An imaginary notebook that will hold you captive

The term ‘notebook’ suggests secrets potentially shared, but an ‘imaginary’ notebook takes in realms beyond the reach of dreams – or maybe nightmares. The German composer and artistic director Heiner Goebbels’ Imaginary Notebook ‘A House of Call’ (a quote from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake), which uses, in addition to the instrumental skills of Ensemble Modern under Vimbayi Kaziboni, recorded voices that Goebbels sourced from wax cylinders, news reports and ethnographic sources, opens to a noisy, fidgety, cacophonous and chaotic response to Boulez’s Répons, a call to curiosity which, if you stay with it, pays generous dividends (The ECM release is on 4858039, 2 cds, c£20:25). 

With Goebbels, one thing is for certain, ‘certainty’ itself is never on the musical agenda. The second track, ‘Always the same stone’, features what I assume is the speaking voice of the German (formerly East German) dramatist, poet, writer, essayist and theatre director Heiner Müller, the accompanying music, initially pointillist then, at around 4:33, switching to a sort of sexy, indolent shuffle. Next, we’re transported to a Berlin construction site before, in ‘Grain de la Voix’, we visit the first three of featured vintage voices in ethnic chant, acoustically recorded and colourfully garlanded by Goebbels (the instrumentation includes a dulcimer). After a tonally distinctive introduction, ‘Agash Ayak’ calls on another intensely emotive voice from afar (recorded in 1926) which in turn prompts a restlessly percussive rejoinder, replete with growling low brass. 

The Persian poet Rumi dances in next, using a contemporary voice this time, the music, which sounds improvised, approximating Middle-Eastern incantations. Perhaps the work’s most beautiful track closes the first disc, ‘Krunk’ by Soghomon Soghomonian, ordained and commonly known as Komitas, an Armenian priest, musicologist, composer, arranger, singer, and choirmaster, who is widely considered the founder of the Armenian national school of music. Two voices in duet here, set widely apart and sparely accompanied.

Part three, ‘Wax and Violence’ is especially interesting. The first section, a ‘Toccata’, kicks itself into a stupor, ending with yet more ancient voices, whereas the second sets its pulse to doctored wax cylinder surface noise – ominously repeating grooves – and a Chernobyl-like hum in the background. The second and third sections recall Hans Lichtenecker who in 1931 (the date of the featured recordings) was in Namibia, formerly a German colony, where he collected what he called an archive of vanishing races. On track 3 we hear the distant voices of Nambia school children, hauntingly accompanied – no, frighteningly so, given what was soon to descend upon Germany. Track 4, ‘Some of them say’ is as catchy as anything on the set, a distant vintage solo voice cueing in (at 0:44) a modern calypso accompaniment. See what I mean about ‘certainty’ not being on the musical agenda? I’d strongly advise playing this track first. What starts out as calypso variation soon ends up sounding like an outgrowth of Charlie Parker – until the end when we could as well be listening to an eerie passage from Shostakovich’s 4th.

The last section of ‘A House of Call’ is ‘When Words are Gone’, where aspects of language – speech act, rhymes, lament, incantation – alternate, initially with a hypnotically trudging dialogue-processional. But the last words go to Samuel Beckett who poses the question ‘who speaks when words are missing?’ No-one, of course. Music does, and Heiner Goebbels proves the point with the sort of brave, outspoken eloquence that is typical of his work at its best. Don’t miss this release whatever you do.

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