Goebbels' Surrogate Cities Gets U.S. Debut At Spoleto

Work includes sampled sounds and music that's all over the map.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — It's taken a while for Americans to become aware of German composer Heiner Goebbels, but they can make up for lost time when his Surrogate Cities receives its American premiere, Thursday (June 1), at Spoleto USA.

"[Surrogate Cities] is a very important contemporary work," said Steven Sloane, who will conduct the Spoleto Festival Orchestra in the 90-minute tone poem/cantata, which was composed in 1994.

Sloane, who has previously conducted Surrogate Cities in Europe, is particularly impressed by the way it reflects "industry in the 20th century. ... A lot of the effects it has are very 'industrial.' Some of it is minimalist; some [of it has] pop elements, a very broad spectrum, but they all integrate beautifully in this piece."

This eclecticism could explain why U.S. listeners are not as aware of Goebbels as Europeans are with such Americans as Philip Glass and Elliott Carter. Americans generally feel more comfortable with new works of art if they can put a label on them: "minimalist," "impressionist," "grunge" or whatever.

Surrogate Cities could answer to any of those terms and quite a few more. If you judge by its record label, ECM New Series, which has just issued the music's first recording, you might comfortably pigeonhole it as "postmodern."

That handily generic term usually covers ECM's cutting-edge orientation. In 1989, reviewing an earlier Goebbels ECM recording, The Man in the Elevator, Time magazine referred to him as "a rock 'n' roll experimenter" and that label fits as well as any.

More Than A Name

But no label fits perfectly. If you don't like what Goebbels is doing at any given moment, wait a minute and you'll hear a different style.

In the CD's liner notes Goebbels describes the work as "an attempt to approach the phenomenon of the city from various sides, to tell stories of cities, expose oneself to them, observe them; it is material about metropolises that has accumulated over the course of time.

"My intention was not to produce a close-up but to try and read the city as a text and then to translate some of its mechanics and architecture into music."

The first segment of Surrogate Cities, "Suite for Sampler and Orchestra," looks at city life through a broad range of historical perspectives. Its movements are labeled in the style of a French Baroque dance suite — "Chaconne," "Allemande," "Gigue," "Bouree" and so on — and it self-consciously samples historical styles.

But the work is written for a large modern orchestra, with lots of bass and percussion and intriguing sampled sounds, including random noises from modern urban landscapes, Jewish cantors of the 1920s and a contemporary rock group.

Sometimes the music recalls a medieval troubadour song; sometimes it is postmodern minimalism, 19th-century romanticism or a homage to The Rite of Spring.

Other segments of the work deal with such subjects as alienation and dehumanization in city life — a blood-curdling murder from the history of ancient Rome, a musical portrait of a modern city, disturbing images of urban life (a woman running and a voice that wonders why she runs). Last of all, a calmly despairing meditation, spoken against an ominous musical background: "The city ... turns your thoughts inside out. It makes you want to live and at the same time it tries to take your life away from you. There is no escape from this."

Everyone Is Talking

The buzz about Surrogate Cities began with the orchestra at its first Spoleto rehearsal. The players "had no idea what it was like," Sloane recalls. "Now, everyone is talking about it. ... Word is getting out."

Goebbels, born in 1952, has lived in Frankfurt, Germany, since 1972 and has had his works performed in more than 30 countries. Besides writing numerous compositions, including many music theater pieces, he has founded several performing groups, including the Sogenanntes Linksradikales Blasorchester ("So-Called Left-Radical Wind Orchestra") and the experimental rock group Cassiber.

As for the labels applied to the composer's music, Sloane said Goebbels "doesn't care. He just writes the way he feels he wants to write. He comes from the pop idiom; he grew up in it. ... I don't think he's trying to make any kind of compositional statement whatever. ... As an artist, he's simply interested in what he wants to bring across. He doesn't care about what others might think from a theoretical or conventional point of view."