Apr/May 2001

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

Thinking Music From The Inside

Goebbels, Heiner. Surrogate Cities.
Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, Peter Rundel, conductor,
with Jocelyn B. Smith and David Moss, vocalists.
ECM New Series 289 465 338-2. 2000.


Why has writing this review caused me such procrastination? Was it procrastination or impasse?

Our postmodern double-bind, on one side, proclaims liberated floating signifiers that reader/listeners can reattach pretty much as they choose (although is choice what happens?) while, on the other side, the double-bind places identity as an immutable grounding for almost everything, even if that is mitigated by performative elements rather than essentialist ones.

So what do we do when we know utterly nothing of the identity of a composer?  Hence my dilemma. In the good old bad days of modernism, we could make judgments based on the aesthetics of a work’s achievement, the less known of the composer the better. Now the necessity to know leaves us to drift in a homeless urbanity trying to guess the players.

Surrogate Cities is an arresting work (or possibly a set of works), which the liner notes abrogate responsibility to introduce. We get from them only:

* Short comments on the musical materials for each of the five movements or pieces.
* Translations of the vocal texts with brief historical contexts for the literary sources (Horace, Kafka, Hamilton, Auster). By the way, though recorded in Germany, these are all sung in English versions.
* Credits for the translations.

We do not get:

* Information on the artists.
* Information about Goebbels, the composer, such as place of birth, training, other works; only his birth in 1952 is noted.
* Performance history, except one line: “Commissioned by the Frankfurt Feste for the 20th anniversary of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie and the 1200 year celebration of the city of Frankfurt.” The work is elsewhere dated 1994.

Nor do we know whether the short comments on the musical materials are by the composer or some liner-notes writer.

Nor do we get the original German title of the work in order to check the reliability of its rendering in English as Surrogate Cities, unless its title is in English which would be a significant alienating gesture for a work commemorating a 1200 year old German urban center.

Is this the original Frankfurt performance or a later one?

This is not an idle question because one of the many arresting and very appealing aspects of this work is the work of the two vocalists. Both Smith and Moss sing with a distinctly American accent, and Smith gives the central section, “The Horatian—Three Songs,” a Broadway torch-song quality with chiseled enunciation of words, crisp diction, and slides onto and away from pitches—all of which shape the delivery with a pop music brash and innocent impression of total conviction; one needs no text to get every word. If Smith is the original singer of the Frankfurt festival premier, then her vocal style is itself a signifying sign, whereas if she performs on a recording meant for mainly Anglo-American consumers, and the songs have been redone in English, that sign reads quite differently.

As a commemorative work, Surrogate Cities emphatically destabilizes comfortable notions of civic and urban life, festivity or celebration. One can imagine Frankfurt jingoists rising up in their seats in outrage. Where is the tribute to the Hanseatic commercial past? Where is the honor paid to intellectual leadership?

Signifying puzzles can be elaborated endlessly drawing us ever farther from the music and its arresting materiality; but then straying and playing are the practices of postmodernism, are they not, in its utter contempt for the modernist penchant to read a text closely. But where do these dilemmas leave me?

I forgo the temptation to interpret the work’s title except to say that the urban landscapes it draws us into are discomfortingly familiar in many ways: their nostalgias, their violences, their discontinuities, their unresolved ethical mandates, and their alluring alienations. Furthermore, I forgo the debate whether this is five separate works recorded on a disk called Surrogate Cities, or whether it is a single work named Surrogate Cities made up of five somewhat different movements in terms of style and instrumentation, intended as an epic or symphonic cycle. 

For me it is one work and I hear it that way!

Here they are:

1. Suite for Sampler and Orchestra
Based on forms typical of a Baroque dance suite, this set of ten short movements (the longest 6:15, the shortest 1:11) abruptly sets contradictory materials in juxtaposition from industrial noise electronically transformed to nostalgia-drenched Jewish klzemer and cantorial bits presented to sound like scratchy old 78 rpm recordings. All of this the brief note tells us is layered onto a scaffolding of not only Baroque dance forms but quotations from Baroque composers such as Scarlatti. Despite some imposing industrial climaxes, the overall texture is of a chamber orchestra—quite habitable despite the dislocations—sort of like living in a 150 year old apartment building and knowing that its remodelings layer in various aesthetics and styles.

2. The Horation—Three Songs
Based on a Roman legend recounted by Livy and others, Heiner Müller’s three poems in translations by Heinz Schwarzinger set a brash soprano against the full orchestra in settings that grab one out of her chair and set her teeth on edge. This is not because of the violence of musical or vocal style, but because the parable nature of the texts, and the utterly arresting and insistent manner of setting them to music and performing them, engages the mind in far-reaching searches. Superficially, the poems present a neat allegory of civic virtue and allegiance, but the ironies of the apparently transparent “lessons” plunge into the deepest ethical conundrums, compounded by any secure way to articulate an identity of place—city or nation. Furthermore, repeated listening does not wear these songs down. Familiarity does not bread banality but instead heightened irony and edginess. Despite an anti-romantic idiom, these are ecstatic symphonic lieder recalling Mahler or Shostakovich.

3. D & C
This is an eleven minute long movement for large orchestra with a liner-notes epigraph from Kafka but no sung text. Where the first movement sustained a chamber orchestra feeling, this is angular and large, defiant of comfortableness and nostalgia. If movement 2 assaults our ethical sensibility, this movement assaults our auditory sensorium. This urban landscape refuses accommodation.

4. Surrogate
The final two movements are about five minutes each and feature texts, the fourth for male voice, and the fifth for female and male together.  Hugo Hamilton’s prose fragments “Surrogate” are the only part of the work that seem to draw on specifically German urban images. The fragmentary “footage” of this movement seems to depict a female refugee on the run.  Or is she a runaway teenage street waif? Or a battered woman who’s left her home? The entire movement is desperate and running. Both pursuer and pursued position our listening. It is bleak, comfortless and engrossing. We listen in rapt fascination—like gawkers at someone else’s misery.

5. In the Country of Last Things
The final movement seeks to pull back from the immediacy and throat-gripping gestures that went before to find a reflective stance. The text by Paul Auster has a summary parable quality.  Its first sentence reads, “These are the last things, she wrote.” But, whereas the Horation songs, use the parable form to confront us with irresolvable but precisely focused ethical conundrums, the Auster text floats on indeterminacy, offering the gestures of reflective summation but withholding the verbal content that would make such a reflection conclusive. Goebbels’ music renders its own indeterminacy.

These five movements (I assert) contextualize each other in cross-referential and contrasting ways; and what’s more, they have a cumulative collectivity, like all great symphonies, to register an effect much larger that the summed sequence of their parts. The effect is indelible and profound, discomforting and disturbingly familiar. Indelibly, I am left from this music asking can I know a city, can I know what urban life is, can I even know my own life in its urban environment, or is everything a surrogate for some thing some place else?

Over the years, photography shows have thrust arresting images of the contemporary urban inexplicability—and cumulatively disturbing effects—upon viewers, but I can think of no work of music that traverses quite this ground in quite this way. Goebbels’ Surrogate Cities does so, and does so arrestingly, with the promise that repeated listening does not wear thin or became banal. Whoever he is, whatever his identity, his work is an achievement of large importance, and the performance is graced with vitality, absorption, conviction, and yes, that old-fashioned musical virtue, virtuosity.


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