Songs of Wars I Have Seen Mar 6, 2010

by Steve Peters

I expected Goebbels' work to be more "operatic," but in fact there is almost no singing at all, and no drama or acting per se. Fragments of text by Gertrude Stein are woven into the music, spoken by the female instrumentalists. The music itself is really interesting and often quite beautiful without being overly sentimental. While the piece occasionally references other historical styles — baroque, classical, jazz, minimalism — it all fits together seamlessly, and the sections in Goebbels' own style are refreshingly hard to pin down. I would not know how to classify or even describe his music, which is to his credit. His use of electronic and sampled sound was integrated deftly into the fabric of the live music and was never intrusive or superficial. The final elegiac trumpet solo, played against a sonic backdrop of many live and recorded Tibetan singing bowls, was especially moving. I was especially struck by the contrast between the music and the language. I should preface what follows by saying that I tend to not think of myself as a "typical American" (whatever that might be). But when I travel to another country, I'm instantly reminded of how totally American I really am —  mom, apple pie, baseball, the whole bit. Likewise, it's easy to imagine Gertrude Stein as somehow exotic or "weird": a lesbian avant garde writer who lived most of her life in France writing books that most Americans don't understand or want to read, a thoroughly cosmopolitan and intellectual woman who could go head to head with the (male) titans of the European art world. And yet in this setting, amidst all of this very "European" sounding music and historical background, she seems as American as Mark Twain. Aside from the repetition, there is nothing at all "difficult" about Stein's writing as presented here. It's charming and witty, at times almost banal, and only slightly eccentric. The spoken vignettes reminded me of John Cage's odd little stories in his "Indeterminacy." Goebbels mentioned in the Q&A that he had only been introduced to Stein's work fairly recently; I wonder if he has heard the recordings of her reading her work, and if so, if he intentionally avoided her more lilting and melodic style of speech. Here the delivery was more prosaic, and it was obvious that the words were being read by musicians, not by actors more comfortable with speaking parts. He clearly made a choice in this regard, and I'm not suggesting it was the wrong one. But I found myself missing the overt musicality of Stein's language. Music at OtB is always a dicey proposition, as the acoustics are so utterly hostile to it. The opening set by Pacific Musicworks really suffered in this regard. They sounded thin and anemic and the notes seemed to fall to the floor immediately upon leaving their instruments. Too bad, as they played very well. I would love to hear them again in a room that is more friendly to unamplified music. Goebbels' piece fared much better. The instruments and voices were amplified and given some reverb, and sound engineer Al Swanson did a great job of balancing all of the elements of such a large and diverse ensemble. Kudos also to amazing conductor Anu Tali, and congrats to the SCP gang for successfully pulling together such a huge and ambitious undertaking.