This Is The New Music: 144 Pieces For Organ

Monday 19 September 2016

I’ve added another album to my Bandcamp store. The album costs £5, or you can download (most, not all) of the individual tracks individually for free. There are 144 tracks so you can feel like a big shot and pay for pure convenience. It’s about 90 minutes of music and the album comes with printable cover art, detailed sleeve notes and a video displaying attractive colour study scores for each piece.

The 144 Pieces For Organ were composed in 2014, generated entirely from a set of formulas in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Think of them as musical snowflakes: each one a unique outcome from a single set of rules.

Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello at Cafe Oto

Wednesday 14 September 2016

You wish Morton Feldman’s life hadn’t ended so soon; not least because his work was still revealing unknown territory. For all that his late works give the impression of having arrived upon a truly unique understanding of music, there’s always an element in them that suggests there’s still further to explore. Pieces from his last couple of years such as Coptic Light and For Samuel Beckett imply that he had distilled his musical language to an unbroken, monadic surface; but then his very last work, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, treats what’s gone before as a starting point for something new.

It had been played in London only once, 1999. Last night at Cafe Oto Mark Knoop, Aisha Orazbayeva, Bridget Carey and Anton Lukoszevieze played it for a second time. It was the hottest September day anyone could remember. Oto is a small concrete box with a bar up the back and passersby in the street just outside. The gig was sold out. For seventy-five minutes, we all sat or stood in stillness. It was an actual example of “if you build it, they will come”.

We stayed focused in the airless heat and humidity partly to avoid any excessive movement, mostly to follow the music, and partly out of respect for the imperturbable stoicism displayed by the musicians. You could see the conditions were taking their toll but they never let their heads drop. They carefully balanced their pacing and tone to enable the piece to unfold in a state of suspension, outside of typical musical concerns of linear time.

Feldman’s last piece draws on the lessons learned from his preceding work and wears its wisdom lightly. Its material is allowed to appear and evolve in what seems to be a more natural, organic way. For all the well appreciated subtleties of his music, the lack of obvious sections and cycled repetitions in this piece makes his other late works seem almost crude in comparison. When an obvious change is introduced – a short sequence of piano arpeggios, an exchange of pizzicato notes between the strings – it doesn’t come as a shock, but as the deepening of a plot. Each motif that appears, whether familiar or new, feels like a piece of a puzzle falling into place, revealing more of an image realised only on completion. The music feels more open, to the listener and to the world, without ever sacrificing its profound ambiguity of mood. Like John Cage’s best music, seeking to imitate nature, nothing’s a surprise but nothing is expected.

Eva-Maria Houben at Cafe Oto

Thursday 1 September 2016

A warm Tuesday night in London and Eva-Maria Houben is playing piano at Cafe Oto. She’s chosen to play three short sets, so people can enjoy the outside air, a drink and a chat, and refresh their focus on the music. Her music is typically slow and quiet, with a virtuosic use of silence. Such pieces can be very long, but not tonight. Two of the works are being played in public for the first time; one of them, Dandelion, is a loose collection of pages. Houben explains that it could go on “for hours” but tonight she’s selected just three pages to play.

Alex Ross, in the latest issue of the New Yorker, gives a good description of challenges and pleasures the new listener finds when discovering the Wandelweiser collective.

Eva-Maria Houben, a mainstay of the group, has written, “Music may exist ‘between’: between appearance and disappearance, between sound and silence, as something ‘nearly nothing.’”

He also observes the group’s “slightly cultish atmosphere” but this has started to fall away in recent years, as individual voices from within the group have become more recognisable. At Oto, Houben gives a short introduction to each piece, enthusiastically describing her inspirations. These sources are surprisingly diverse, as is her music.

She begins with another premiere, Tiefe – Depth for Piano. It’s a consummate study in decay and resonance. Isolated notes are struck and released immediately, held a short time and allowed to die away, sometimes being cut off, sometimes allowed to fade. Throughout the evening, there’s little use of the sustain pedal to colour, or cover, the frequent silences. Rather like Jürg Frey’s guitar music (another Wandelweiser composer), she sets the piano’s sounds within the surrounding silence and not against it.

Dandelion draws on prose inspiration rather than fixed notation, with the instrument’s strings mostly plucked by hand. For her Sonata for Piano No. 10 she explains how she was intrigued by Enescu’s talent for producing bell-like sonorities in his piano chords. The dedicatee for each movement is a very unWandelweiserish composer: Mussorgsky, Enescu, Schumann, Liszt, Messiaen. The semblance of each composer is evident in each movement’s set of tolling chords.

For all the emphasis on silence when describing this type of music, Houben gives particular attention to the piano’s capability for producing harmonic resonances and overtones (she refers to them as “partials”, suggesting a wish to complicate the instrument’s harmonic characteristics even further). In another work, the score is four pages of three lines each, single tones on a single stave in the treble. The piece ends with a long, steady drumming on a dense cluster of notes in the bass. The resonating strings produce a halo of high notes whistling over the top. No need for this low chord to be written down or on the music stand.

I still can’t get my head around this composer. The first pieces I heard seemed too bald – dependent on a theory, underdeveloped. Then I heard pieces which seemed much more warm-blooded to me. Others had a hint of veering into New Age meditation or whimsy, still others embrace tintinnabulation not unlike Arvo Pärt. Tonight, the music ranges from finely nuanced (Tiefe, Dandelion) to obsessively single-minded, as in the Sonata and another piece made entirely of single notes in groups of three, stacked end to end. Far removed from the sacerdotal austerity of Wandelweiser’s image, this is living, messy, human music.