Heiner Goebbels' Surrogate Cities is an interesting composition, at times highly exciting, in other passages not so convincing I find.
Born in 1952 in Germany, Goebbels 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. He 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 began staging some of his compositions, such as Der Mann im Fahrstuhl ("The Man in the Elevator", The Man in the Elevator (Der Mann Im Fahrstuhl)) or Die Befreiung des Prometheus ("The Liberation of Prometheus", Hörstücke). His own staging of « Ou bien le débarquement désastreux », a music-theatre composition premiered in Nanterre near Paris in1993, was brilliant, inventive and poetic - the purely audio experience you get from the CD, with its mixture of World music, free jazz, hard rock and contemporary classical, doesn't give full justice to the piece's impact (Ou Bein Le Debarquement Desastreux, Ou Bein Le Debarquement Desastreux).
Since 1988 he'd been composing pieces for small ensemble for Ensemble Modern and Ensemble Intercontemporain, but Surrogate Cities was, I believe, his first composition for large orchestra. It consists of a loose arrangement of parts, a kind of symphonic suite, purporting to explore various facets of "The City". Whether or not the music fulfils that end is best left to each listener's judgment; I think Goebbels' rationales are at times far-fetched, but that the music can be appreciated without reference to them. For instance, the first part is a ten-section Suite for sampler and orchestra, following the model of the baroque suite (the different movements are titled Chaconne, Allemande etc). According to Goebbels, "as digital memory, the sampler is an ideal vehicle for human memory". He claims that the suite is a "vertical section of the city, (...) a look underground, at the sewers", with the sampler bringing back "what lies buried beneath the surface". In the first section, "Chaconne/Kantorloops", he mixes a mostly dramatic orchestra (but sometimes also very affectedly lyrical and romantic) and old, scratching (and fascinating) recordings from the 1920s and 30s of Jewish Cantors intoning highly elaborate and lyrical melismatas, "a vocal culture that has long ceased to be accessible in this form". Obviously we are to understand that those are the memories of the eradicated Jewish population and culture buried under the layers of destroyed and reconstructed Berlin, but in effect what I hear is the somewhat artificial juxtaposition of two equally fascinating layers: the orchestra and the recordings. Mostly the suite is very exciting, generally the eerie sampled sounds blend well with the acoustic orchestra, and Goebbels has composed music that is powerful, dramatic, intriguing and ear-catching, rhythmic and syncopated. It is only when he brings in quotations (notes claim it is Scarlatti in the second section, Allemande, but it sounds more like a Bach-chorale, and the piano part in section three, Gigue, sounds to me like a Keith Jarrett or LaMonte Young impro, NOT a baroque chorale) and pastiche (tritely wistful romantic music in the first one) that I find him less than convincing. For Keith Jarrett, I'd rather buy a CD of Keith Jarrett. Incidentally, I've seen it performed live, and it was even more exciting, especially in sections 4 and 9 when Goebbels has the bass drum violently whipped with what seemed like big bunches of tree branches.
For the same reason I am not so enthusiastic with part 2, three songs on a text by Heiner Muller which Goebbels put to music in a cross-over, symphonic Jazz/Broadway style. If I wanted to hear Jazz or Broadway, I'd buy CDs of Jazz and Broadway. But those with a softer tooth than mine for that kind of cross-over will no doubt enjoy it.
On the other hand, part 4, "Surrogate", on words by the Irish novelist Hugo Hamilton (whose first novel gives its title to the composition), is thrilling, not only because of the highly energetic orchestral part, but also because of vocalist David Moss' stupendous performance of speaking, gasping, puffing, grunting. I understand that kind of delivery may be common stuff in improvisation or rock music, but in the context of classical contemporary I had never heard anything quite like that before. More fine and powerful (and pastiche- or quotation-free) orchestral invention in part 3, "D & C" (I hear reminiscences of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", but I doubt that they are intentional), while the finale (on words from Paul Auster's "In the Country of Last Things", about how things suddenly seem to disappear in the city, spoken again by Moss with wordless vocalises by soprano Jocelyn Smith) is dramatic but mostly subdued, making a convincing conclusion.
"Surrogate Cities" isn't a flawless composition I find, but it is original, exciting and intriguing. Goebbels now seems on his way to (deserved) fame: in 2003 the piece was performed by no less than the Berlin Phil under Rattle (in reordered form, now opening with D&C, followed by the Sampler Suite and ending with "Surrogate" - I'm not sure I like that choice, as it is less showy perhaps but more interesting to have "Surrogate Cities" end "in a whimper" with "In the Country of Last Things" rather than in the bang of "Surrogate". TT 70:00.