“If you would ask me for a statement to composing, to my composing, I would answer: listening becomes the awareness of fading sound,” the German composer Eva-Maria Houben said in a lecture she delivered at a Dublin festival in 2010. “Fading sound,” she continued, “is the link between life and art; between perception in daily life and perception while performing, while composing.”
Listening to Houben’s music – in particular her piano works, which loom large in her oeuvre – you become keenly aware of fading sound. A note is struck, and rings out for a time, various partials growing more or less evident. The note decays gradually, yet the silence in its wake retains some impression of its presence. Houben wrings an extraordinary life out of each note she deploys precisely because she honors the space that follows—the presence of absence.
An organist from an early age and a musicologist whose publications embrace the full range of classical-music history, has long been associated with the Wandelweiser Group, a loosely knit collective of international composers bonded by a common interest in properties of sound, space, and silence. Though she has performed in the United States, she is chiefly known to her stateside admirers through her burgeoning discography, which includes numerous releases on the Edition Wandelweiser label as well as her own imprint, Diafani.
But in October, admirers in New York and New England will be able to hear Houben perform firsthand when she hits the road with Ordinary Affects, a Boston-based collaborative of improvising composers: in this instance, violinist Morgan Evans-Weiler, cellist Laura Cetilia, percussionist/keyboardist J.P.A. Falzone, and guitarist/programmer Luke Martin. Evidence of a previous tour the group undertook with another Wandelweiser composer, Jürg Frey, can be heard on 120 Pieces of Sound, a beautifully compelling CD newly released on the Elsewhere label.
After a weekend of rehearsals and recording at Wesleyan University, Houben and Ordinary Affects will perform at Spectrum in Brooklyn on October 15, and at The Yard in Boston’s John Hancock Building on October 16. On October 17, Houben will coach New England Conservatory students in a master class, and on October 18 the conservatory partners with Boston experimental-music presenter Non-Event and Goethe-Institut Boston to mount a concert featuring Houben performing alongside NEC student musicians. After a morning lecture-recital and an afternoon talk at the school on October 19, Houben and Ordinary Affects conclude the trek that evening at Dartmouth College.
In advance of this relative deluge of activity, Houben took a moment last week to speak to National Sawdust Log about the music she’s prepared for this encounter, and to elaborate upon her ideas about fading sound and the singularity of the present moment.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: I’d like to start by asking you about how the members of Ordinary Affects initiated this collaboration. Did they start by asking you for a new piece or pieces? Was it always a proposition of coming over to play with them for a bit here in the States?
EVA-MARIA HOUBEN: It was a mixture. Luke asked me to compose one new piece… and I did four new pieces. It was so funny: In my holidays I like to compose more, and it was very joyful for me to do so.
Katarina [Miljkovic, composer and New England Conservatory music theory chair] put the accent more on coaching and playing with students. So I sent several pieces to Katarina and said, “we can decide,” and she may ask the students what they would like to play. We had assembled four pieces for ensemble, and then Katarina said, “There are two pianists in the group; do you have a piece for two pianists?” And I had. So we found more and more.
And then I do the two lectures at NEC – one about musical practice as a form of life, and one lecture about how the sound of the piano decays – and a seminar coached by [performing arts administrator] Ching Yeo and [academic affairs adminstrator] Olivia Porada. I will perform excerpts of piano pieces and speak about them, and then we’ll have discussion. The tour is a nice mixture of many different activities.
Okay, so here’s this group, Ordinary Affects, and you’re not necessarily familiar with the players or what they do. How do they convey to you something about themselves that then inspires you to write for them? Or does it even matter? Can you just basically conceive a piece for open instrumentation? How did it work in this specific instance?
This tour is a great adventure for me, because last spring and winter I wrote a book about musical practice in German, and now I’m working on an English translation with a native speaker. This book has my latest ideas, and it completely changed my composing. I do not give scores that have a finite meaning, or thoughts about authentic interpretation. No: what they are is scripts for the groups to come to encounters, to speak about music, and to meet each other. That’s completely another way of interpreting a piece. I thought about it in Beethoven pieces and Schubert pieces, and I did not distinguish between traditional and new music. Now, this tour will be an answer to the question, “Eva-Maria, do your thoughts about musical practice really work in reality?”
That’s very exciting, because I did the pieces for the people I see before me. I know Morgan, and I have an impression about Luke, and so on. If I compose for clarinet, I see a clarinetist, and if I compose for singer, I see the singer. When I compose for various instruments, for any kind and number of instruments, I compose the situation and the meetings of the people. The activity of the players is the main thing. How do they meet?
And then Katarina writes in an email, “Ah, this students, they loved this piece because…,” and for me it’s very nice because I can imagine, “what do they really like in this piece?” It’s so interesting, because my work as a musicologist and my work as composer come together. And that’s an affirmation for my work, that it really works.
I’m seizing upon one word that you just used in describing your approach: you said you think of the piece as a script. Are you writing scores in conventional notation? Or has that changed as well?
I wrote in conventional notation in former times, and will in the future. But it’s not the only possibility. I have scores in which verbal instructions do not exist. Sometimes I do not even want to have verbal instructions. There are some pieces where I invent a narration; I’d had a dream and thought about playing, and so the performers read the narration and come into this field of associations. So I do not want to say, you must do that, you must do, you must do…. I’m very close in touch with Antoine Beuger, who spoke very much with me about musical practice. We want to liberate the performers; we want to make them free to have their own approaches to the score. And I prefer to have different kinds of notations. I have notes but I do not have specific rhythms. I do not like some rhythms that remind me of certain things – a march, and so on. So I prefer to have sometimes no specific measure. But I notate with notes as well.
During your rehearsals and recording with Ordinary Affects at Wesleyan University, I’m told that you’ll have access to a chapel organ. I know how central the organ has been to your conception from very early on. But I presume that an organ is not necessarily going to be available to you at at every stop along the way. How do you adapt your approach to these specific pieces when there’s no organ available—at Spectrum, for instance?
I’ll play at the piano. I think it will work.
Do you have a sense of the duration of these pieces that you’ve created? Do they even have a set duration?
Some of my pieces have a fixed duration, and they are as long as they are; you can’t shorten, you can’t lengthen. But these pieces are of variable duration. And perhaps in the piece for two pianos, the students will have different pages, and they can choose the pages they will play. So we can say, we don’t know exactly, but let’s take two or three pages and see if they fit in this concert. With the same piece, you could do the whole evening if you played all of it.
I like pieces which offer an amount of possibilities, and then the performers decide, we take this and this and this. That’s why I will, on the concert with the students, end with an improvisation, because then I can manage the duration.
You gave a beautiful explanation of how you’re composing not for a set of instruments but for a set of people. But in approaching the unusual instrumentation of Ordinary Affects, did that bring anything to mind in terms of the characters of the sounds, or the possibilities of playing instruments of longer duration versus shorter? I’m curious about the character of the new pieces you’ve made for this occasion.
What I’m saying now is not true for all of my compositions—there are compositions which really are only for horn in F, or only for clarinet in B-flat. I do have those pieces. But these pieces I took for Ordinary Affects were for any kind and number of instruments. I thought a long time about it, but I thought that would be very good to have this. And i if you have had here in Germany a concert at our university, the students could play as well. The first piece I composed at home, but then I composed the last three pieces in my holidays in Greece. I’m sitting at the beach and in the rocks. I’m listening to winds whispering words, and seeing waves, and so I mentioned those sounds to Ordinary Affects.
I love this work, because I don’t really compose. The pieces become better and better and better the less I compose. [Laughs] If I forget composing, the piece is there, and it’s finished now. And I can float through the air, because every work is done; I only have to make the script. And the last two pieces originated in this feeling of freedom and peacefulness.
There’s a statement that you made in a lecture that is reprinted on the Wandelweiser website – you say, “If you would ask me for a statement to composing, to my composing, I would answer: listening becomes the awareness of fading sound.” It’s a beautiful phrase, and I can intuit what you’re saying, especially knowing your piano music, where you have a note that sounds and then so much time and patience is given to listening to that sound evaporating into its constituent overtones and whatnot. So I wondered if you could extrapolate a bit on that sentence.
Yes. I will speak about it in my piano lecture, “The Sound of the Piano Decays.” This feature of sound is especially interesting me, the decaying sound. Music can become existential experience in the encounter of the performance. We grow older together and spend time together, and we can listen to our own death – and before, to life. We listen to the decay, and the decaying sound opens for the next, and opens to the future, and the next will come. It’s the white space and the void that opens for that which is coming.
It’s neither to weep nor to be happy—you feel your life. Now you are here, and tomorrow you will not be here. Now you have these people; tomorrow you will not meet these people here at this location. This feeling for the singularity of this moment is a very deep feeling. And this is combined with the decaying sound. You learn that nothing is worth grasping; everything might go away, but then new things come. You’ll get rid of assurances. You can learn all this from the sounds, and I think that’s very precious.
Eva-Maria Houben performs with Ordinary Affects at Spectrum in Brooklyn on Oct. 15 at 7:30pm (spectrumnyc.com) and at the Yard in Boston on Oct. 16 at 8:30pm (Facebook event link). On Oct. 18 at 8pm, Houben collaborates with student musicians at the New England Conservatory (nonevent.org).