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Heiner Goebbels Remembers Hans Eisler

An exchange about "Eislermaterial" between Duane Harper Grant  and Heiner Goebbels

S/21:  So in a sense Eislermaterial is a return to your roots as a composer and a return to some themes and some conceptual things that you reflect on as a composer about the music (of) and also the man Hans Eisler?

HG:  Yea, that's definitely a good way to explicate that. See, there's actually a return. My first record in 1976 ( SAJ) was devoted to Eisler and already this first record which was a jazz improvisation record. We improvised on some of the themes of the songs which were Eisler songs. And after this I drifted a bit and went into various fields of composing for theater, for film and working very closely with an author,  (the late German playwright) Heiner Mueller then later on composing chamber and orchestra music and musical theatre and after this time of nearly 23 years of work I came back to this, to the figure of Hans Eisler for his 100th birthday.  And I discovered that during this period in which I have worked in such various fields, I was pretty much close to his own biography. I mean, he was a film composer in Hollywood. He was someone who had worked very closely with an author, Bertolt Brecht. He wrote a lot of theatre music. And I think, following that his life was a very interesting mirror in a way because (It did not seem) that I could be so closely on his path when I would have been away from it. But, somehow it happened and somehow I think that I learned more in the 70's from him; not from him personally because he was already dead, but by his work, not only his work as a composer but also by his thought on music, on contemporary music, on science, on literature, the respect to the material. I learned obviously so much that I (was able to) make my living for the next 30 years.

S/21:  That's very interesting. So, without really knowing it, the initial things that you got from Hans Eisler's sensibilities and also from his music sent you on a trajectory, a path, that when you actually got a chance to reflect on it some years later was very similar to the path that he followed.

HG  I think it was not similar to the path because, of course, times have completely changed so I'm working under completely different conditions with different perspectives, with other commissions, with other social involvements and with other contemporary perspectives but the attitude of working; that's what I'm trying to explain; the attitude of working, the respect to the material, the link to reason which lies outside of the music and all that and also the social responsibility of what you are doing. That probably was something that could have a duration. 

Of course, the situation itself has completely changed and it would be very pretentious, it would be very simplifying if I would pretend, for example in the Eislermaterial show that nothing had changed since then. So what I do is actually the opposite. I composed the whole Eislermaterial program and also staged the whole Eislermaterial show rather in the perspective which puts things more into a distance then to pretend that this is happening now. And I think with this distance we as an audience, gain the chance to discover that there are somethings very much in perpetuity in a very actual political way. But we have to discover that. This can never be staged as a possible suggestion.

S/21:  Yes, the audience must be the ones to draw their own inferences. This seems to be the case in many of pieces. One is left to decide exactly what they have seen; to draw their own conclusions. But, in your work the musical generally is a lot more prevalent.

HG:  Yes, and this is definitely the case in Eislermaterial because Eislermaterial is not a very active performance. This grew around what we called a staged concert. But the way it is staged tells you a lot about the attitude of Eisler not only because you will hear him speaking, somehow you will hear in the sculpture of his voice, you will be able to get much closer to him as a body. But also in the way that I ask the musicians in Eislermaterial to incorporate his music not just to play it from the score; to feel that and you can kind of take part of the communication. They are practicing on his music because there is no conductor. So, there is a lot of possibilities for participation also for the audience in this staging.

S/21:  They see a process that is going on before them

HG:  That's right. And they can attend it.

S/21:  Well we are really looking forward to seeing this work. In your pieces I am really struck by the creativity and how you fuse music with the staging of ideas about movement, about using kind of wacky things that are going on, people throwing things, sometimes mime, sometimes prose, poetry I was wondering if you could comment about where or how you think about ideas about where they come from. Is it social commentary? 

HG:  I think most of it is rather observation. It's not a method necessarily of a pre-fixed idea when I come to the moment of rehearsal. It's rather that I look very much at with whom I am working, where am I working, what am I working for and then I think if you are very open and sensitive for that then a lot of these ideas they come by themselves. My problem is rather when you see a show where here you say, "oh, this, the director had an idea-that's usually a bad sign. It usually means the difference between the idea and the ability of the performer to realize it. And so I try to develop my pieces in the opposite way. I try to develop my work with the performers, with those capacities using their biographical influences, inspiration. So especially in a piece like Black on White or like Hashirigaki it has been developed so much with the actual performers that you don't see this difference between the idea and the performance. And only then it has a certain inner logic which can be realized in an efficient and convincing way.

S/21:  Yes, I beginning to get the idea and understand how this process occurs and informs what we see and hear on stage. You and Ensemble have collaborated a lot and are collaborating on this piece too the Eislermaterial. You kind of have an ongoing relationship with them.

HG:  That's right. Actually we just finished an opera (Landscapes with Distant Relatives) a few months ago together with the Ensemble Modern going much beyond where they were already in Black on White. This new opera they are playing instruments in the pits, they are changing costumes constantly; 300 costumes. Then they are on stage and then they are dancing and speaking and acting and it's incredible what they are able to do.

Editors note: Stay tuned for more updates on Heiner Goebbels, Ensemble Modern and a review of Eislermaterial.