Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Eva-Maria Houben/Rebecca Lane/Samuel Dunscombe - observing objects (Edition Wandelweiser)
Eva-Maria Houben - voice with piano (Edition Wandelweiser)
Eva-Maria Houben - voice with harp (Edition Wandelweiser)
Eva-Maria Houben - breath for organ (Second Editions)
As much as I love it, I generally find it very difficult to write about Eva-Maria Houben's music. There's an apparent simplicity about it that's air-like; how to describe air currents?
It's also not easy to keep up with her output. Discogs lists 46 releases and I imagine they're missing a few; I have 28 of these and still have a distinct feeling I'm getting a somewhat blurry reading on the real breadth of her work. I'll try to briefly limn the parameters of four recent recordings, knowing most of it will evade any even semi-reasonable description.
In fact, the first listed of the releases appears to be a joint project, possibly a collaborative composition by Houben, Rebecca Lane and Samuel Dunscombe playing, respectively, organ/piano, bass flute and bass clarinet. The piece, 'observing objects', is played twice, once with organ, once with piano. It consists of sets of long, overlapping notes (the bass instruments tending toward the low, the organ varying higher and lower pitches) interspersed with silences, though the latter are filled with the ambient sounds of the recording space. If there's a regular pattern with regard to the entrances and durations of the tones, I can't discern it. As with much of Houben's music (and, perhaps, with that of Lane and Dunscombe), one has the vivid impression of human breathing--not regular, in this case, but within the normal boundaries of inhalation and exhalation. The irregularity of the sequencing imparts an inference of sensual and/or intellectual preoccupation, as though the musicians' attention is gently moving from object to object, observing them and giving a commentary that has been reduced to a single tone. The lines are pure and beautiful in and of themselves and become more so, and gain stunning complexity, when they happen to overlay one another, like looking through translucent panels of colored glass that generate unexpected hues. Difficult to describe, very easy and satisfying to experience. Though the structure remains at least roughly the same for the second version (though the silences seem longer--one hears birds just outside) the initial sharpness of the piano attacks and their decay makes for a very different, no less invigorating experience. It's a stunning recording.
As is 'voice with piano', wherein a number of shorter pieces are sung by the extraordinary Irene Kurka, accompanied by Houben. The disc is in three sections: 'adagio' (three pieces), the standalone 'lyrik' and 'lieder für die insel (songs for the island)' (five pieces). Much of the music evokes, to my ears, early music though nothing I could put a finger on. Each of the trio of songs in 'adagio' begins with solo piano, stark and somber but glowing, before Kurka enters--also solo--singing the text by Felix Timmermans, poems dating from 1947, with clarity and strength. She sings, apparently, into the piano--one hears its strings resonating beautifully. A breathtaking set. Hilde Domin (1909-2006) provides the words for 'lyrik'. The music remains dark, Houben striking low, ominous single notes, Kurka singing above though seemingly weighted down by the deep tolling. I'm unfamiliar with Domin's poetry, but her escape from Nazi Germany (her husband's family was murdered there) seems to hang in the air. Houben herself contributes the text of the final set, five pieces lasting three to four minutes each. Keeping with the tenor of the album, the music remains sober; old stone walls, cold to the touch, come to mind. The piano notes are often held for quite a while, mixing with and eventually overtaken by the quietly bristling ambiance. As on 'adagio', the piano begins on its own but this time remains with the voice and after the singing is over. There's a near-symmetry in effect on each song, the piano acting as a kind of floating platform upon which the voice emerges for a few moments, then subsides. Kurka's 'chants' was one of my favorite releases last year; this is bound to be one of this year's top recordings.
'adagio' and 'songs for the island' are included on 'voice and harp' as well, performed by Tatiana Kuzina (soprano) and Christine Kazarian (harp). It begins, however, with a piece titled 'aeolian harp', though the instrument in question is clearly being activated by something with far great plucking power than wind. Whatever the case, it's a lovely piece, almost in a "traditional harp" mode, with wafting arpeggios set off against occasional deep thrums, every so often tempered by "sourer" notes that add wonderful depth and a tinge of doubt. The three "adagio" songs follow. Perhaps it's partially the harp as opposed to the piano, but the tone is distinctly different--less dark, less earthy, more ethereal (I think Kuzina might be singing into the harp; I assume that's indicated in the score). "hatid", with text by Houben, is an extraordinary 8 1/2 minute work, once again staying in the same, softly somber territory as elsewhere here and on the album with Kurka, the voice alternating with harp, Kuzina's long, somewhat sad tones contrasting superbly with the delicate plucking. As on the second reading of 'observing objects' the piano a bit more vibrant than on the other works here, but Kuzina's slightly airier voice imparts the two songs with both a mistier and, perhaps, more melancholy feeling--equally as striking as the Houben/Kurka versions. As are the 'Songs for the Island' pieces--it's fascinating to hear the two readings. If I slightly prefer the piano it's likely just an inborn instrumental prejudice on my part. The music itself, more importantly, is so thoughtfully conceived, so clear, that I imagine it could be rendered on any number of instruments (and I'd love to hear it).
All three of these Wandelweiser releases are deep and moving. Moreover, they might serve as fine initiations for those previously unfamiliar with Houben's work.
'breath for organ' is very different from the above, especially the two releases with voice, but will be familiar enough to those listeners who have prior experience with Houben. She's done a great deal of music for organ and, to my mind, this is one of her very best. Houben played this on (and perhaps wrote it for?) the pipe organ of the St. Franziskus Church in Krefeld, Germany. It's also an example of how difficult it is to give any sort of description that does justice to the experience. The piece contains long sequences of sound that are more air/breath than notes in any traditional organ sense, although at times one hears those tones around the edges. Sometimes the sounds approach that made by train whistles; more often it's as though steam were being released through a vent that has a tiny amount of metallic resonance, imparting the barest hint of a tone. Occasionally, it sounds like two tones are played simultaneously, but I'm not sure. Importantly, this is all embedded in the ambience of the church itself--there are spaces between the tones, but never silence. I hear it as somewhat akin to 'observing objects' except that the sounds are less related to breathing and more individual episodes or glances emanating from the same being. I have the image of a large, semi-mobile pipe organ, anthropomorphized into a gigantic, slow-moving creature, using sound to sense its way around the church, inch by inch. It's bare yet rich, simple yet endlessly engrossing. An amazing recording.
Also available from Erst Dist