Thursday, June 2, 2011


I went to the house but did not enter
National Theater
June 2 & 3

Modern-day angst in mundane settings.

The vivid modernist colors that have characterized this year’s Prague Spring festival take on darker hues going into the final weekend, with the Hilliard Ensemble giving two performances of Heiner Goebbels’ 2008 stage piece I went to the house but did not enter. An avant-garde work that blends the vocal talents of an early music quartet with 20th-century literary texts, I went to the house defies easy categorization – which is just the way Goebbels wants it.

I like it most when an audience can never be completely sure what it is attending,” he told the Italian arts magazine Il Giornale della Musica prior to a performance in Bolzano, Italy. “A concert? A performance? A theater piece? Each format asks for a different perception mode. It is already such a difference if we hear music or hear text. This performance is exactly about the insecurity between these two categories.”

Insecurity” seems like a perfect term to describe Goebbels’ selection of texts, starting with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot. Excerpts from Maurice Blanchot’s The Madness of the Day, Kafka’s Excursion to the Mountains and Beckett’s Worstward Ho round out an all-star lineup of modern anxieties and existential hand-wringing. In characteristic fashion, Goebbels runs the opposite way with the music, an atonal take on the medieval a cappella singing that the ensemble typically performs in churches. As one critic noted, “It is music that manages to sound both old and new at the same time.”

This highly charged content unfolds in three relatively mundane settings that have nonetheless left powerful impressions on viewers. One pronounced himself “deeply, almost irrationally transfixed” by the combination of surrealistic activities in realistic spaces, playing out in ritualistic rhythms and tones. Not to mention the barbershop quartet treatment of Kafka.

If making all this work onstage sounds like a daunting task, then you know exactly how the Hilliard Ensemble felt before the August 2008 premiere in Edinburgh. The group went so far as to pen an apologia for The Guardian, noting that they usually perform behind a stationary set of music stands, and confessing, “To find ourselves taking part in an unashamedly theatrical work which requires us not only to sing, but also to recite complex texts while actually moving about a stage, has been a seismic shock.”

But the stage fright is long gone, according to baritone Gordon Jones.

Like any new venture, working on stage brought its own set of problems and challenges: how to move, memorizing long passages of words and music, how to maintain our musical togetherness when separated by greater distances than usual,” he says. “We have come to grips with these, though we are still aware that we are a vocal ensemble who find themselves in a stage show rather than a group of four actors who also sing. Having said all that, we enjoy performing the piece enormously – the challenges have been worthwhile and rewarding.”

The Hilliard Ensemble was in Prague in the fall, opening the Strings of Autumn festival with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek at one of the city’s most imposing venues, the massive V√≠tkov Memorial. This time they will be performing at the nation’s cultural cornerstone, the National Theater – a dissonance that matches Goebbel’s music. But the group is eminently adaptable, according to Jones.

I think we are by now used to strange venues,” he says. “We’ve performed in hydroelectric power stations, Greek amphitheaters, disused armaments factories. They all have their own atmosphere and, even more importantly, their own acoustics. That’s what really matters to us.”

One bit of advice for seeing I went to the house, offered by Goebbels in his Il Giornale della Musica interview: Try to relax in the uncertain spaces that his works invoke, rather than attempting to decipher the indecipherable.

What you will see is as much an experience as what you will hear, and I couldn’t say which is more important,” he said. “My set designer Klaus Gruenberg and I try to create images to open the imagination rather than images which are supposed to have a precise and therefore narrow meaning.”

The title, taken from the Blanchot text, sets the tone and approach: “Already in this one line you hear his strategy of disappointing the expectations of the reader. My preference is also to disappoint the expectations of the audience – and raise new ones at the same time.”

For more on the Hilliard Ensemble:

For music and stills from the performance:

For a complete history of the work, check the Archive section on Heiner Goebbels’ website:

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