EVA-MARIA HOUBEN
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TEXTS
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Eva-Maria Houben
Presence – Silence – Disappearance
 
Some thoughts on the perception of  “nearly nothing”
 

  
Yesterday there was my piano recital with two compositions of John Cage (works for piano) and two own compositions for piano: klavier (piano) (2003) and three chorals (penser à satie) (2007).
 
What’s about the sound of piano?
 
The sound of the piano decays.
 
It cannot be sustained. I let it loose time and again.
 
It appears by disappearing; starting to disappear just after the attack.
 
In disappearing it begins to live, to change.
 
The piano: an instrument, that allows me to hear how many ways sound can disappear.
 
There seems to be no end to disappearance.
 
The sound of piano!
 
I can hear, how listening becomes the awareness of fading sound.
 


Here one more example after the recital yesterday:
 
The beginning of the third movement of my three lullabies (2007) for piano. The sound of the piano decays – and the decaying sounds goes on in the overtones played after a long pause.
 
 
1: three lullabies, 3

  
And if you would ask me for a statement to composing, to my composing – I would answer: listening becomes the awareness of fading sound.
 
Fading sound is the link between life and art; between perception in daily life and perception while performing, while composing.
 
And the awareness of fading sound may become the awareness of presence.
 


I am pianist and – in addition – organist. As organist I never forget that the organ is a wind-instrument. My pieces for organ and my “installations” for organ (the installations last many hours) ask: Am I realizing a piece? There is hardly anything you may hear in the church. The organ releases as a jewel each single sound; each stream of air; each noise: disappearing into the space of the hall.
 
The listener will find the way to listening: in this particular room with this particular organ and its streams of sound/ air/ wind. All sound, all streams of air and noises are quiet; sometimes hardly recognizable.
 
The sound of music; the noise of music; the sound and noise of everyday life: they cut into each other. Both sound and noise of music do not depend on silence as with a piece of music. Both sound and noise do not need any silent location: they are quiet themselves; their quietness creates silent rooms, which welcome all sounds.
 
It is organ the machine and human beings working together. Man cannot breathe sounds of almost eternal duration; but the organ must not be considered a machine. My pieces for organ require the player: moving the keys; make the winds stream.
 
Sounds, wind, noises of the organ as a wind-instrument and the silence at sacred spaces: not a coincidence. Churches’ sacred spaces turn into locations for people to nothing more than just be there and breathe; where people can listen – unhindered by any possible meaning of sounds and streams of air.
 
In spite of the fact that the organ may have an endless breath – I composed one of my first organ pieces dazwischen (between) (2000) with two drones – you can hear “nearly nothing” by listening to the streams of air.
 
Here some examples of those sounds I use in my oratorio about Hiob, im siebten stockwerk der geduld (2009/2010):
 
 
2: im siebten stockwerk der geduld  – orgelklänge
 
 
Listening to the organ as a wind-instrument  becomes the awareness of fading sound, too.
 
Listening in this way (listening to fading sound, to decay and vanishing objects) I pay attention to presence.
  
Today I am invited to speak about “presence – silence – disappearance” and about “nearly nothing”: and I begin to offer you first of all some thoughts on disappearance. My first study to “presence” was a book titled: “The Abolition of Time. Thoughts on the utopia of unlimited presence in music of the 20th century”. This book was published in 1992. And now, nearly twenty years afterwards, I still think about these things. My first thoughts at the beginning of the nineties: There is a special feeling of time in improvised music, a perception of pure presence, the philosopher Jean Gebser spoke about “eternal presence” (“Ursprung und Gegenwart”: “Origin and Presence”).  Many musicians and composers at the beginning of the last century and then later on spoke about the relationship between a special experience of presence and improvisation, between the experience of presence and composition. Ferrucio Busoni wrote (“Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst”, 1907; 1916): Pause and fermata in the music of our time will bring music near her own origin, her real destination. Great performers and improvisers know how to use these means of expression. And Busoni adds some thoughts on the silence between sounds, on the silence between two movements, which becomes music as well. The German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, known as the inventor of the idea of a “sphere of time”, which may combine past, present and future as well, liked most of all the improvisation, adding in the same time, that he did not think that absolute improvisation could really exist. (B. A. Zimmermann, “Some thoughts on Jazz”, in: “Interval and Time”) But he thought that by improvising the musician could have experiences of time he never would have otherwise. There are publications in the last years about the “Free Fantasy” in the 18th century, for example those of C. Ph. E. Bach: Peter Schleuning, one of the authors, says that Bach lost himself by improvising – and the “Fantasy” as a kind of composition (with notations and score) could never reach the actual performance. And: Bach performed hours and hours, sometimes five, six hours in the evening and night, he really forgot time as a matter of watches and clocks. (As I do in my organ installations which may last four, five, six hours and longer.)
 
I do not think today that the possibility of the experience of presence depends on the decision: composition – improvisation; score – no score; work/”opus” – process/performance; eye – ear. I think that the experience of presence depends on the faculty to let it loose, to let loose things, sounds; to be able to do without the effort to keep the idea, to keep the sound, to keep the score with an unchangeable face. There is one main question: May you get rid of assurances? In other words: Are you ready to fall into provisional circumstances? (And “pro-visional” may mean: nothing is worth to be kept, to be preserved – no effort, no work, no object; everything is coming up in a future which just will arrive – but not yet.)
 
It is the paradox feeling: you work with an aim, but without intentions.
 
And this paradox situation of the composer and/or performer does not depend on the question whether the sounds are improvised or not, whether you work on a composition or on an improvisation.


My last book on Hector Berlioz (“Hector Berlioz. Disappearances: Instigations to listening”, 2005) ends with these thoughts: which way is something (like a sound) given to us? This is the same question as: which way is something let loose, is something considered as a lost thing? By listening I am aware: nothing remains, everything is lost – something always is given to me so that I may loose it. Composition thinks about ways of loosing sound.
 
The last question: Why? Why sound, why composition (you could add: why improvisation)? – One answer: Sound is given. There is sound, there are sounds. It’s becoming more and more silent. That’s all I may answer to the question Why composition?
 
 
 
I would like to mention now some examples of traditional music; in addition I will quote some sentences to my own compositions.
 
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was a composer with great visions. His scores often show the annotation: “presque rien“ (“nearly nothing”). This annotation may be found in combination with extremely reduced dynamics. Sound may become nearly inaudible.
 
As an annotation to dynamics „nearly nothing“ may be compared with Schoenbergs „wie ein Hauch“ („like a breeze“; Arnold Schönberg, sixth piano piece, 6 kleine Klavierstücke op. 19; Anton Webern, zweites Orchesterstück aus Fünf Stücke für Orchester op. 10) or „kaum hörbar“ („nearly inaudible“) or „äußerst leise“ („extremely soft“) (Anton Webern, third piece for orchestra, Fünf Stücke für Orchester op. 10).
 
We listen to the movement La harpe éolienne – Souvenirs (The aeolien harp – remembrances) of  Lélio ou Le retour à la vie (Lélio or the Comeback to Life).
 
 
3: Berlioz: La harpe éolienne
 
 
You may notice not only special dynamics. but single, isolated sounds, short sounds (pizz.), repetitions, many pauses, fermatas, sustained sounds, too. This movement at first was part of the Cantata La Mort d’Orphée (The death of  Orpheus); in the cantata you hear this part after the furies murdered the artist, it’s the moment of great silence after the catastrophe. The silence says: Finished! There is no music anymore, all music finished. Now music may begin. The awareness of fading sound is listening to future; the space becomes wide and ears become antennae: presence that lasts.
 
I may read the annotation “nearly nothing” in a second way: there nearly is no composition. There are some vibrations, some noises, some fragments in the air – nearly nothing.
 
The aeolien harp: an instrument with strings in unison. Partials are attempted and unfold, merging into multifaceted, richly coloured harmonies. Music happens all by itself, seemingly uncomposed. This is the sound of the aeolien harp, its strings set in motion by a passing wind.
 
With this composition Berlioz aims at a paradox kind of composition: he tries to compose without composing. He tries to let loose the own work.
 
now listen some seconds to my Aeolian harp, composed listening to Berlioz:
 
 
4: aeolian harp (2009) for harp solo, played by Rhodri Davies
 
 
Yesterday I played two pieces of  John Cages works for piano: In this pieces Cages treats the piano nearly as an aeolian harp: the right pedal is held throughout the time; so the player refuses to control the life of  the sounds.
 
In the recital following this lecture (neue flötentöne: Anne Horstmann and Dörte Nienstedt) you will listen to my piece quelques riens (2005) for Mauritius flute. This piece is part of a trilogy: calme, silence, solitude for piccolo flute, quelques riens for Mauritius flute and moments musicaux for bass flute. The scores contain the note: “upon listening to hector berlioz”. Berlioz was one of the first to radically expand the listening space by his reference to “nearly nothing” (“presque rien”).
 
 
 
You may listen “between” – and there are two ways:
 
You listen
 
1) between sound an silence
 
2) between two movements of a symphony or a sonata.
 
 
At first let us have a look at the first ‘between’, between sound and silence.
 
We listen to the beginning of the first movement of Franz Schubert Sonata B flat major (D 960).
 
 
5: Schubert, Sonate B-Dur, 1;
 
a) first player: Wilhelm Kempff
 
b) second player: Bernd Marseille
 
 
There are questions: When does sound begin, when does silence end? When does silence begin – and sound come to an end? I am listening between the fading sound, which nearly disappeared – and the new one, which not yet appeared. Sometimes you may not distinguish exactly appearance and disappearance.
 
 
 
Let us speak about the other between: between two movements of a symphony or a sonata. Listening between two movements, you may listen to sounds, which evoke a special atmosphere of attention at the end of a composition: music will not come to an end; sounds disappear (“morendo” or “perdendo” or “sostenuto perdendo”  “al niente”), the music passes and the piece seems to come to an end – but there is no end, it really goes on and on. Think about the paradox term “sostenuto perdendo”: keep on decaying! You may perhaps speak of an end after finishing the piece; but sometimes sounds “morendo” or “perdendo” will last and never finish. You will find a lot of examples in traditional music. A very good one: Hector Berlioz’ March of the Pilgrims, second movement of the symphony Harold in Italy. The last sounds: “sostenuto perdendo”.
 
 
6: nachtstück (nightpiece) (2007) for double bass, played by Eberhard Maldfeld
 
 
Music may exist “between”: between appearance and disappearance, between sound and silence, as something “nearly nothing”.
 
 
 
There seems to be no end to disappearance. The other way: there are pieces – there seems to be no end to appearance.
 
I remember for example the beginning of Anton Bruckners Fourth Symphony (Romantic Symphony); the string-tremolo may indicate that music has not yet begun, will begin soon; it says: Listen! The musicologist Peter Gülke speaks about “beginning before beginning”, speaks about music, which is on the way to become music (Brahms Bruckner. Zwei Studien. Kassel 1989). This kind of beginning (“misterioso”) creates a specific situation: something might happen, but you do not exactly know.
 
 
 
In my music you will find pieces or sounds, which seem to avoid the decision: appearing or disappearing? They appear while disappearing, they disappear while appearing. In the following recital the solo piece im stillen. atmungen für bass-flöten (in silence. breaths for bass-flutes) (2009) as well as the two duos throngs and waves might never come to an end. Presence that lasts.
 
 
 
Why such composing, why such listening?
 
What to do with pieces of Bruckner, Schubert, Berlioz, Cage, Feldman  and others today?
 
As composer I want to create situations which may open a wide space of possibilities. Listening I want to find a location where nearly nothing is fixed, where nearly everything is possible. Not yet vanished, not yet a new attack: but within “between” there may be the chance that I am aware of something I don’t know.
 
I want to continue observing decay, listening which ways things vanish, sound fades. I hear nearly nothing, and I continue listening nearly nothing – continue after the end and further on – even if really nothing can be heard. I continue to finish my own work.
 
Music and every-day-life, art and life are combined.
 
Compositions like these and many others say to me as listener: Listening may become breathing with the ears. I hear nearly nothing: then I may hear, that and which ways I am in the world. Ears may become antennae, instigated by nearly nothing. Between appearance and disappearance I find as a listener the possibility to create by myself.
 
Listening in this way is a kind of activity: it’s the activity to let it loose. To listen: to let loose.
 
Become and remain silent. Without action, without intention. That’s the activity.
 
I let it loose – until nearly nothing is left. Now I am here, this is my location. I listen to (nearly) nothing.
 
And now I am invited to fall into life.
 
 
 
This is – for my work – an important aim: to compose without composing; to create situations: something might happen.
 
The best – perhaps: you really don’t know if a performance might have happened or not. This performance will be present for you forever.
 
 
 
 
 
© Eva-Maria Houben
 


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