Heiner Goebbels has worked extensively with the Ensemble Modern in recent years, most effectively in Eislermaterial (see my review), released in 2002. With STIFTERS DINGE he returns to his 1980s roots in sound sculpture, acting as auteur, assembling a multi-media installation with no live musicians.
Unfortunately this high concept art has here been reduced to audio only, and I'm afraid much is lost in the transfer, as with ECM's previous Goebbels disc Landschaft Mit Entfernten Verwandten (Landscape With Distant Relatives) (see my review). There are only several color photos in ECM's booklet as well as liner note descriptions of the installation to tantalize the listener. This is a shame -- it's like a Beethoven symphony without the strings, or a building that dispenses with the architect's plan for a roof. His Hörstücke -- radio plays -- written with Heiner Muller remain among his strongest works because they were conceived as audio-only, and all the complexity is in the sound collage (see my review).
As usual, though, despite this serious shortcoming, STIFTERS DINGE is a fascinating work. The name comes from the 19th century Austrian nature writer Adalbert Stifter, and means Stifter's things. A long reading from Stifter by Bill Patterson is one of several vocal recordings used in the work. The first is a 1905 field recording from Papua New Guinea, an incantation for southwesterly winds. Next is Stifter, describing in great detail a massive ice storm. The implication here seems clear -- the day is coming when ice storms may be no more as climate change intensifies.
A 1988 interview with the great French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss follows. After noting that there are no untouched corners of the world left, he says "I don't believe that there is any great reason to have faith in humankind today. Q: Because it has destroyed everything and continues to do so? L-S: That's one of the reasons." The next sample is the inimitable William S. Burroughs from "Nova Express," who growls out out a warning to "...all you boards, governments, syndicats... to take what is not yours... to sell the ground from unborn feet for ever..." This leads directly to an excerpt from a TV interview with Malcolm X, who explains in his clear, direct fashion how the European definition of reality is no longer the only definition.
Now the voices from the industrialized world end and we hear another field recording, this time of Columbian Indians, recorded from the radio by Goebbels in 1985, a wonderful piece of antiphonal singing. Finally, the last vocal sample is an utterly beautiful traditional Greek song, "Kalismerisma," sung by Ekaterini Mangoulia, recorded in 1930. The song is a welcome to immigrants and offers good luck to fishermen arriving from the Barbary Coast.
The music that accompanies the vocals is produced by "five grand pianos nested together and placed on end, all provided with equipment that will produce sounds from the interior and exterior of the instrument by a mechanized touching, beating, or bowing of the strings or wood, or will reproduce whole pieces in the manner of a pianola, including the second movement of Bach's Italian Concerto. This piano sculpture is presented as a bizarre construction on rails in a diffusely lit space, where it can be led back and forth..." I fear the visual aspect of the installation, with three pools that can be filled with water, overlaid with fog, or made to appear covered in snow, can only be hinted at by Wolfgang Sandner's liner notes and the photos. But the music is quite percussive, and sounds electronic much of the time, all emanating from the mechanical pianos.
The original stage production in 2007 was produced by Theatre Vidy-Lausanne, and all instruments were built and developed in artistic and technical collaboration by the team of the theater. This recording was made on October 20 and 21, 2007, at the Grand Theatre de la Ville de Luxembourg, edited and mixed by and Max Federhofer of the SWR and Heiner Goebbels in July 2010.
The overall impression given by STIFTERS DINGE reminds me of the great documentary "The Flame and the Fire," contrasting the way of life of pre-agrarian and pre-industrial peoples to the alienating life of industrial society and its devastation of the environment. It brings back my younger days of the 1970s, steeped in anthropology and searching for answers to the problems posed by Western capitalism and industrialism. Today we are seemingly no closer to answers, and the world lurches inexorably toward environmental catastrophe.
That Goebbels poses the questions and makes the listener think is the greatest strength of the work.