CD Reviews

Two from Eva-Maria Houben

August 13, 2013


Two more in the seemingly relentless series of discs released by Eva-Maria Houben on her Diafani imprint. The label now boasts twelve releases and my hope of writing about them all gets smaller with each new arrival, but this pair are two of the best so far. Yosemite – Duo I/Duo II is a disc that features a five part work for a ten-piece ensemble named Yosemite, and then two shorter duo works performed by Houben alongside her frequent collaborator Bileam Kümper. Yosemite is performed here in a large (possibly still in use) factory hall in Germany. The group playing the piece is made up of a flute, saxophone, clarinet, trombone, percussion, two violins, a viola, cello and double bass, with Houben herself not part of the group. Throughout the five parts of the work there is a faint, vaguely industrial hum to be heard and occasional glimpses of passing traffic. Whether this is the sound of a working factory very close perhaps on the other side of the wall, or just the sound of the very large room reverberating back through the microphones is hard to tell, but the consistency of the sound suggests maybe the latter. It is into this gentle, but acoustically very fitting backdrop that the ensemble plays, with the various musicians each playing soft notes, each lasting between around five and ten seconds in length. The various musicians enter with a sound at different times but with the sounds overlapping each other so that the music rises and falls in little clusters of sounds. There is something thoroughly Wandelweiserian about the piece, but in a kind of sketch form as each of the five movements of the work last just five minutes each.The softly intoned sounds slide across each other, presumably with some kind of structure in place, although maybe quite a loose one (I have not seen the score). Its a calming, gentle and thoroughly beautiful work, but not one that offers very much we have not heard before. I am reminded of Malfatti’s Heikou or other works of his from around that time- slowly pulsing music that hints often at some kind of slowed down melody out of sync with itself, not overly new but at the same time thoroughly beautiful little sketches very nicely realised in an ideal location.

The duo pieces that form the second part of the disc are equally beautiful works, but are stripped down pieces involving interesting choices of instrumentation. Duo I sees Kümper use “electro-acoustic sound” while Houben plays just a cymbal. There is a real simplicity to the work that seems to involve Kümper playing a low buzzing sound every so often and Houben bowing a cymbal exceptionally gently so that just the merest of shimmering tones can be heard. Initially it feels as if Kümper plays frequently, with Houben emerging from underneath his decidedly electronic, but equally quiet sound each time. As the piece progresses through its ten minute duration however we seem to hear the cymbal on its own more of the time, as if some kind of symmetry exists to the piece. The music is so quiet and so nonintrusive that it is actually really difficult to figure out any patterns to the sounds, but what we hear, the combination of the two instruments and the silences they sit neatly amongst is extremely pleasing on the ear indeed. Duo II is even more difficult again, and really seems to push the envelope somewhat. Here Houben switches to harmonium and Kümper tuba, and for much of the initial part of the work we just hear  long low tones from Houben, or rather, if you strain your ear and turn the volume up you just about hear them. Then after a few minutes of these long clean notes we suddenly hear a much louder, very brief, gruff little blast from the tuba. This sudden, almost shocking intrusion lasts no more than a second, and is then repeated twice more during the full seven and a half minute work. This is a really curious piece, almost absurd in its structure and thoroughly inventive and surprising in a nice contrast to the first half of the CD.

The second of the releases here, Decay, is a single one hour long composition that uses organ and piano sounds played by Houben arranged digitally to create the piece. A few years back I attended a talk given by Eva-Maria in which she beautifully discussed her interest in how sounds decay, dissolving into whatever they fall into, the exact point when they end never entirely clear. Decay is a quite lovely study of that simple phenomena. The organ sounds are typically Houben, long, earthily low and very, very quiet, so quiet in fact that at normal volume and without headphones they are barely discerned at all when they are present, and when they disappear, as they do in part of the piece, you barely notice. Then into this nearly blank canvas Houben drops a series of single piano notes of varying pitch and timbre, some cleanly struck, some played with prepared strings. Each however is allowed to decay slowly and naturally, so dissolving into the faintly tinted background. The effect is like throwing stones into a still pond and watching the resulting rings of ripples expand and die away, the point when the ripples are no longer perceivable impossible to ascertain. This CD makes for very simple, but strangely rewarding listening if you allow yourself to really focus on it, following each note through to its end, hearing the organ sound momentarily coloured, watching it gradually return to its normal state. It really is as simple as that. There seems to be no structure to the notes or organisation to which type of note we hear at any given time, and so responding to Decay as a piece of music with a beginning and end does not seem to work, and so, for me, listening here really was just a contemplation on the physics of how sounds decay, but also a weirdly contemplative, thoroughly absorbing experience that, once over, I struggle to explain. Maybe never has music conceived around such a very simple idea been so engaging, to me at least. If, like myself you can spend hours watching raindrops run down a window pane and never get bored, and instead the individual subtleties of each little event fascinate you as they do me, then this lovely disc is one for you.

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