By Jason Victor Serinus
SEATTLE – Almost 25 years after its premiere in Frankfurt, Heiner Goebbels’ sprawling, concert-length Surrogate Cities was reconstructed anew by the Seattle Symphony and music director Ludovic Morlot on April 25 and 26. Given that this orchestra commissioned a new movement, “Under Construction,” for the occasion, two of the original movements were omitted to make for an evening that was, in words the composer used in his pre-concert discussion, not “too long.”
Goebbels’ intensely theatrical, hard-hitting work, which first reached the United States in 2000 at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, has been staged in numerous ways since its premiere. Videos of Surrogate Cities performances available on YouTube include choreography, video projection, and other visual effects. Given that the stage of Benaroya Hall was crammed to the walls with instruments, musicians, and the work’s original Frankfurt vocalists, Jocelyn B. Smith and David Moss, choreography was out of the question. Instead, Goebbels’ own lighting design included steel towers that were reminiscent of countless dehumanizing urban constructions. He also employed any number of dramatic, at times glaring multi-colored lighting changes to deepen the churning sense of unrest, danger, violence and, at times, chaos that are central to a work that unflinchingly examines urban realities.
For readers who have not heard Surrogate Cities, ECM New Series’ 2000 recording can be streamed in full CD quality on subscription services Tidal, Qobuz, and Primephonic, or viewed via the sonically compromised videos on YouTube. Surrogate Cities demands a bevy of instruments, including an electronic sampler, a lidless piano, and a percussion section (staffed on this occasion by five crack and crackling players). [Below and at the bottom of the story are video clips from Venice (with projections) and Berlin (with dancers).]
As heard on the first night from orchestra row P, Surrogate Cities’ opening section, “D&C,” walloped the audience with fabulous, hair-raising (but less-than-deafening) salvos of noise. As the piece continued, Goebbels joined forces with the late John Cage and others who have challenged the very notion of what constitutes music. Any number of novel effects ensued, including what appeared to be either a glass or metal ball whirling in a bowl; bamboo or other reeds slamming drum heads with enough force to send bits and pieces flying into the air; what I swore was the vibrating rim of a Tibetan bell; low sampled rumblings and grumblings of monstrous affect; a vibrating sheet of crinkly paper; wood blocks; and instrumental sounds resembling incessant car alarms and gunfire. These and other sonorities alternated with quiet, deeply evocative sections. When pace and volume increased, there was so much going on that it was impossible to tell what was amplified and what was acoustic.
Given Norbert Ommer’s sound design, it was exceedingly difficult to comprehend English lyrics that, on record and video, are mostly understandable. While Jocelyn B. Smith and David Moss appeared to have lost none of their communicative power — at ages 58 and 70, respectively — they made their impact less through words than sounds and styles ranging from modern jazz to Baroque (and, in Smith’s case, spanning at least three octaves). The audio deficiencies in the otherwise excellent presentation were a shame, because the haunting texts by Paul Auster, Franz Kafka, Heiner Müller, and Hugo Hamilton, all included as a small-print program insert, were virtually unreadable. Most audience members were left in the dark.
Nonetheless, the piece made a considerable mark. Before the concert, Goebbels said that he sees himself, at least in Surrogate Cities, as an architect who offers a construction in which an audience can share a common experience. He intentionally left space in the center of the piece for the audience to fill up with their experiences and biographies. “The connection is the audience,” he explained.
For me, Surrogate Cities was at its most moving in the “Suite for Sampler and Orchestra,” which blended instrumental sounds with fragments of Jewish liturgical recordings from the 1920s and ’30s. These “Kantor loops,” as the composer calls them, evoked mental and visceral images of the Holocaust by giving voice to singers and congregants, most if not all of whom undoubtedly lost their lives. The final snippet, of a man singing exquisitely in an extremely high, half-falsetto voice filled with suffering, remains with me, and makes me want to revisit this work soon. (Alas, the Seattle Symphony recording is for archival purposes only.)
“Under Construction,” which precedes the “Surrogate” finale, melded recordings of cityscape sounds with music that ranged from low rumblings and roars to outright assaults. Although this section certainly packed a punch, in many ways it repeated much of what had come before. “Surrogate,” on the other hand, was a visceral and emotional knockout. Moss, who sometimes invoked a black urban accent that raised a few eyebrows, communicated violence in ways that transcended Hugo Hamilton’s lyrics. Those lyrics, which began “She has been running. What for?”, ended with: “Running in the streets makes you look like you don’t belong. Like you’re unemployed. Un-German. Surrogate.”
Goebbels’ Surrogate Cities has lost none of its power and relevancy. It’s as disturbing, probing, and soul-shaking as it undoubtedly was at its premiere. The situations may have changed, but the ultimate questions remain the same.
Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications.