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on February 25, 2012
THE MAN IN THE ELEVATOR was the last piece by Heiner Goebbels before he started his long collaboration with the Ensemble Modern. Written and premiered in 1987, recorded in 1988 and first released by ECM in 1989, TMITE takes a text by Heiner Muller, the radical East German writer, and sets it to music by mainly Downtown NYC ensemble proficient on the border of rock and jazz. In fact, if you want to know what it sounds like, you can do it with two words: John Zorn. Not only is the avant, postmodern jazz/rock music and concept similar to Zorn's, but many of the players were collaborators of Zorn. Here's the lineup:

Arto Lindsay -- English-language voice & guitar; Ernst Stotzner -- German-language voice; Don Cherry -- voice, trumpet & doussn' gouni; Fred Frith -- guitar & bass; Charles Hayward -- drums & metal; George Lewis -- trombone; Ned Rothenberg -- saxophones & bass clarinet; Heiner Goebbels -- piano, synthesizer & programming.

One of TMITE's most effective features is the two voices -- Lindsay in English and Stotzner in German. They are interspersed throughout the 21 segments and 43 minutes, sometimes repeating the same text, other times taking different sections. Stotzner, especially, varies his mode of delivery wildly, from a deadpan film noir detective baritone to a frenetic, hectoring yell. There are two borrowed songs in either Spanish or Portugese as well. This all creates a decentering, a discomfort, and a placement between worlds, that is crucial to the impact on the viewer/listener. The booklet provides the entire Muller text in German, English and French, which is of the utmost importance, because without it, it would very difficult to follow the storyline.

This is a work of musical-theater that was performed several times between 1987 and 1989. The text is taken from a Heiner Muller play called "The Mission: Memory of a Revolution," which was written in 1979 just after his infamous "Die Hamletmaschine." It is a dream sequence that interrupts the main narrative, a Kafkaesque scenario in which a man prepares to meet his Boss, imagines his Boss's suicide, finds himself in Peru, and wanders off into the Unknown. Muller says of this scene in his autobiography: "...[a]n experience that became a part of this text is one of my approaches to Honecker in the House of the Central Committee, going up in the paternoster [elevator]. On every floor a soldier with a machine gun sat opposite the entrance to the paternoster. The House of the Central Committee was a high security jail for the captives of power." He goes on to say: "I have always been interested in the structure of stories within dreams, how it is free of transitions, and associations are overlooked. The contrasts create acceleration. The whole effort of writing is to achieve the quality of my own dreams. Independence from interpretation too."

Muller, considered the second great German playwright after Brecht, was an implacable social critic. He could have emigrated to the West along with his parents before the Wall went up, but he held to marxist, socialist, ideals and stayed. He remained a scathing critic of capitalism until his death on December 30, 1995. But he was also a fierce critic of the East German regime, a thorn in their side quite similar to the role played earlier by Brecht and Hanns Eisler, who likewise chose to live in East Germany.

TMITE has power, hierarchy, paranoia, violence, sexuality, race, comedy, and alienation, all jammed together with acceleration and vertigo. The choice of Lindsay for the protagonist's voice is apropos, given that he spent part of his youth in Brazil with missionary parents. He was there during the Tropicalia movement's glory days. Muller says a trip to Mexico inspired part of his dream scenario. As he writes it, the setting is Peru. And Lindsay speaks Portugese, having lived in Brazil. I believe the two inserted songs (Tracks 5 and 11) are sung in Portugese, which is fair enough since it is all a fantasy. Don Cherry, the great trumpeter and collaborator of Ornette Coleman, is featured on doussn' gouni on Track 14, "Compassion in Peru," which uses a Cherry composition.

It is interesting to imagine how TMITE might sound different if Goebbels had written it for the neuemusik Ensemble Modern instead. The version he created is largely effective with the pop inflection of electric guitar, drums and sax. Most of the other Muller texts Goebbels set to music were in the same Eighties time period, and also use this type of instrumentation -- see, for instance, the Hörstücke, a set of radio plays.

With the Ensemble Modern, Goebbels went on to create his masterpiece Eislermaterial a few years later (see my review). But THE MAN IN THE ELEVATOR is definitely worth hearing if you are interested in Goebbels, in Muller, or in the avant-garde generally.
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