The Philadelphia Fringe Festival has long attracted serious composers, but hardly typical ones. This year's festival has them working on grand scales, whether they're creating gargantuan theater at the Navy Yard or examining the meaning of a President Trump quote. These performances promise to be 2018's most brain-bending shows:
Heiner Goebbels' Stifters Dinge and Songs of Wars I Have Seen. Despite forbidding titles, these two works by composer/collage artist Goebbels — a major presence in Europe — promise absorbing, poetic theater that confronts without being combative.
The Sept. 7-9 Stifters Dinge combines words from disparate sources — from the 19th-century Bohemian Adalbert Stifter to the 20th-century Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs — with sounds from mechanical pianos playing Bach. There are also weather effects (clouds, water). It's all on a scale that's possible only in the Navy Yard, Building 611.
Songs of Wars I Have Seen, Sept. 7-8 at FringeArts (140 N. Columbus Blvd.) is more of a traditional concert. Little-known Gertrude Stein writings about life in occupied France during World War II — at turns ingenuous, profound, and paranoid — are the words to this one. They're recited to a Goebbels' soundtrack played by the Philadelphia Orchestra, with musical quotations from 17th-century composer Matthew Locke played by Tempesta di Mare on historically informed instruments.
The Crossing's "Of Arms and the Man" program. This new-music chamber choir doesn't stand still, though its Sept. 16 concert at FringeArts does have the 24-voice ensemble bringing back some older works in new context, plus a provocative new piece, "Animals," by Pulitzer finalist Ted Hearne. It's based on President Trump's description of illegal immigrants: "These aren't people, these are animals." Well, director Donald Nally has never shied away from social issues.
Other works include Gabriel Jackson's "Our flags are wafting in hope and grief," David Lang's trance-inducing "depart," and Kile Smith's ethereal "Conversation in the Mountains."
The "In Plain Air" program featuring the new Christ Church C.B. Fisk organ. Though dating to 1744, Philadelphia's Christ Church (20 N. American St.) becomes a FringeArts annex when the International Contemporary Ensemble gives a program of new works in five performances Sept. 22 and 23. Composers Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis monitored the Esther Wideman Memorial Organ's construction to clearly assess its capabilities in creating music incorporating organ, the church's bells, and music boxes (all mechanical instruments of sorts).
Anything but cloistered, this venue in the middle of Old City has clear windows that don't keep the outside world at bay. The flashing lights from an outside police action can be especially exciting.
Tickets are free at the door, with $2 reservations available for guaranteed seating.