So so apathetic today. I have played the same CD seven times this afternoon/evening primarily because I have eaten and drunk too much to be able to get up and change it. Combine that with the way my body is responding to finally getting a break (with an irritating cough and cold) and my vegetative state might be understandable. Still, I have enjoyed spending a lot of time with this CD, a new release on the Wandelweiser label by Eva-Maria Houben named Druids and questions. The title seems to come from the two inspirations behind Houben’s piece- Charles Ives’ 1906 work The Unanswered Question, hints of which can be heard in the music, and a couple of short lines from an Emily Dickinson poem-
“Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature Now”
The album then is a bit of a departure for Houben in that it contains a single hour-long work described as “electro-acoustic music with recorded organ sounds” The organ used on the piece was played by Houben, and she has also performed the editing and compiling of the selected sounds for the recording. This approach, rather than writing scores to be performed with live instrumentation is, I think a first for Houben. The music here though still sounds much like her work, using familiar breathy organ sounds on the most part, their grey imperfect textures resembling the strings that open the Ives’ work. The sounds used are all linear in form, and vary in length, the longer ones being about a minute or so in duration, the shorter ones around ten seconds. They overlap frequently, with silences appearing here and there where gaps fall between them. The sounds in general range between something similar to the noise my kettle is currently making, basically a hissing release of air, to forced high pitches squeezed out between similar airy blasts. Everything is quiet, and only if you turn the volume right up does the music sound like a composition for broken vacuum cleaners.
Unhelpful descriptions aside, its a typically beautiful work. Houben’s previous organ works for Wandelweiser are amongst my favourite releases from the label. Where those discs presented us with long, faint grey rumbles separated by lengthy silences, this new work is far more active and works (similar tot he Ives piece) through the way it places similar yet also quite different sounds alongside one another, so merging to create a further take on the same sound again. While the pace is still slow, this music feels like the most busy and varied of any of Houben’s music yet. The sounds remain in earshot long enough to allow us to hear them properly, get to know their textures and how they combine with the others around them, but still they depart and are replaced by new sounds quite quickly. If you listen for a long time, and let your mind wander, as I have tonight, it is possible to forget the origin of the recordings and begin to hear distant trains rushing through tunnels, air conditioning units, even different instruments instead. This tendency for the ear to transplant the sounds into new situations reminds me a lot of how I hear so much of Ives’ work, which always felt to me like it was trying to escape the traditional confines of the orchestra.
I do not know Houben’s intentions for this music, or how her inspirations, and in particular the Druidic element in Dickinson’s verse might have shaped the music. I have no doubt that if I was to ask her, which I hope to do, there will be direct links and influences that will then make sense in the music. Without any further knowledge then I am left with how this music makes me feel. It is beautiful in its details as well as its overarching structure. The slowness, the gradual, attack-free arrival of the sounds and the narrow palette of earthy sounds make this in many ways an archetypal Wandelweiser release, but the way we can listen down into how similar sounds merge together gives the individual textures an added sense of importance. If a basic trait of much Wandelweiser music is that it is more about form and structure than the actual content then this could be said to apply to some degree here, but the form given to the music then directly adds a further side to the work specific to the sounds used by Houben. Substitute the organ textures for something different and the album wouldn’t work in quite the same way.
So, this is another Wandelweiser disc I enjoy a great deal, but no surprise there. Its method of construction may make this one appeal more to some than others, but it remains a thoroughly beautiful work that kept me captivated, despite its apparent simplicity, for a good few hours today.