for the future of the composition.

Surrogate Cities and the Singers

Quite obviously, Surrogate Cities has been composed for and in cooperation with David Moss, i.e., specifically with that particular recitation (style) in mind, around that particular recitation. Compositions for one specific voice / singer are nothing new: Mozart did this in his operas and arias, up to 250 years ago. Of course, other singers have since successfully stepped into these roles. They may now often perform better than the original at the time of the composition.

However, David Moss’ recitation and improvisations are so much personal and specific that a performance by another singer would probably feel like / end up as a different composition. In other words: musically, Heiner Goebbels may have avoided a personal style; here, however, this appears to have happened in favor of the singer’s personal performance, which makes this different from most other, notated classical or contemporary classical music.

This is much less of an issue with Jocelyn B. Smith’s role. Without wanting to diminish the value of her contribution: her singing is very artful (and one of the highlights of the evening), excellent, and certainly also personal. However, one can still characterize it as Soul (Blues, Gospel, Jazz) performance. Other Soul singers may offer distinctly different interpretations of this role. Still, on a global scale, there are other Soul singers who must be able to offer a valid performance of this music. David Moss’ recitation, however, is so specific and tightly interwoven with the texture of Heiner Goebbels’ music that it seems virtually impossible for any other singer to offer an authentic performance.

Thoughts on the Performance

Acoustics for the Listeners

This composition and performance certainly falls into the area of cross-over between contemporary classical and (at the very least) Soul music. For people coming from the latter “corner”, the heavy use of microphones and loudspeakers is simply normal: what counts is what reaches the ear.

However, at its core, the Basel Sinfonietta is an ensemble with instruments for classical / contemporary classical music (up to cross-over performances, obviously). And as an (also) classical concertgoer, I don’t expect to hear sounds just from anywhere, but I expect to watch and observe the orchestra “in actions”, and hereby I would like to be able to correlate what I hear with what I see.

OK, with the singers, microphones were unavoidable in an open air performance without sound-focusing half-dome or the like. But as far as the orchestra is concerned, I found it confusing to hear sound from loudspeakers (almost) exclusively, without any kind of spatial correlation with what was happening on stage. That goes for strings, wind instruments, and (partly) for percussion. What irritated me the most was to see the concertmaster perform her solo, and the sound coming from somewhere…

I understand that Baldur Brönnimann and Heiner Goebbels likely wanted the music to sound (somewhat) powerful. That’s hard to achieve in an open air setting. Maybe the sound balance was lacking some subtlety in regulation, and/or the amplification could have been more differentiated across the orchestra?

Acoustics for the Orchestra

In an open air performance, especially in the absence of a sound-focusing roof above the stage, musicians in the orchestra may at best hear their neighbors playing. However, it is almost certainly impossible to hear the ensemble as such, to keep contact with the entire orchestra. Also, the stage arrangement made it hard, if not impossible to follow more distant ensemble groups (or, for most musicians, the concertmaster) even just visually.

Baldur Brönnimann certainly was utterly familiar with the score, his gestures were large and very clear: he was the core of visual coordination. For the rest, the monitor loudspeakers on the podium had to serve as (acoustic) means for coordination. This clearly was somewhat unusual for parts of the orchestra. And overall, the coordination / communication was more indirect, and somewhat less accurate than in concert hall performances. Most audience members will not have noticed. Still, I think that the quality of coordination wasn’t quite at the level of indoor concerts with the same orchestra. Certainly, one could see how effort and concentration many of the orchestra members spent merely on counting / maintaining coordination.

Other Adversities of Open Air Performances

There weren’t just acoustic obstacles. During the concert, there was occasionally a slight, ever so subtle and most welcome breeze. It was gentle, but strong enough to (possibly) cause havoc with open sheet music on the stands. So, every music stand was equipped with two clamps to hold the sheets in place. That works fine, but it makes turning pages slower vastly more complicated. And therefore, it is one more distraction for the musicians, requiring an (yet another) extra effort in maintaining coordination & staying in line…

Conclusions

I fully understand Baldur Brönnimann’s idea of realizing Surrogate Cities amidst the appropriate urban environment, making the music part of the ecosystem. And I understand the excitement of bringing this music into its genuinely appropriate surroundings, in the open, urban air.

As shown above, open air performances have their inherent disadvantages, especially if acoustically the concert exclusively relies upon electronic means (a half-dome might have helped cushioning, attenuating the adversities). That said, it still was a worthwhile, very interesting experience!

It probably is worthwhile complementing this open-air experience by attending an indoor / concert hall performance of this composition.



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