Urban rhythm

Music - Richard Cook on lifting the city to musical expression

Music is one thing that makes cities tolerable, and its abundance in every metropolis has long been taken for granted. It now seems unbelievable that Britain was once so starved of pop that it needed pirate radio stations to broadcast it. As subject matter, though, cities have intimidated musicians and composers. "Portraits" of this or that metropolis have usually seemed small or unambitious. Ralph Vaughan Williams's London Symphony seems just as redolent of today's capital as any more recent attempt to capture it. Robert Graettinger's magnificent City Of Glass, for Stan Kenton's orchestra, is still the only convincing cityscape thrown up by jazz, that most urban of musics.

Heiner Goebbels, a German composer whose works have hitherto been rather intractable and lengthy, has made a tremendous attempt to circumnavigate the modern metropolis in Surrogate Cities, a sequence of pieces recently released on a single CD. As one of the few people to have sat through his three-disc juggernaut, getting on top of this one, which runs a mere 70 minutes, was relatively simple.

As usual with a composer whose approach is relentlessly mixed-media, Horstucke is part orchestral piece and part song-cycle, and is ripe for some monstrous audio-visual staging. Goebbels wrote it for the 1200th anniversary of the city of Frankfurt. History plays its part: for his settings, Goebbels reaches back as far as Livy's grim tale of warriors from two cities who fight a war by proxy. Then there is Franz Kafka's story of a city destined to be destroyed by five blows of a gigantic fist, and Paul Auster's threnody for the end of everything, In the Country of Last Things. It sounds a cheerless programme, but Goebbels says he is proposing "a realistic, certainly contradictory but ultimately positive image of the modern city".

What does our modern city sound like? His principal ensemble is the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie. Much of the music has the astringent and nerve-jangling feel of a composer determined to split the romantic orchestra asunder. The longest piece is the opening, "Suite for Sampler and Orchestra", which includes samples of a gaggle of voices and groups placed inside a structure that, in its component parts (Chaconne, Gigue, Sarabande, Menuett), is as fastidious as Haydn. The pounding of unidentified objects - such as the rumble of subway trains, perhaps, or road drills - punctuates the playing. The voices of long-dead cantors, lifted from ancient recordings, suggest people hidden within an urban prison. "The Horatian", the three songs lifted from Livy with words by Heiner Muller, is a miniature song-cycle, which is sung with great skill and power by Jocelyn Smith. "Surrogate", sung by David Moss, is about how dangerous it is to be seen running in a city - not because of any inherent threat, but because you will be taken by others as an outsider.

Goebbels isn't much of an insider himself. Much of this music is, inevitably, an abstraction of a subject that resists any realistic portrayal. The most forbidding music here is the orchestra-only piece in the middle of the record, D&C, which is meant to show a city's "structural backbone: corners, pillars, walls, fa-cades". Just as in Graettinger's city made of glass, there's an inhuman sheen to this man-made collection of edifices, conjured up by the pitiless strings that are used to evoke Kafka's hammer blows. Solo instruments scurry through the forbidding ensembles like rats. But this is a city without people.

The final impression of Goebbels's music, even with its cast of characterful voices, is of a place from which people have fled. Huge and undeniably thrilling at many points, Surrogate Cities is some hymn to its environment. But I am tempted to wonder whether this tells us more about our urban Valhalla than Abba did in its four-minute masterpiece, "I am the City".

Surrogate Cities (ECM) is on general release