In the cavernous space of P3 – a bunker formerly used for stress-testing concrete – industrial sounds clunk, twang, shudder and thud. A pair of black-clad stagehands carefully move pieces of black piping into the edges of three green-tinged grid formations on the floor. Pale blue tanks to stage right have tubes protruding towards the grid structures and various industrial-looking paraphernalia fills the room. It’s all very mysterious, performed with a sense of almost religious ritual, with the low-level beat of a drum punctuating the industrial soundscape. Slowly the stagehands pour a white powder-like substance through giant sieves across the grids before turning on the taps of the three tanks. Water trickles across the grids, slowly filling them up to the brim. Mechanical “hands” strike the ends of two long pipes, making a deep twanging sound like the plucking of a double bass string. Three white screens descend from the ceiling to what sounds like a muezzin’s call to prayer, the stagehands exit the scene, and the performance begins…
Heiner Goebbels’ Stifter’s Dinge is a “performance without performers”, meticulously choreographed with a series of modified instruments and machines to create a meditative – and sometimes frenzied – piece on, among other things, the awe-inspiring power of nature. Experimental German composer Goebbels was inspired by the early 19th-century Romantic writings of Adalbert Stifter, and in particular his novel My Great Grandfather’s Portfolio – extracts of which are played over the speakers in the opening minutes of the show.
Poetic musings on nature fill the space. “The weight and splendour of the ice hanging from the trees was indescribable,” say the speakers. “The pine trees stood like the candelabra of innumerable and huge inverted candles.” A painting of a dense forest fills the far screen, which eventually rises to reveal a mass of musical instruments, trees and technology, gleaming gold and sharply reflected in the dark pools of water that fill the stage. Five pianos start to play themselves. The pipes chip in with their deep string-plucking sounds and a cacophony fills the space. Invisible raindrops pour from the ceiling into the pools of water below (or are they bubbling up from beneath the floor?), the pianos become quieter and more melodious, and a beautifully serene moment is created – like the rhythmic sounds of heavy rain beating down outside as you sit, warm, dry and protected inside your home, contemplating nature in its fury all around you.
Having the wonder of nature artificially recreated in an industrial bunker is a strange enough experience – made all the more strange by the appearance of the words of Claude Levi-Strauss in green LEDs, pondering on the developments of the 20th century and whether there is anything left to discover or whether we’ve seen and done everything. But I’ve never seen this, and that makes me feel comforted – invention is still ripe in the 21st century, and new, mystical places can still be created in the most unlikely of combinations and places.
As the piece progresses, the special effects become more elaborate. The suspended mass of instruments, machines and trees starts edging towards the audience, the pianos suddenly becoming more and more frenetic until they are almost upon us. The elements of the approaching mass break apart as the music gets faster and faster, looming over the audience like a giant music box about to envelop us, horror movie-style. Smoke begins to seep out from beneath them as they slowly retreat again, and dry ice fills the stage, bubbling up from the pools of water. The mesmerising steam bubbles then become the focus of the performance, bouncing and erupting as if dancing to the music.
As they finally disperse, the forms take on the feel of a Monet waterlilies painting, serene once more. As the space goes quiet, the audience tentatively clap the mechanised performers, which move forwards as if to take a bow, gratefully absorbing the praise. As the lights come up, they continue to clunk and flutter and jitter as the audience moves around them, examining them like exhibits in a museum, attempting to discover how they all work.
As I leave the space, I spy a cluster of technicians tucked behind the audience, attending to rows of computers, the hidden puppeteer-magicians who have been creating this whirlwind of illusions – and like the preparations of the stagehands at the start of the show, the machinations are once more laid bare and I feel a little hint of disappointment. A Wizard of Oz moment if ever there was one.
At 80 minutes long, there were times when the show pushed the patience a little. But overall, and particularly towards the crescendo of the ending, Stifter’s Dinge is an enchanting piece that allows you to focus on the purity of natural elements such as the sound of rain, while creating a childlike wonder at instruments that play themselves, with moments of horror, beauty and awe.
Heiner Goebbels: Stifter’s Dinge is at P3, London, until 27 April
images Nick Cobbing