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Music Rewiew: Heiner Goebbels – Stifters Dinge

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The new ECM release by Heiner Goebbels titled Stifters Dinge could be considered a soundtrack of sorts, but it is unlike any I have ever heard before. Goebbels is a multi-media artist, and to truly appreciate what this recording represents, a little background is in order.

Stifters Dinge is an installation which was first unveiled at the Theatre Vidy in Lausanne in September 2007. It won the Grand Prix Mira Trailovic at the Bitef Festival in 2008. Although I have not had the pleasure of actually viewing it, the description is pretty fascinating. Sifters Dinge has at its center five grand pianos, nested together and placed on end. Attached to the instruments is equipment to produce sounds from the interior and exterior, which reproduce whole pieces in the manner of player-pianos. The piano “sculpture” was presented as a construction on rails, in a diffusely-lit space.

As Andrew Clements wrote in The Guardian, “Five pianos, mounted like a wall, move with menacing slowness over pools of water. The digitally controlled keyboards play individually (Bach’s slow Italian concerto is heard at one point) but finally join together in a manic toccata at the climax, before receding.”

The term “electroacoustic” has been in use for some time now. But it has only recently come in vogue to denote the bleeding-edge of electronic music. This was confirmed for me in a big way when I received the upcoming release from Jim Coleman, late of the industrial rock band Cop Shoot Cop. Calling his new material electroacoustic made me realize just how trendy the term has become.

As it is commonly accepted, electroacoustic music is very broad, and covers a wide range of sound experimentation. Some of the forms include musique concrete, computer music, tape music — basically electronic music of all sorts. But there is much more to it, for the ideas behind the genre can be traced all the way back to Luigi Russolo’s manuscript “The Art of Noises,” published in 1913.

John Cage’s “4’33” (1952) is probably the ultimate statement of music as an art form of unlimited potential. Often referred to as “Silence,” the four-minute, thirty-three second piece is performed without a single note being played. The sounds of shuffling papers, and muffled audience conversations are actually the “song.“ It was a brilliant challenge to the very idea of what actually constitutes music, or art. Andy Warhol would generate even more controversy in the following decade with his famous Campbell’s Soup and Marilyn Monroe pieces.

I feel that Heiner Goebbels’ Stifters Dinge is a brilliant contemporary take on these ideas, and it is fitting that it appears on ECM’s New Series imprint. The very first New Series release was Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa in 1984. Quite obviously, Manfred Eicher intended to highlight contemporary composers with it. And he has backed this up with a wonderfully varied amount of releases over the past 28 years. Stifters Dinge is but one of the most recent entries.

I find the humor in setting up five pianos and “playing” them from afar using digital technology to be not only inspired, but pretty damned funny as well.

The real question is whether the music holds up outside of the elaborate presentation though. In rock, sophisticated lighting and other distractions are often used to disguise the deficiencies of the music. This is not at all the case with Stifters Dinge. Although the titles are simplicity personified,such as “The Fog,” “The Wind,” and “The Salt,” the pieces are anything but simple.

I first listened to Stifters Dinge with an ear toward the individual tracks, and to pick out highlights for review. With two compositions clocking it at over ten minutes, I expected them to be the most revealing. These are “The Trees,” and “The Coast,” and both are fascinating examples of a world-class composer working in his element. It was “The Thunder” which initially caught my ear however.

The unmistakable voice of William S. Burroughs reading from his Nova Express is an attention grabber, no matter who you are. Even though The Beats will always be associated with jazz, I find Burroughs’ concepts of “cut-up” writing much more in line with what John Cage was doing in the 50’s than what Miles was up to. Goebbels incorporates a wide variety of influences, including the previously mentioned Bach concerto, the chants of New Guinea natives, and Greek folk songs. Besides Burroughs, a couple of other very intriguing voices utilized are those of Claude Levi-Strauss and Malcolm X.

The description of the music being a shining example of simplicity should not be confused with it being simple. There is nothing simple about Stifters Dinge. One of the factors that make the record so fresh is that every musical note is perfectly placed, as well as the various effects. Rather than overloading his music with extraneous elements, Heiner pares it down to the essence.

What emerges is that rarest of breeds, music that seems to flow effortlessly, yet is remarkably complex. The confidence of Goebbels is almost palpable, especially considering the scope.

Stifters Dinge is a recording of a forward looking artist, who conversely often looks to the past for inspiration. Although I know I am shouting into the wind, I honestly believe that this record could (should) find an audience outside of the artistic or intellectual crowd who are undoubtedly the market. The music has an appeal to me that is almost universal. Take a chance on this album. It may sound “arty,” but I think more than anything else, Heiner Goebbels is having a huge amount of fun here. And for me, that is what it all comes down to in the end.

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