Heiner Goebbels, Surrogate Cities

Chris Reid

Goebbels’ Surrogate Cities recalls the great choral symphonies such as Beethoven’s 9th, and Shostakovitch’s 14th, which (with solo voices) muses on an existential death. These were landmark works, as is this. Here, spoken word, taped, sampled sounds, all kinds of unusual percussion instruments, including torn newspapers, bundles of sticks being rattled, a stainless steel mixing bowl—the sounds of civilisation—bring the symphony into the present. Goebbels has managed to avoid the pitfall of many composers who try to blend heterogeneous forms, by weaving his own original form with just a few threads of others, rather than simply adding them on top of each other. ‘D and C for Orchestra’ is intended to evoke city buildings; these replace the forests and fields of the Romantic repertoire. It also suggests a dance, returning regularly to a pulsating theme driven by double basses and contrabassoon and heightened by a clanging triangle and massive brass forces. Passages in ‘D and C for Orchestra’ recall the fatal dance in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and the music for his The Soldier’s Tale, with their dynamic, irresistible energies and the sense of the inevitability of the drama of life being played out.

Generally, this was a splendid performance of an immensely difficult work. The orchestral elements are frequently an amalgam of disparate sounds and textures that do not depend on thematic or harmonic development, and strict direction is required to keep the event together. Expressionistic music of this kind requires concentrated effort by every performer. The work itself is metamorphosing, for example new elements were added in this performance and the sequence was quite different from the CD version (ECM New Series 1688 465 338-2). The soloists were superb—David Moss’ vocal range is prodigious, from baritone to countertenor. Goebbels’ writing would be unrealisable without such a performer. Smith and Moss are not merely singers. Some of the texts Moss delivered were babble, a meaningless abstraction of the sound rather than the content of conversation, recalling the work of Berio, and requiring consummate skill to bring off. Smith’s performance was superb; both are vital to the success of the work. On stage, their presence is dramatic, operatic in its intensity.

Heiner Goebbels has created an extraordinary synthesis out of a disparate array of musical forms and instrumentation. Surrogate Cities is a masterpiece and a fitting opening to the Queensland Biennial Festival of Music.

Heiner Goebbels, Surrogate Cities, The Queensland Orchestra, conductor Andrea Molino, Concert Hall, QPAC, July 18

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 42

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003