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.