Eva-Maria Houben – OrgelbuchMarch 23, 2013
One of what I think totals ten recent releases by the German composer Eva-Maria Houben, Orgelbuch is the one amongst them not released on her own new Diafani label, appearing instead at the end of last year on Wandelweiser. Orgelbuch is an intriguing release. For the composition of the work Houben has prescribed three sets of fourteen manual and/or pedal stops for the pipe organ, which she plays here herself. There are fourteen bicinia, trios and quatuors here. Not being an expert on matters of the church organ, I am not sure how much these settings completely prescribe the music heard here, but I am assuming, from what my ears are telling me, that a bicinium involves just two notes, a trio three, and a quatuor, four, though it would appear that one note can be played in different octaves. The various pieces then selected for this release utilise these simple raw materials to form short works that have something of a rigorous minimalism about them- shortish pitches each of roughly the same length within each piece placed alongside one another, almost like the simple, stark modernism of early Dutch typography, drawing beauty from the juxtaposition of simple elements arranged in near-rhythmic patterns and the negative spaces between them.
So the fourteen pieces chosen here from the possible forty-two are each quite different, each similar, but also containing its own individuality. The semi-mathematical constraints placed upon the compositions then force the music into a strange, almost inhuman space. There are repeating forms in each of the works, pitches standing alone, sometimes undercut by another, sometimes them both sounding together, but never more than four notes and often, as with the five bicinia here, just two notes, sometimes sitting neatly adjacent to one another, sometimes careering off of each other at angles. There is a clinical feel to the album, a kind of stark inevitability to the music, that once a piece begins, and its few elements are clear, then there is nowhere else for the music to go apart from rotate slowly, so letting the various elements collide, combine and separate again. In places the album feels like systems music, and yet, beyond the restrictions placed upon the number of stops to be used, the placement of notes has been freely composed by Houben. As Webern and companions restricted themselves through serialism, so Houben attempts something similar, even more restrictive here, and so that the resulting music has a kind of haunting beauty to it, an almost alien simplicity around how the soft, warm notes reflect of one another. Strange, almost unsettling music then, but at the same time oddly enchanting and thoroughly beautiful. Nine more discs to go…