Wednesday, February 14, 2018


Eva-Maria Houben/Rebecca Lane/Samuel Dunscombe - observing objects (Edition Wandelweiser)
Eva-Maria Houben - voice with piano (Edition Wandelweiser)
Eva-Maria Houben - voice with harp (Edition Wandelweiser)
Eva-Maria Houben - breath for organ (Second Editions)

As much as I love it, I generally find it very difficult to write about Eva-Maria Houben's music. There's an apparent simplicity about it that's air-like; how to describe air currents? 

It's also not easy to keep up with her output. Discogs lists 46 releases and I imagine they're missing a few; I have 28 of these and still have a distinct feeling I'm getting a somewhat blurry reading on the real breadth of her work. I'll try to briefly limn the parameters of four recent recordings, knowing most of it will evade any even semi-reasonable description.

In fact, the first listed of the releases appears to be a joint project, possibly a collaborative composition by Houben, Rebecca Lane and Samuel Dunscombe playing, respectively, organ/piano, bass flute and bass clarinet. The piece, 'observing objects', is played twice, once with organ, once with piano. It consists of sets of long, overlapping notes (the bass instruments tending toward the low, the organ varying higher and lower pitches) interspersed with silences, though the latter are filled with the ambient sounds of the recording space. If there's a regular pattern with regard to the entrances and durations of the tones, I can't discern it. As with much of Houben's music (and, perhaps, with that of Lane and Dunscombe), one has the vivid impression of human breathing--not regular, in this case, but within the normal boundaries of inhalation and exhalation. The irregularity of the sequencing imparts an inference of sensual and/or intellectual preoccupation, as though the musicians' attention is gently moving from object to object, observing them and giving a commentary that has been reduced to a single tone. The lines are pure and beautiful in and of themselves and become more so, and gain stunning complexity, when they happen to overlay one another, like looking through translucent panels of colored glass that generate unexpected hues. Difficult to describe, very easy and satisfying to experience. Though the structure remains at least roughly the same for the second version (though the silences seem longer--one hears birds just outside) the initial sharpness of the piano attacks and their decay makes for a very different, no less invigorating experience. It's a stunning recording.

As is 'voice with piano', wherein a number of shorter pieces are sung by the extraordinary Irene Kurka, accompanied by Houben. The disc is in three sections: 'adagio' (three pieces), the standalone 'lyrik' and 'lieder für die insel (songs for the island)' (five pieces). Much of the music evokes, to my ears, early music though nothing I could put a finger on. Each of the trio of songs in 'adagio' begins with solo piano, stark and somber but glowing, before Kurka enters--also solo--singing the text by Felix Timmermans, poems dating from 1947, with clarity and strength. She sings, apparently, into the piano--one hears its strings resonating beautifully. A breathtaking set. Hilde Domin (1909-2006) provides the words for 'lyrik'. The music remains dark, Houben striking low, ominous single notes, Kurka singing above though seemingly weighted down by the deep tolling. I'm unfamiliar with Domin's poetry, but her escape from Nazi Germany (her husband's family was murdered there) seems to hang in the air. Houben herself contributes the text of the final set, five pieces lasting three to four minutes each. Keeping with the tenor of the album, the music remains sober; old stone walls, cold to the touch, come to mind. The piano notes are often held for quite a while, mixing with and eventually overtaken by the quietly bristling ambiance. As on 'adagio', the piano begins on its own but this time remains with the voice and after the singing is over. There's a near-symmetry in effect on each song, the piano acting as a kind of floating platform upon which the voice emerges for a few moments, then subsides. Kurka's 'chants' was one of my favorite releases last year; this is bound to be one of this year's top recordings. 

'adagio' and 'songs for the island' are included on 'voice and harp' as well, performed by Tatiana Kuzina (soprano) and Christine Kazarian (harp). It begins, however, with a piece titled 'aeolian harp', though the instrument in question is clearly being activated by something with far great plucking power than wind. Whatever the case, it's a lovely piece, almost in a "traditional harp" mode, with wafting arpeggios set off against occasional deep thrums, every so often tempered by "sourer" notes that add wonderful depth and a tinge of doubt. The three "adagio" songs follow. Perhaps it's partially the harp as opposed to the piano, but the tone is distinctly different--less dark, less earthy, more ethereal (I think Kuzina might be singing into the harp; I assume that's indicated in the score). "hatid", with text by Houben, is an extraordinary 8 1/2 minute work, once again staying in the same, softly somber territory as elsewhere here and on the album with Kurka, the voice alternating with harp, Kuzina's long, somewhat sad tones contrasting superbly with the delicate plucking. As on the second reading of 'observing objects' the piano a bit more vibrant than on the other works here, but Kuzina's slightly airier voice imparts the two songs with both a mistier and, perhaps, more melancholy feeling--equally as striking as the Houben/Kurka versions. As are the 'Songs for the Island' pieces--it's fascinating to hear the two readings. If I slightly prefer the piano it's likely just an inborn instrumental prejudice on my part. The music itself, more importantly, is so thoughtfully conceived, so clear, that I imagine it could be rendered on any number of instruments (and I'd love to hear it).

All three of these Wandelweiser releases are deep and moving. Moreover, they might serve as fine initiations for those previously unfamiliar with Houben's work.

'breath for organ' is very different from the above, especially the two releases with voice, but will be familiar enough to those listeners who have prior experience with Houben. She's done a great deal of music for organ and, to my mind, this is one of her very best. Houben played this on (and perhaps wrote it for?) the pipe organ of the St. Franziskus Church in Krefeld, Germany. It's also an example of how difficult it is to give any sort of description that does justice to the experience. The piece contains long sequences of sound that are more air/breath than notes in any traditional organ sense, although at times one hears those tones around the edges. Sometimes the sounds approach that made by train whistles; more often it's as though steam were being released through a vent that has a tiny amount of metallic resonance, imparting the barest hint of a tone. Occasionally, it sounds like two tones are played simultaneously, but I'm not sure. Importantly, this is all embedded in the ambience of the church itself--there are spaces between the tones, but never silence. I hear it as somewhat akin to 'observing objects' except that the sounds are less related to breathing and more individual episodes or glances emanating from the same being. I have the image of a large, semi-mobile pipe organ, anthropomorphized into a gigantic, slow-moving creature, using sound to sense its way around the church, inch by inch. It's bare yet rich, simple yet endlessly engrossing. An amazing recording. 

Edition Wandelweiser

Also available from Erst Dist

Second Editions


Wednesday, February 07, 2018



Cyril Bondi - euhesma, 2017 (Edition Wandelweiser)

Issued under Bondi's name, he's joined by his Diatribes partner D'Incise on this composition, the former playing Indian harmonium, melodica, harmonica and pitch pipes, the latter Indian harmonium, electric organ and melodica. From the instrumentation alone, you get the idea that you're going to be experiencing, among other things, some rich drone-oriented music and yes, that's one aspect of 'euhesma, 2017'. Euhesma, incidentally, is a genus of bee and one wonders whether at least part of the piece is a meditation on that species' apparent decline in the world. On the back cover of the disc,"(apocrita 3)" is appended to the title, apocrita being a suborder of Hymenoptera that includes wasps, bees and ants. The interior of the CD package bears a difficult-to-define photographic image that seems to be an overhanging eave constructed from interlocking pieces of wood.

I suppose slowed down bee buzzing could be a reference as well and it's a tempting one especially as light clattering (presumably from the pedals of the harmoniums) that occur throughout but more audibly toward the work's conclusion summon up, at least to these ears, the hyper-amplified clicking of apian legs and antennae. Bur possible programmatic allusions aside, we have a wonderful series of overlapping drones from subtly different sources. Over the course of the work, there's a (very) gradual (and happily inconsistent) densification of tones, going from relatively sparse with spaces left between sounds to the last several minutes where there's almost a fanfare-like effect achieved. The tones are always transparent, though never gauzy--I'm sorely tempted to call them honey-like--evincing a wide array of floral pollens. The tones remain within a circumscribed range, the better to appreciate their variations, and overlap in irregular, consistently fascinating ways. And there's just enough sourness applied to forestall any worries of the overly harmonious. It ends simply, with no fanfare at all.

A marvelous recording.



Hermann Meier - works for piano solo 1949 - 1987 (Edition Wandelweiser)

In 2000, Edition Wandelweiser released a recording of Meier's music, "Works for Solo Piano" performed by Dominik Blum. The current release comprises the complete solo piano work of Swiss-born Meier (1906 - 2002), once again recorded by Blum, this time in 2017.

The pieces on this 2-CD set date from 1948 to 1987 with much of it from the earlier portion of that period (just two pieces from 1968, one from 1987) and they range in duration from a minute (oddly listed here as 0' 60") to over twenty-six. They're not presented chronologically. On the surface, and perhaps beyond that, one might think that the music is somewhat out of place in the Wandelweiser catalog, though one piece is dedicated to Urs Peter Schneider, who has several releases on the label. Meier apparently developed a kind of graphic scoring system (image below) though it's not indicated whether or not this was in use for any of the compositions heard here.



I don't know nearly enough about this area of music--post-twelve tone structures, etc.--to pretend to be able to comment even semi-intelligently about it and can only offer my impressions. The works from the mid-50s, like "Klavierstück" (1956) seem rigorous, forthright, even strutting in nature, quite volcanic and jagged, very dense. The work that follows, "Klavierstück für Charles Dobler" from twelve years later, while still extremely forceful, seems to allow for a bit more breathing room--some cloudy chords midway through are wonderful--and to at least allude to more pastoral possibilities. Actually, the earliest composition, the three-part "Sonata für Klavier" (1948-49) also seems to retain vestiges of a more Romantic approach. Perhaps there was a "progression" into the severity of the 50s, maybe influence of Darmstadt, and then a mild retreat? Then again, the one piece played here twice, to close out each disc, "Zwei Klavierstück für Lilo Mathys" (1955-56) has its share of space and delicacy intermixed with harsher thrusts, so I imagine the notion of Meier's "progress" is more complicated than that.

The previously mentioned minute-long "Kleine elegie für Gaby Stebler" (1968) floats dreamily--stunning. It somehow makes me want to hear any work by Meier for chamber ensemble. The work dedicated to Schneider dates from 1987 and while still as spiky as anything else in this collection, seems to refer, if obliquely, to song forms with melodic fragments buried beneath a rough and scabby surface; reminds me, slightly, of some of Rzewski's work from around the same period. The restatement of "Zwei Klavierstücke..." is delightful, stressing a series of staccato moments, allowing them to hang in space briefly, like icicles.

Blum's playing is brilliant throughout, bright and percussive, scalpel-like. I'd love to hear him performing other work but don't see anything else currently available,

As said, the music falls outside my normal ambit but, given that, I throughly enjoyed it. Would be happy to get the opinions of those more conversant with this area.



Michael Winter - approximating omega (Edition Wandelweiser)

If you look closely at the above image, you'll see a lengthy binary string. This is a subset of a "maximally complex, incomputable number" known as Chaitin's Constant, or "omega", after the mathematician Gregory Chaitin. Michael Winter has used this string, in a manner far beyond my ability to comprehend, as a seed for his piece, "for gregory chaitin", one of two presented here.

The first piece, "approximating omega", runs over 33 minutes and is divided into two fairly equal halves. Underneath it all, there are samples from 36 musicians, many of whose names will be familiar to fans of new music (I even recognized one: a sliver of Tom Johnson's "The Chord Catalog" as played by Samuel Vriezen). Over this, in the first half of the piece, we hear the voice of Muirgen Éléonore Gourgues reading selections from a text by Chaikin, from his book, "The Limits of Mathematics". The text is a set of rules and definitions, not exactly repetitive but self-similar enough to achieve a level of overall sameness. It's spoken flatly, as if done for an audio book and also, to these ears, sounds ever so slightly enhanced or smoothed, generating something of an artificial tinge, though perhaps not. Its boundaries are also often clipped, blipping into existence from brief silences. The sounds beneath vary a good bit, maybe more electronic than otherwise, seeming to roughly correspond to the length of each text section or sentence. Also, somewhere down there, we might be hearing cellist Judith Hamann, who emerges clearly and suddenly during the work's second half. It's a welcome entry, as I was beginning to find the spoken part somewhat tedious. But suddenly, over metallic clangs and tinkles, there's a wonderfully rich bowed cello (or multiple celli, or some other sounds from somewhere) that entirely wash away the classroom and reveal a surging undercurrent, twining and coursing. It flows on with subtle variations (maybe some melodica action?) over shifting sets of metals and electronics, very beautiful, endlessly entrancing. Very much a yin/yang kind of composition.

Not having any idea of exactly how Chaitin's Constant was used in the other work, a solo piano piece with Winter at the keyboard, I can simply listen to the outcome and describe it. I say "solo piano" but there is definitely electronic involvement--the first bright, single note is struck and held, undiminished, for some five minutes, at which point it's joined by a much lower note that is allowed to decay naturally. Subsequent notes, apparently from a prepared piano and perhaps electronically modified themselves appear in a non-obvious pattern, though I suspect the binary array mentioned earlier has something to do with it. That initial note carries throughout and, after five minutes of those lower notes, once again exists as the sole component, a pure tone (although on headphones, my ears pick up subtle variations, maybe just artifacts of my system) that ends with an abrupt *plink*.

An intriguing work and an interesting album overall. I may not be 100% convinced by this particular usage of math-related material, but it's certainly worth a listen and generates curiosity on my part for hearing further work from Winter.

Edition Wandelweiser
Also available from Erst Dist



Thursday, February 01, 2018



Martin Küchen - Lieber Heiland, Laß Uns Sterben (Sofa)

Martin Küchen is among the most thoughtful of saxophonists. His solo work often involves thematic content and one suspects he deeply considers his approaches to that content, even as (I imagine) a good portion of the actual playing is improvised. 

The title translates as "Dear Saviour, let us die" and the cover image is a photo taken at the Jaworzno concentration camp in Poland, a sub-camp of Auschwitz. While used by the Nazis in the final two years of WWII, it was also subsequently utilized by the Soviet Union under Stalin as well as the People's Republic of Poland to incarcerate, and often kill, ethnic Germans, dissident Poles and Ukranians and other "enemies of the state" until 1956. The death toll there is estimated at almost 7,000. The photo was taken in 1951 by a member of the UK Embassy and classified as "Secret".

In addition to his alto and baritone saxophones, Küchen employs radio, iPod, electric tambura and speakers. He also overdubs on two tracks, including the haunting title piece that opens the recording. Mixing breath and spittle tones with soft, descending laments, it's a ghostly dirge fitting in perfectly with the cover image--very moving. 'Music to Silence Music', for solo alto, interpolates low key pops with various quiet but extreme sounds, evoking (to these ears) a kind of forlorn resignation, a muted cry. Both of these pieces are fairly short, offering dark glimpses into the setting. 'Purcell in the Eternal Deir Yassin' (Deir Yassin was a 1948 massacre of over 100 Palestinians by Zionist forces) begins with the surprising sound of a tambura soon joined by a fluttering saxophone that, indeed, seems to refer to Indian singing or string playing in the alap portion of a raga. The immersive feeling is wonderful, the pale flutters like pigeons in the recesses of a large, dim chamber. Eventually, one discerns a faint voice, female, emerging  from the shadows (presumably Purcell, though I'm not adept enough to identify it positively--'Dido and Aeneas'?). It's like a response or a summoning, beautifully underplayed, the spirit circling around the edges, becoming more or less distinct, wavering. A fantastic piece.

Side B (I have the LP; it's also available as a cd) picks up in an adjacent space with 'Ruf Zu Mir, Bezprizorni...'. Bezprizorni is a term for street children or waifs who were often imprisoned for "crimes" of survival, such as stealing food. There's a calm, stately piano being played, somewhat distantly, beneath a more anguished, though still fairly quiet saxophone. You imagine one of those children peering into a well-lit, wealthy household from the cold, bleak street. The final track, 'Atem Choir', for six overdubbed "saxophone voices", starts with sparse, hollow puffs--again, I get a sense of coldness, of blowing into one's hands to keep warm. Küchen's restraint is very impressive here; listeners familiar with previous, exceptional work of his like 'Hellstorm' (Mathka, 2012) might be surprised. The breaths mass a bit, dissemble, subside into nothingness--just a stunning piece, superbly controlled though full of sublimated emotion. There's clearly death in the air. In what strikes me as a minor misstep, Küchen closes the longish piece with a church bell tolling a single, repeated note--maybe a bit heavy-handed. But it's a minor quibble on a deep, respectful and bitter look at a horrible piece of history. [After posting, I was informed by Martin that the bells in question appeared outside the space in which the recording was being made, just after the last saxophone part was recorded. So it was a serendipitous event that he chose to retain.

Highly recommended.