Heiner Goebbels: Ou bien le débarquement désastreux. ECM New Series 1552

Heiner Goebbels: Ou bien le débarquement désastreux. André Wilms (voice), Sira Djebate (vocals), Boubakar Djebate (kora, vocals), Moussa Sissoko (djembe), Yves Robert (trombone), Alexandre Meyer (electric guitar, table-guitar, daxophone), Xavier Garcia (keyboards, sampling and programming), Heiner Goebbels (sampling and programming). ECM New Series 1552 (1995), barcode 781182155220

Recorded June 1994

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A brilliant piece of music theatre – but this CD will only give you a faint idea of it
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 25 April 2009

Heiner Goebbels, born in 1952 in Germany, is one of the most interesting composers to have emerged from the smoking ashes of the avant-garde in the late 1980s and early 1990s – but you might not fully hear it on CD.

Goebbels started out in Germany in the late 1970s playing with and composing for the “Sogenanntes Linksradikales Blasorchester” (“The So-Called Radical Leftist Wind Orchestra”, a Frank Zappa-inspired ensemble), formed a Free-Jazz and improvisation duo with Alfred Harth and played in the art-rock-trio Cassiber, while composing music for films, incidental music to theatre plays and ballets. That is to give his roots. In the mid-eighties he began composing Hörspiele (radio-plays), most of them based on texts by Heiner Müller, and in the late 1980s he started staging some of his compositions, such as “Der Mann im Fahrstuhl” (“The Man in the Elevator” or “Die Befreiung des Prometheus” (“The Liberation of Prometheus”).

“Ou bien le débarquement désastreux” (Or the hapless landing) is a Music Theatre composition for one actor, kora (a West-African 21 string harp-lute), djembé (hand drum), singing, trombone, electric guitar, daxophone (an instrument invented by the German Hans Reichel, consisting of a thin wooden blade fixed in a wooden block holding contact microphones) and keyboards. In a manner typical of contemporary European music theatre (Berio and Nono come to mind), it uses various texts (all spoken in French) by Joseph Conrad (his “Congo Diary”), the French poet Francis Ponge (Le Carnet du bois de pins, The Pine Wood notebook) and Heiner Müller (Heracles 2 or The Hydra) – the two former dealing with colonialism. It was premiered in March 1993 in Nanterre near Paris, in Goebbels’ own staging, with the performers of the present disc (André Wilms is a noted French actor, who got to know Goebbels through his performing in a couple of Heiner Müller plays for which Goebbels provided the music; he played in many of the composer’s productions thereafter) – and I was there.

And there lies precisely the problem: Goebbels isn’t (or wasn’t then) a composer in the traditional sense, his compositions aren’t just destined to the ear. He conceives pieces that speak to the eye as much as to the ear, and his productions are total experiences in which the music cannot be dissociated from the staging. His staging of “Ou bien le débarquement” was revelatory, brilliant, wonderfully imaginative and poetic.

The music on its own isn’t all that interesting, especially for non-French speaking audiences. It mixes world music (Kora player Boubakar Djebate from Mali is credited as co-composer), free jazz, metal rock and contemporary classical. Goebbels is an imaginative composer and you will hear interesting, ear-catching sounds (I love track 9). Some of the syncopated rhythmic writing for voice and instruments is very exciting (try track 15). But overall, nothing of this is ground-breaking and I wonder if it makes a coherent musical whole without the stage action (or memory thereof). Not understanding French won’t help either, although English translations are provided. The liner notes are limited to the texts, and give no explanation of the where and why and how of the composition, no information on the composer, which is too really too bad. I still have the long interview of Goebbels that was published back then in the theatre’s journal, and it was a treasure-chest of information on the work’s inception and conception (including the surprising notion that one element linking the three texts is the importance of trees).

The compositions of Goebbels cry for DVD. They are not just music, they are shows, performances, music-theatre. I am not aware that this was filmed.

Incidentally, a few weeks later that same season, another brilliant composition of music-theatre was premiered in Nanterre, in yet another magnificently imaginative composer-staged performance: Sextuor by Georges Aperghis. This one holds up marvellously well as a purely audio-experience.

Additional info and resources:

Goebbel’s website, with discography and catalog of works and much more: http://www.heinergoebbels.com/en/archive/info

Comments are welcome