Eva-Maria HoubenHouben

Piano Music

R. Andrew Lee, piano

Irritable Hedgehog Records

I’m fairly new to the Wandelweiser aesthetic and this disc of Eva-Maria Houben’s piano music reinforces a lot of what I have taken in from other sources. To call this sound world “minimalism” is accurate in the purest sense: there is extremely little material here. What is different, though, is that Houben’s language emphasizes silence over repetition. The resonance of the piano lends itself to long and heavy pauses and Houben’s treatment of the piano as a sonorous entity rather than one for frenetic button pushing is gratifying and nourishing. The slow unfolding of events in both piano works, abgemalt and go and stop let every sound resonate with the listener before going forward. Any connections between events can be gestated well before plunging on into the next event. Having said that, this is not music with an obvious formal through-line. If you are driven by hearing rhythmic processes play out over the course of a piece, you’d best look elsewhere. Houben’s music is languid in the purest sense; events happen, silence happens, and it is very possible that neither has anything to do with the other. A Zen approach is necessary: just listen to what is happening. Trying to guess what is going to happen or should happen takes you away from the piece as it is.

Abgemalt is the longer of the two works and for me the most perplexing. Over the first two minutes the same dark chord is struck and decays down to nothingness three times. That’s it. The silences clearly outweigh the sounds. The amount of space in the piece is equal parts haunting, meditative, and unsettling. Playing the disc for a colleague, she shook her head in bewilderment; is this all it is? The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is “yes,” too, but with the follow up question “what more do you want?” As Abgemalt unfurls for 40 minutes, one does begin to lose all sense of direction. Why do all these moments belong in this piece? Why are they in this order? How did Houben know when the piece was finished? These are all intellectual questions which can’t thwart the overall rightness to the sounds. Go and Stop is a little easier to digest. There is a formal process which is more readily grasped as harmonic alternations are interrupted and grow into longer and longer iterations. Abgemalt, though, keeps sucking me back in. I can’t just casually listen to this disc as background noise. The deliberateness turns the recording into foreground listening. My ears strain to hear more and more of the piano decay, as if something is going to change. I can’t just turn the piece off in the middle, either, just as I can’t turn off Piano Phase without experiencing a sudden and jarring jolt.

Houben has set up an aural ecosystem in her work and Lee’s touch and timing are sensitive and nuanced. I can easily hear the care and concentration that goes into these performances and I have no trouble picturing a stoic and deliberate performance on stage. Lee’s craft is not one displayed through senseless theatrics and pyrotechnics. He clearly has a mind for this music and the ability to transform extremely minimal amounts of material into captivating performances.

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