Songs of Wars I Have Seen Mar 5, 2010
by Kate Ratcliffe
An audience has an awareness of place: ambiance, assumptions, and expectations of the venue. This is not limited to theatres and the performing arts - most viewers will look at visual art differently if they encounter it at a museum, the wall of their local coffee shop, or a small gallery. Context matters. I'm not sure how I would have judged the Monteverdi if I had encountered it in a different venue, but at On the Boards the staging felt silly. This is a venue where you can break apart some of the deeply ingrained traditions of classical music and experiment - why not take advantage of that? The costumes and backdrop communicated pageantry and made the work unnecessarily quaint and archaic. The instrumentalists were bundled off in one corner of the stage and the three singers moved within their alloted space, without a strong sense of the visual impact of stage blocking. This, more than the music or text, was what caused it to jar with the second half of the program. The music was very good and well-performed, and in some venues that would have been enough.
I don't recall how long Songs of Wars I Have Seen lasted. It reframed my sense of time. Within this space, Heiner Goebbels creates such imposing rigidity (through the instrumental orchestration as well as the pace of the spoken text) that when it is relaxed, there is a feeling of relieved exhalation; the music and spoken accounts that fall into those spaces of relief pull you closer. There is a hope that this story of a dog and a chicken is going to give me a reassurance of comfort in humanity and for a moment it does. Intricate attention to instrumentation and balance allows freedom of movement within the act of listening. There is a melodic tonal theme, then there is an undercurrent of sound - in my mind it turns from static into sand into rain. Goebbels is a strong composer and a masterful, compelling, generous artist. He doesn't merely reference other works of art (Gertrude Stein and Matthew Locke, at the root of both: Shakespeare - and at the root of Shakespeare: too many to count) or use them as props, he enhances them. He gives them room to breathe and interact in a new context just as we are breathing and interacting in a different context with familiar themes.