CD Reviews

Eva-Maria Houben – Landscapes 1-4

April 10, 2013


Landscapes is one of ten new releases self-published in a short period of time by the Wandelweiser associated composer Eva-Maria Houben on her new Diafani label. The way the new label has started reminds me a lot of the first weeks of Radu Malfatti’s similar B-boim imprint, when the opportunity to get strong unreleased recordings that had been awaiting their chance saw him publish a lot of material very quickly,. Malfatti slowed down his output soon after, and in many ways I hope Houben does the same, as so much high quality music appearing all at once doesn’t make a reviewer’s life easy. Of the initial batch then, Landscapes is the most impressively captivating I have spent time with yet.

The CD comprises of four pieces, titled Landscape 1 through to 4, credited both to Houben and Bileam Kümper. Each of them is a composed work, the score to which I have not seen, but assuming one does exist I suspect it consists primarily of some kind of structure of time windows. The tracks then, the first clocking in at ten minutes or so and the rest all about half as long contain two elements each- solo acoustic instruments and field recordings, made by Houben and Kümper. The music is all quite achingly, simplistically beautiful. The nearest comparison I can think of could be Michael Pisaro’s Transparent City pieces, which saw him thread sinewaves through different urban field recordings, but there is somehow something even more elementally simple and yet exceptionally musical about the four works here.

The first of the four Landscapes sees the composer place her own noteless, breathy grey organ playing against recordings of trains. The field recordings are cloudy, distant, the sound of trains heard from a bit of a distance rather than their screech and roar up close, though in places a few buzzing textures could maybe be the purr of engines at rest. I know these sounds well, living as I do in a railway town, about a mile from the lines, so opening the window here, particularly at night sees the air continually filled with a similar soft hum. Houben and Kümper have arranged these recordings on a computer, fading the sound in and out carefully, so that the muted roars fade in and out of frequent silences. Houben’s soft organ playing, which matches the train sounds so well that often you cannot tell which you are hearing is then similarly placed over, around and through the field recordings. The overall impact is stunning. The way the two sets of sounds combine, separate, go about their ways makes them feel like they were meant to be together, and yet they both come from very different sources. The second piece here matches Kümper’s low, groaning tuba against recordings of the wind, sometimes just straight rushes of air, sometimes the sound of the wind forcing its way through tight spaces and so making similar notes of its own as it does so. Again the pair have maybe pieced these together to coincide with a written score, again following the simplest of systems to pitch similar sounds against one another.

The third track is a little different in that it places viola d’amore recordings, again played by Kümper alongside some kind of recordings of steps. Here the greyness and murkiness of the first two pieces is replaced by a strange set of rustling sounds and peculiarly warped, almost electronic sounds that seem to have human voices buried in them somewhere, though they most probably actually haven’t. This piece is more varied in texture and dynamic than the first two, and its a fascinating work. Exactly how the stringed viola is put to use here is anyone’s guess. I’d never have guessed such an instrument had any involvement here, and exactly what sort of steps appear in the recordings, or how they created these sounds I have similarly no idea. The sounds feel electronic, processed, but I don’t think they have been. The piece is much shorter than I would have liked it to have been at under five minutes, but while it lasts its both beautifully arranged and through the sounds put to use, delightfully unusual. The closing work, Landscape 4 pairs a sparsely used, gently scraped bar chime against a ‘balcony’, which seems to be recordings made of a city from a high balcony, possibly at night. Again we hear those featureless, humid hums that contain few precise details and yet sound so familiar. Listening here reminds me so much of nights spent in hotel rooms in unfamiliar cities, where the soft pulse of the urban area creeps in through the window. As we listen we become aware every so often of the higher pitch of the caressed bar chimes, played by Houben, but again these slip gently into the piece, emerging from the dense shadows. Here it really feels like the chimes were played in real time, on the balcony in question, but it seems that they were not and that they were added later.

Houben’s ear for how sounds, both instrumental and environmental can be put together has always driven her work. She has spoken and written about hearing music in everyday life and the silences between events in our lives and how she uses this in her work. Landscapes is then a very simple, and yet stunningly beautiful set of studies that extend these ideas. In Kümper she seems to have found a like mind and a valuable collaborator. Combining acoustic instruments with field recordings in this way isn’t a new idea, but the pair’s touch here, the ear for fragile beauty and the way sounds come together to form new sounds again make this a truly lovely release. The entire disc clocks in at under twenty-five minutes, and while longer would of course have been better this also suggests to me that only the finest material has been for inclusion here. There are one or two releases amongst the initial Diafani deluge I would recommend above the others, and this is certainly one of them.

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