An Introduction to Heiner Goebbels’ Schwarz auf Weiss

Heiner Goebbels is coming to Cornell!  He will be an artist-in-residence for ten days, March 7-17.  In anticipation of his arrival– and the seminar he will hold during his visit– the departments of German, Music, and Theatre showed a film version of Goebbels’ 1996 performance, Schwarz auf Weiss.  Since recordings of Goebbels’ works are rare, this was a special occasion on which I was fortunate to have been invited to provide an introduction.  (My recent research residency in Germany and a review of I went to the house but did not enter, which appeared in the 2009 issue of Theatre Journal, have earned me the honor of substantially contributing to Goebbels’ endeavors at Cornell.)

Introduction to Schwarz auf Weiss, Cornell University, February 23, 2010

As an artist, Heiner Goebbels is the quintessential Grenzgänger, an exceptional individual who inhabits the worlds of both contemporary theatre and music.  Although Goebbels has occasionally expressed concerns about the critical reception of his hybrid artistic identity, he moves among both disciplines’ most elite, international circles.  For instance, he worked with the iconic German playwright Heiner Müller in the late eighties– incidentally, Goebbels credits these collaborations with Müller as his defining breakthrough– French choreographer Mathilde Monnier, and is a habitual headliner at festivals and theatres across the globe.  He is also a professor and managing director of The Institute for Applied Theatre Studies at the Justus-Liebig-Universität in Giessen, where he has taught courses on Brecht, the aesthetics of the city, sound art, and a current seminar on French novelist, Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Despite that fact that Goebbels considers himself to be “not in the center… of contemporary music… somebody who’s between the chairs”– he cites interests in heavy metal, Hans Eisler, and the Beach Boys as evidence of this outsider status–  his musical resume is equally impressive.  Since the early nineties, his work has been recorded in ECM’s venerable New Music Series.  He has collaborated with renowned musical groups, including the Ensemble Modern and The Hilliard Ensemble, and has become a regular guest at the Berlin Philharmonic, whose conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, describes him in rhapsodic terms as an irreproducible “one-off.”

Goebbels’ ability to negotiate the realms of theatre and music is more than a virtuosic feat– it has been integral to the development of his singular artistic idiom.  However, his fluency in these two disciplines was not an innate ability.  He struggled with his first position as the resident composer for a relatively traditional theatre in Frankfurt, where it was necessary to subordinate music to visual mise-en-scene.  Dissatisfied with theatre, he preferred his purely musical pursuits in experimental bands, such as the So-Called Leftist Revolutionary Wind Orchestra and his art rock trio Cassiber.  Of course, the excess of these raucous sonic displays bore little resemblance to the mysterious, muted melancholy that characterizes his musical theatre.

It is worth noting that even for an experienced spectator of contemporary performance, Goebbels’ work is remarkably odd.  In part, its quietly quizzical character can be attributed to fundamental differences with traditional theatre: a Goebbels performance generally lacks spoken dialogue, character development, and plot.  As in Black on White, little seems to happen.  The stage is apparently uninhabited– and perhaps abandoned– by proper actors.  Rather than actors, its occupants are the members of the Ensemble Modern.  Having been driven from their seats, they aimlessly roam, unattended and idly entertaining themselves with the only language they know, music.

Even if their apparent lack of purpose seems strange, these musicians at least provide a familiar human presence.  In other works, Goebbels aspires to a theatre devoid of human performers.  For instance, his 2007 work, Stifter’s Things, replaces actors with mechanical substitutes: a robotic voice reads recorded text and an awkwardly constructed contraption of fragmented pianos serves as an eerily self-aware musical instrument and uncanny puppet assemblage.

Despite the exceptionally odd character of such devices, it would be erroneous not to consider Goebbels’ work as part of a broader context of contemporary performance.  Indeed, its opposition to dialogue, character, and plot are established conventions of experimental theatre.  In such experimental theatre, instead of presenting coherent characters, performers embody nameless formal forces.  In the absence of character-driven events, theatre’s formal framework becomes extrinsic content.  In Black on White, a symmetrical grid of empty benches– which reflects the audience’s immobile position and perspective– depicts the stark structural limits of theatre’s literal and narrative space.  Goebbels’ stage resembles the ruins of narrative itself, a proverbial prison-house of meaning through which his ensemble wanders.  However, whereas most theatre emphasizes the unassailable nature of this structure– and its catastrophic force– Black on White accepts these limits with enigmatic equanimity.  Its inhabitants seem unpreoccupied, and even idle, as if indefinitely waiting for something definitive or meaningful to occur.

Given this uneventful quality, it may seem that Goebbels consciously avoids narrative.  Nevertheless, Goebbels always embeds a story– literally a literary text– into his theatre.  He is a passionate reader with consummate taste for high modernist authors, be it T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, or Franz Kafka.  Black on White stages texts by two such exemplary modernists, Edgar Allen Poe and Maurice Blanchot.  However, Goebbels presents their writing in a way that fundamentally differs from the traditional dramatic exposition of a narrative and subsequent attempts to resist author and text.  Although both stories are present in the first moments of the performance– the scribbling hand you will see is transcribing Blanchot’s 1962 novella Awaiting Oblivion– neither is ever manifest.  On the contrary, the richly fantastic events they relate remain irretrievably occluded and foreclosed.

Not only are its events foreclosed, but narrative encloses the voice that enunciates them.  This irremediable distance from the speaker is actually the subject of the Poe short story, “Shadow: A Parable.”  Its first line addresses the reader from across the grave: “Ye who read are still among the living: but I who write will shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows.”  In Black on White, this reference to the narrator’s death is literal: the speaking voice is a recording of Goebbel’s pivotal artistic partner, playwright Heiner Müller, who had recently succumbed to cancer.

Composed in 1996, a year after his death, Black on White was intended as a tribute– and farewell– to Müller.  However, despite this very real loss, its tone is not necessarily mournful.  Faithful to Müller’s own irrepressible humor, Black on White is surprisingly playful, perhaps because for Goebbels, the mortal division imposed by narrative form is not absolute.  Albeit mysterious, Goebbels’ works are not mysteries, which like Poe’s detective stories, are meant to be deciphered and reconstructed.  It is possible to appreciate his theatre’s humor and sonorous diversity for its own sake, without recourse to expertise, interpretation, or an introduction.   Please enjoy.

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