Festival: Testing the waters

The Ensemble Modern performs ‘Black on White’ at the Israel Festival.

The Ensemble Modern (photo credit: CHRISTIAN SCHAFFERER)
The Ensemble Modern
Heiner Goebbels wants to keep us on our toes, and the same goes for himself and for his cohorts in Ensemble Modern. The Germany-based troupe will be here on Sunday, when it will perform one of the more boundary-bending items in this year’s Israel Festival lineup in Jerusalem.
Black on White is one of those works that defy pigeonholing. It is a music-based creation that also incorporates plenty of onstage action, dialogue and movement. The music also traverses a diverse range of genres and styles, and the esthetics conjure up all kinds of thoughts and emotions. There is a textual substratum to the whole affair in the form of works by 20th-century French writer, philosopher and literary theorist Maurice Blanchot and 19th-century American poet and novelist Edgar Allen Poe. The latter was primarily known for stories that tended towards suspense and the macabre, while Blanchot’s theories on the relationship among the writer, language, literature and philosophy influenced a generation of post-modern and post-structuralist thinkers, and his work was founded on paradox and impossibility.
That is a suitably protean backdrop to Goebbels’s musical drama which, he says, feeds off all kinds of sensibilities and senses.
“I grew up with The Beatles, and I wasn’t so interested in the Stones,” says the 62-year-old composer. “I also grew up in a very conservative family with a lot of classical music. I think my step out of the provincial town atmosphere actually came from the visual arts. When I was 16, I started going to galleries and to Documenta [exhibition of modern and contemporary art]. I wanted to know everything about the visual arts.”
That is pretty evident from his extensive and expansive oeuvre, which tends to conjoin apparently disparate visual and sonic elements and constantly questions conceptual thinking.
“I think that time [of doing the rounds of art galleries] raised my perception or my taste to never ignore the visual side of the music I produce,” he says.
Mind you, genre hopping is not exactly a new idea.
Musicians, for example, often talk about visualizing images when they sing or play, and Goebbels was drawn to testing definitive delineation from an early stage.
“I began to question the concert setting, as such, and I created this genre of staged concert, which included light or other visual elements that change the orchestra setting or the relationship to the audience. I think that is something that came very much from the visual arts,” he says.
But Goebbels is not a fusion-oriented creator. He says he wants to keep the disciplines apart.
“I am more interested in separation between what we see and what we hear,” he explains. “I think that leaves a bigger space for imagination. I, for example, have always been interested in artists [whose work] which looks different from the way they play or which moves differently from the way they sound. I was always interested in the contradiction between these two perception modes.”
As far as Goebbels is concerned, when he writes a work there is still a long way to go before the creation is complete. In fact, it is never fully consummated.
Goebbels leaves us, the cultural consumers, to dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s as we see fit.
“Bertolt Brecht talked about the separation of elements, in a sense of creating a gap for the spectators to fill it with their own imagination,” notes the composer.
That would appear to be a given.
We all come to a performance or to a gallery with our own cultural and emotional background and understanding of the art form in question and, therefore, filter the end product through our personal intellectual and sensory conduits.
“That’s true,” admits Goebbels, “but I think there are some strategies to allowing that [to happen] more and some totalitarian art forms that show the way. I prefer the first,” he adds with alacrity. “I think it can be very liberating to offer a space for the imagination of the audience.”
That certainly applies to Black on White, which has done the rounds of the world’s stages and was first performed in 1996.
“It is a piece that has a bundle of topics, a bundle of questions that it raises, and it’s not a conventional way of storytelling.
It has some story to it, but it doesn’t have a conventional linearity,” he says.
Although Goebbels and the members of the ensemble have accrued quite some history with Black on White, the composer says he never tires of it. In fact, he never really knows what he and the other 19 artists are going to get from a particular performance.
“I don’t have all the answers [about the storyline of Black on White],” he declares, noting that it is what keeps the work and his approach to it fresh. “If I did have all the answers, I probably wouldn’t do the piece. I like to be surprised by the work.”
That was the guiding ethos from the outset.
“I remember when I had my first rehearsal with Ensemble Modern, that was in December 1995. The work is still super fresh, and most of the musicians are the original ones.
I think that has something to do with the way we produced it. I was very personally involved [in the creative process], and I like also to include the biographies of the musicians,” he says.
Goebbels jumped in at the deep end.
“When I had the first rehearsal, I was unable to produce any music for it beforehand,” he says. “I was very desperate about that; but when I arrived at the rehearsal space, I immediately knew why [I couldn’t write the score] – I wanted to get something out of the musicians, whom I didn’t even know yet.”
The players knew they were in for something of a rite of passage from the word go.
“I knew they could play anything, but I wanted to see if they could do other things, if they could sing or move, if they had their own creativity, if they could speak and if they could play other instruments, not just the ones on which they were virtuosos. It was an amazing week of surprises for all of us,” he recalls.
That initial rehearsal session proved not only to be a revelation for everyone concerned, but a fun time was also had by all. The members of the Jerusalem Theatre audience can expect to get something of that themselves.
Ensemble Modern will perform at the Jerusalem Theatre on Sunday at 9 p.m. For tickets and more information: http://israel-festival.org/