‘Songs of Wars I Have Seen’ at Time of Music 2018

I attended a couple of concerts at this year’s Time of Music yesterday evening, Finland’s only annual festival dedicated to contemporary classical music. It takes place in Viitasaari, a small town in Central Finland, which provides a scenic backdrop of lakes and pine forests to the week of concerts, workshops and talks.

The main event of the festival’s Saturday night programme was a production of Heiner Goebbels’ Songs of Wars I Have Seen (2007), an hour-long ‘staged concert’ for two ensembles and electronics. This format is the result of Goebbels’ experience as both a composer and theatre director and features lighting and narration around the music. The fifth of Goebbels’ work in this style, Songs of Wars I Have Seen is based around extracts from Gertrude Stein’s WW2 memoir Wars I Have Seen, which are recited by the female members of the ensembles. That one of the two ensembles is typically a Baroque specialist group, in order to meet the demands of the instrumentation, adds yet another layer to the work; in this performance, members of the International Contemporary Ensemble and the Finnish Baroque Orchestra took on these roles.

So, music, lighting, narration, modern and period instruments and electronics… it may appear cluttered. But the result is remarkably unfussy and direct. Partly this is due to the dry, observational style of Stein’s texts, which cut through the instrumental textures and deliver sharp points of focus, whether commenting on Shakespeare, the taste of honey during rationing or on national differences in wartime radio addresses. Another recurring source of focus comes from the snippets of Baroque material, borrowed from Matthew Locke’s 1667 incidental music for ‘The Tempest’. These surfaced every now and then, providing a musical echo of Stein’s reflections on the theme of war in Shakespeare’s plays. Around these 17th-century interjections, the musical material remained unselfconsciously omnivorous, with shades of jazz and military marches alongside angular, uneasy passages, such as the underscore to Stein’s comparisons between the injustices of the World Wars and Medieval lawlessness.

The interplay between text, sound and the staging was simple and well-conceived. At times, the disconnect between everyday life and the horror of war conveyed in Stein’s texts seemed to be underlined by the gendered separation of the musicians. The male players were arranged at the back (and were more often in darkness) with the female musicians/narrators seated front and centre, cosily surrounded by lamps in a kind of 1940s living room ‘set’. This physical separation hinted at the distance between women’s and men’s lived experiences of the war. The ‘set’ also served to transform the sports hall venue (the Viitasaari Arena) into a real performance space, drawing the audience into the work right until the glow of the lamps finally dimmed down.

Click here for an Audience Research version of this post on the Ulysses Network website!

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Photo: Santtu Paananen

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