Photo: Bryony McIntyre

Eva-Maria Houben



20 Mar 2009  •  Glasgow University Chapel, Glasgow

Solo organ performance by German composer Eva-Maria Houben, closely associated with the Wandelweiser group of ultra-minimalists. Houben’s music, which focuses on 'nearly nothing' to expand the way we listen, is super delicate, opens up a space for contemplation and questions how listening defines what we consider music.

Eva-Marie Houben is a German composer, an ultra minimalist composer if you like labels.  And she’s on Wandelweiser, if you like record labels.  She performs her own (and others) works on organ and piano, but has also written for flute, double bass, and recently for tromba marina, (what is that, a water trumpet? -  upon listening to said piece our pal Kevin Bowyer (Organist at Glasgow University Chapel and one of the worlds most accomplished concert organists, no less) favorably compared it to someone sawing bones. What is she doing? Almost nothing.  On an organ. 


Here's one of her scores:


"the organ: a wind instrument | air flow - throughout the room | sometimes almost imperceptibly soft | more noise than sound, almost just the air flowing | different coloured air streams | different coloured silences between"


Why is it interesting? Right so there’s a pretty long history charting musicians’ slow acceptance of silence, or at least perceived silence, in music.  I don’t know where it starts, but here are some points along the way: Romantic composer Hector Berlioz expanded music silence-ward when (in some of his scores – esp. when working with clarinets) he called for: calm, silence, solitude, presque rien (almost nothing). In 1897 French joker (In those days I believe they were called humourists, which is maybe more polite) Alphonse Allais wrote Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man.  Very detailed in its notation of nine blank measures (He also created some very early conceptual art, including a blank sheet of paper titled First Communion of Anemic Young Girls In The Snow). Erwin Schulhoff's 1919 In futurum is made up entirely of rests, to be (not) played on piano. Then there’s John Cage and all that fuss about 4’33”. About pushing the music back on to the audience, them noticing the everyday sounds they make as music also etc…Anyway, the point is that this is not a new idea and so it’s odd why it’s often thought of as so difficult.  For 170 years we’ve moved towards silence in music, and more recently towards an acceptance that silence is never silence.  There is always a background hum, some small action that turns a silence into something more like a quiet.


So then here’s one (Of many…) definition of music to argue about; music is whatever we listen to when we have the intention of listening to music. (How does that sit with you?) Please now think about the multiple kinds of silence, the different and infinite low volume possibilities for the vibration of air producing sound, (something like the timeless, simultaneousness noise of the world).  If we make a cut across this infinity by collectively saying we are now listening, (with the intention of listening to music), and there are spaces in this listening which allow for ’silence’ then that silence is incorporated into music.  It’s musical qualities: texture, flow, shape, form, rhythm, detail; all of this can now be thought of in musical terms. Eva-Maria’s music sits on the border between sound and perceived silence.  Her wavering, quite tones, the rush of air, room noise, ambient noise, now and again a sound: it’s between music and non-music, between intentional sound and accidental sound.

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