A personal programme note by LPO Artistic Director Elena Dubinets, in response to her experience of the world premiere performance of Heiner Goebbels’s 'A House of Call'.
I don’t know any other piece that revolutionizes orchestral experience the way Heiner Goebbels’ new full-evening full-orchestra cycle A House of Call does. I was fortunate to see the score at Heiner’s house a few months before the premiere and the to hear the world premiere of the piece performed by the Ensemble Modern Orchestra at the Philharmonie Berlin in late August 2020. There is nothing to compare this music to.
Heiner describes the piece as “a phonographic collection from my imaginary notebook.” It uses old, intentionally unrestored recordings from his travels and archival research; recordings still filled with distorted sounds and noises; of spoken word and songs from different cultures and in different languages – Greek, Georgian, Armenian, Namibian, Spanish, German and more.
Hundreds of such recorded bits weave in and out the orchestral fabric; sometimes heard and sometimes barely audible. Since every instrument is amplified (or, I should say, tastefully electrified because the natural loudness of the orchestra is never increased), these recordings become orchestral instruments themselves; they become regular – not soloistic or contrasting –
parts of the score. I perceived the piece as a huge and unique sound world not divided into any elements but, rather, tied together by the shatters of old memories. The orchestra doesn’t interpret the recorded bits; it doesn’t comment on them. They co-exist on equal terms; they all become music.
Heiner says that the orchestra is “confronted with the voices. It presents, supports, accompanies them, answers or objects to them – as in a secular ‘responsory.’”
These recordings carry the voices of real people; their traces (that have survived through more than a century) have became integrated into Goebbels’ piece. The recorded voices carry the individual history of each person, their idiosyncratic physical experiences. Some of these recorded voices were imprinted with signs of racist and colonial conditions that the performers
experienced at the time when these recordings were made, and thus these recordings have become the important documents of human history.
In Goebbels’ piece, these recordings have replaced “proper soloists” with idealized voices who usually get hired for performances of a composer’s work. Instead, the entire concert hall becomes a huge public space where all voices are equally valid: trained and untrained, preconceived and improvised, experienced live and stored on a recording device, instrumental and vocal. In fact, this is exactly where the title of the piece comes from: Heiner believes that concert venues should be public spaces designed for everybody’s expression rather than only for performances of pieces pre-written by composers. He found the term “A House of Call” in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (quoted in John Cage’s roaratorio): it stood for a public space where underemployed folks – perhaps carpenters or bricklayers – could find new jobs by being called for a project.
I have always loved Heiner’s compositional style and aesthetics. A House of Call reinforces its best elements: the incredible drive when no single element is repeated and you sit on the edge of your chair non-expecting and un-expecting the next beat; the regularly interspersed jam sessions in different shapes and forms; the always present immediacy of the time alongside timeliness; the clear and accessible language with unbelievable harmonic and rhythmic intricacies. But this piece is much more. In it, I heard an incredible sound journey that leads you through all possible processes of democratizing the orchestral society, and not just by using dozens of equally important elements like, say, in the dodecaphonic system. It also democratizes one of the most unshakeable and rigid cultural rituals: the ritual of an orchestral concert.
The piece begins before the conductor appears and before the lights go down as the musicians practicing on the stage actually start the process. Then, during the music, some musicians come on the stage only right before playing; others leave the stage when there are breaks in their parts. The conductor is not dominating the stage in a usual way by not being placed in the center of the stages and, rather, standing in a corner with their face half-visible to the audience; the orchestra is thus all turned towards a corner of the stage, not its center. Sometimes the musicians seem to play and chant independently, without following the conductor. The gently amplified music comes at audience members from all over the place, not just from the stage. The lighting design is as essential as the music itself. We are fully immersed in the performance; and the music doesn’t stop after its last sound – at least, it didn’t stop in my heart after the premiere; I continued experiencing it long after the concert, continued reimagining it, reframing, recomposing it in my own way. Isn’t it what Heiner really wants – to allow each one of us to internalize his music, to become not just its observers but also its co-creators, actively rethinking its elements?