Stifters Dinge is described as an "acoustic creation" by ECM's publicity material. It comprises what must be a striking installation amounting to an environmental sound sculpture. It's also a musical composition. And am ambitious piece in a dozen sections lasting from two to eleven minutes. The obvious hazard for those interested in the work on CD is that only the aural component of German composer, Heiner Goebbels (born 1952), can really be appreciated.
And to some extent what we experience on the CD is incomplete. Although parts of the "performance" are intimate and immediate ("The Trees" [tr.5], for instance, is essentially a close-up reading… from Adalbert Stifter's "Die Mappe meines Urgroßvaters"), other sections surely rely on the visual for their full effect. But these may be seen as differing ways to look at nature. And since nature is infinite, any attitude towards it must be selected. Indeed, it's Austrian Romantic writer, Stifter (1805-1868), and his love of and protective admiration for nature which inspired Goebbels. Stifter's view of nature is – if neither bleak nor unforgiving – one of something little more or less than necessarily indifferent (to humans). Had Stifter lived now, he would surely be in the van of those movements seeking to protect nature from humans' destruction of it. But, a nineteenth century Romantic, his approach is closer to that, say, of British writer Thomas Hardy writing only a little later. A certain "take it or leave it" feeling towards the object of the work is arguably appropriate too. The "treatment" of the second movement of Bach's Italian Concerto, BWV 971, in "The Rain" [tr.7] is just as impermeable and… detached. It's typical of Goebbels' view of such a relationship – between nature and humanity.
In that sense, and the sense that the spoken extracts (which also include "The Thunder" [tr.8]: William Burroughs, Malcolm X) are extracts, incomplete, selections, Goebbels aims to present an experience of many levels, of potentially infinite ways to engage with what we hear (and see). So to be aware only of the sounds without linking them (or linking their meanings) to the visual elements of Stifters Dinge does have a compelling logic. Goebbels explicitly allows for multiple interpretations. Nevertheless, a DVD would be welcome too.
Until or unless you understand the underlying logic and rationale for the way in which the work and its sections have been conceived, there is a danger, then, that what appears as the predominance of sound (there is a heavy rhythmical element throughout… clock-like insistent beats) could turn the enterprise into something unfortunately modish and spurious. It's not: it doesn't take long for the integrity of the conception to emerge. The sounds, music, spoken texts, environmental, human and natural soundscape somehow all do work together.
As an installation, Stifters Dinge is for five pianos. It's possible to experience this arrangement by walking through and around them – a kind of musical sculpture. They're played mechanically (like a player piano) and contribute to what is very much a planned and structured set of variations on different yet cognate ideas and themes. This combination of keyboards, visual stimulation and figurative as well as non-figurative representations of human speech, song, chant and dialog etc do have one thing in common: pulse. It's suggested that such regularity, such emphasis on beat, conveys a distillation of the human: the heart, heartbeat.
At no time, though, does Stifters Dinge veer into minimalist insistence; any more than into a Cagean fascination with sound as sound for sound's sake. Still less is Stifters Dinge anything more than vaguely redolent of collages like Stockhausen's Hymnen. Although the juxtaposition of the Greek chant, what sounds like very well-behaved wind and ultimately a simple piano cell in "The Coast" [tr.11] makes a very compelling end to the work. Or almost: the final section, Exhibition of Objects, lasts four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It isn't exactly a summation of the "objects" used throughout the rest of Stifters Dinge. But it does gently invite us to confirm or refine the conclusions which we have been reaching about the import of the relationships between sound, music and thought which Goebbels otherwise has us examine.
Stifters Dinge was (first) produced in 2007 by Theâtre Vidy-Lausanne, recorded (for this CD) in October of that year by Willi Bopp; and edited and mixed in July 2010 by SWR's (Südwestrundfunk) Max Federhofer and Goebbels. It's been presented in over 250 locations around the world. Each of its named sections explores some aspect of sound, or nature; and/or the relationship between the two. Though these relationships are, it has to be said, made clearer by the written narrative which comes with the CD. Material to lead to each movement's center of gravity (not always explicit) includes the spoken word already mentioned; natural sounds (rain and wind etc); chant from New Guinea; Greek folk song; synthesized sounds.
The CD is presented with ECM's usual élan. The booklet has color photographs of some views of the visual aspects of Stifters Dinge, background, and an essay by Wolfgang Sandner and the texts of "The Rain" and "The Thunder" as well as production details. If the idea of the kind of experimentation and indeed endorsement of the conscience and imagination of Stifter which Goebbels presents in this unusual and quite captivating work as you get to know it appeal, then it's definitely worth a look. There's enough of the open-ended and the divergent (not least the relationship between the sound component and the visual/installation) to make Stifters Dinge appealing.
Copyright © 2013, Mark Sealey