Reinier Van Houdt: Mouths Without A Head

Sunday 9 May 2021

The theme here is prophecy, which may be why so much of the album seems presently unknowable. I’ve been aware of Reinier Van Houdt only as a pianist, interpreting the likes of Michael Pisaro, so hearing him as a composer-performer delivers the unexpected. The first instrument heard is acoustic guitar and piano is added in small doses as the album progresses. Electronic sounds and treatments pervade the music. Van Houdt plays everything himself, in recordings made just earlier this year.

Mouths Without A Head is a collection of fifteen vignettes that work together best when heard as a suite. The download I received mistakenly sequenced the tracks in alphabetical order and so I first heard the album as a collection of potent fragments. In correct order, these fragments coalesce into a quiet but disturbing progression of elements finding stability before dissolving. The point of origin is Orlando di Lasso’s Prophetiae Sibyllarum, a set of 16th century motets with 20th century chromaticism. In its most straightforward moments, Van Houdt plays a type of antiphonal chorale of single notes, on guitar or piano or in tandem, call and response. The music is calm but never settles into a fixed tonality. Deep ambient washes rumble below the surface or rise to overwhelm the instruments, electronic static crackles into life just when things seem all sedate.

Van Houdt’s notes talk about the role of the voice in this work, even as it is never heard plain. Stutter therapy tapes of extended vowels are in the mix, all but indistinguishable from wind recordings and synth pads. As prophecy, it is necessarily inarticulate, hinting at ideas that are left to the listener’s conjecture. Digital delay and reverb give one passage an almost New Age sound, while another is a comfy, nostalgic wash of synthesisers reminiscent of 1970s library music. These are little more than illusions, repeatedly dispelled, most emphatically by the “Presocratic Grid”, a long excercise in scratchy electronic noise that overlays its rhythms until verging upon voiced speech. Van Houdt manages these stark contrasts by making each change multiply and confound what has gone before. The most expressive piano playing is deferred almost to the end, followed by the bleakest and most blank of codas. Is this an act of nullification, or clearing a space for the listener’s questions? It’s an album set to grow in your mind with each successive listening.