Stifters Dinge on ECM (CD Review)

Heiner Goebbels
Stifters Dinge
ECM Records New Series CD

Stifters Dinge is a “soundtrack album” for a 2007 theatrical installation by composer/director Heiner Goebbels.The work features five mechanical pianos that were reconfigured to produce all sorts of sounds, pianistic and otherwise. Spoken word excerpts by famous figures — Claude Levi-Strauss, William S. Burroughs, and Malcom X — along with Bill Patterson’s mellifluous reading of a text by the work’s titular figure, Romantic era writer Adelbert Stifter, are joined by field recordings from far flung destinations: Greece, Latin America, and Papua New Guinea .

Photo: © Mario del Curto. Used with kind permission.

Integral to the work’s staging are elemental components: water, ice, smoke, stones, etc. These supply still another layer of the recording’s sound world. Often, as one finds with the crackling ice recordings heard during Patterson’s narration, these natural sounds take on a role supportive of the piece’s narrative. Elsewhere they seem to be part of its abstract musical fabric. The music itself is of similarly varigated design. The mechanical pianos sometimes make utterances closer to the realm of found sound and experimental electronics. These are mixed with more identifiably pianistic scalar passages. Chromatic clusters and, contrastingly, a bit of Bach’s Italian Concerto, make appearances.

Photo © Mario del Curto. Used with kind permission.

Of course, questions of identity are inevitably posed when confronting any work by Goebbels: what does this accumulation of disparate stuff mean? Does it cohere? I can’t answer the first question, as I’m certain that there as many pathways into Stifters Dinge as there are elements contained within it. And the second question is elusive too. Goebbels allows his materials to share the same space without forcing them into congruity. Instead, the listener (and, in the case of a live performance, viewer) is invited to engage with a design built out of elements that are in a variety of relationships with one another: sometimes in tension or opposition and at others in accord. And, one finds that when these simpatico sonic meetings happen, like oases in the midst of flux, they are often quite moving. Thus, Goebbels treats both the sounds with which he composes and the listeners who attend to them with a great deal of respect. Stifters Dinge may require much, even from a thoughtful listener, but it rewards them with an imaginative labyrinth of appealing sounds to explore.

Sounding Beckett Sounds Good

Holly Twyford in Sounding Beckett. Photo: Jeremy Tressler.

Three of Samuel Beckett’s late one-act plays (from his “ghost period”) are the source material for Sounding Beckett, an interdisciplinary collaboration that is entering its second (and final) weekend of New York performances at Classic Stage Company on September 21-23.Theatre director Joy Zinoman has enlisted a fine cast of actors and resourceful design team, Cygnus Ensemble directed by guitarist William Anderson, and composers Laura Kaminsky, John Halle, Laura Schwendinger, Scott Johnson, David Glaser, and Chester Biscardi to create a production that is both respectful of the playwright’s work and imaginative in its incorporation of music.

Beckett was quite specific about what sounds and music are to be added to his plays: one can’t just insert incidental music willy-nilly without running afoul of his estate. Sounding Beckett avoids this pitfall, instead allowing composers to have the last word: after the actors have left the stage. Each of the plays - Footfalls, Ohio Impromptu, and Catastrophe – has been supplied with a musical “response” by two different composers. A composition is played directly after the performance of each play (the “cast” of composers rotates. This past Sunday afternoon, the show I attended featured music by Schwendinger, Halle, and Kaminsky).

In a talkback after Sunday’s performance, Schwendinger underscored that the pieces we heard were meant as musical responses to the plays: not necessarily programmatic outlines or storytelling. Thus, her piece responded to the strong emotions churning under the surface of Footfalls with sustained passages of controlled, but angst-imbued dissonance. After seeing actor Holly Twyford’s simmering performance in the play, one could readily understand Schwendinger’s poignant, elegantly crafted response.

Halle’s piece after “Ohio Impromptu” featured a more effusive language, with arcing lines surging towards, but never quite reaching, a place of closure and repose. Again, while not mimicking the action on the stage, his music seemed like a kindred spirit to Ted van Griethuysen’s mellifluous reading of a tragic story of love lost;  it also resonated with the silent, but facially expressive, performance of actor Philip Goodwin. I was also quite taken with Kaminsky’s composition, which nimbly captured the emotional content portrayed by Catastrophe’s three disparate characters.

Cygnus Ensemble (Anderson, guitarist Oren Fader, flutist Tara-Helen O’Connor, oboist James Austin Smith, violinist Pauline Kim, and cellist Chris Gross) were impressively well-prepared; they performed all of the compositions with top notch musicality. Anderson, a composer himself, has supplied a multifaceted overture and economical music for scene changes. His work draws upon the sound world of modern classical music in a way that is simpatico to the compositions of the featured composers, while also referencing the type of incidental music one hears in current productions of plays in New York. If Anderson needs another hat to wear, he might consider creating incidental music for more plays!


SOUNDING BECKETT will perform Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. from September 21 to 23.  Tickets are $50 and $75 and go on sale starting July 20.  Tickets can be purchased by calling Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111 or on online at

Gilgamesh Variations EP (Bandcamp)

I’ve finally taken the plunge and decided to offer some of my recordings on Bandcamp. The Gilgamesh EP includes incidental music from Immortal: the Gilgamesh Variations, a 2011 adaptation of the Epic of Gilgamesh, produced at the Bushwick Starr in Brooklyn. I made the score using electronics, prepared piano, piano, voices, and percussion. It was great fun to hear my music as part of a play, albeit on tape.

The next step for the Gilgamesh project: creating a concert suite from the score for live instruments. On August 24 at Riverside Church in New York, Locrian Chamber Players is going to premiere Gilgamesh Suite, a newly composed work based on selections from the incidental music. Written to celebrate the 2012 Cage centenary, its touchstone work is “Sonatas and Interludes.” The score, written for the entire Locrian cohort, will feature prepared piano, harp, and string quartet.

You can stream all of the tracks on the EP at Bandcamp and the bonus track “Duo” is available for free download. But, if you are so inclined to buy the EP (name your price), all of the proceeds will go towards funding the Gilgamesh Suite project. Hope you enjoy!

They mentioned the music…

One of the reviews of Gilgamesh Variations mentioned the music. Here’s the quote from a review by NY Theatre:

“Christian B. Carey’s music combines the exotic and minimal aspects of gamelan and krautrock to effectively emphasize the peaceful and warlike aspects of the story.”

The play runs through Sunday at the Bushwick Starr Theatre in Brooklyn.

Gilgamesh 10 by cbcarey

Time Out NY makes Viola & a “Critic’s Pick”

I was so pleased to see that Wendy Richman’s upcoming “Viola &” recital (1/24 at 8 PM at the Bushwick Starr in Brooklyn) got a very nice mention in this week’s issue of  Time Out NY. The program includes premieres by Arlene Sierra, Lou Bunk, and yours truly, and features works both for singing violist and viola plus electronics. Thanks very much to Steve Smith for listing the show.

Thanks too to Armando Bayolo for taking the time, amidst packing and preparing for a big trip to Europe, to interview Wendy on the Sequenza 21 homepage. And ICE for plugging the show too.

This Friday, also at the Bushwick Starr, is the opening of Gilgamesh Variations. The play is an adaptation by eleven playwrights of the stone tablets depicting the ancient Mesopotamian tale the Epic of Gilgamesh. I’ve contributed the incidental music: a score featuring electronics, prepared piano, percussion, and singing.

The show runs for two weeks – you can grab tickets here.