Friday, March 1, 2013

the spirituality of subtraction

Long before the current practices of musical minimalism, whatever creative matrix you consider proper to minimalism - long before the pedagogy of Joseph Fux, Pärt's tintinnabuli, La Monte Young's High Tension Lines, or, of more recent fascination among many readers, Wandelweiser - the 13th century Neo-Platonist and Dominican Meister Eckhart wrote at length about the process of joining our creativity to that of divine influences, a process, he observed, not of accretion, but of subtraction. Eckhart died just before Dogen Zenji was born, another philosopher whose insistence on stripping away the superfluous and attuning to the immanence found in emptiness, silence and the nearly nothing (presque rien), to borrow one of Eva-Maria Houben's favorite musical annotations, was rigorous and revelatory.

This is to say that this listener hears in the recent music of Joe Houpert and Eva-Maria Houben the insistence of these 13th century writers that the listener's attunement to the bare bones of a thing - here, music - is where true treasures lie. Of course creativity is always a process, in part, of subtraction; Houpert and Houben are notable, however, for sustaining our attention to  music exquisitely poised between a sound and its decay, a melody and its absence, and the vitality possible in repetition and iteration. Listening to Houpert and Houben, I am faced with that fluid and volatile thing, my preferences, as Wallace Stevens said, between the beauty of inflections/Or the beauty of innuendoes. One night, listening through orgelbuch repeatedly, I sensed preference drop away, and I heard the presence of silence, and I realized how incredibly rare a thing Houben is creating. 


Joe Houpert releases his contrapuntal miniatures for synthesizer and loops under the nom Prayer.  Prayer has titled his two solo releases to date First Species and Second Species, ensuring the curious, non-musicologist listener (hopefully they are among his listeners) will grasp the centrality the rules of the counterpoint game play in his music. I won't pretend to any sort of substantive grasp of the pedagogy of species in counterpoint, except to say it is self-evident Prayer uses this strictest form of the practice to make a bare bones beauty from very few notes. Progressing from a cantus firmus you'll find yourself whistling or humming long after the music ends, Prayer applies timbral/textural gradations of fade, decay and incremental erasure to his braided melodies with impressive timing; almost as soon as a new counterpoint sounds, it begins to vanish, and so it goes throughout both species' brief lives. 

The earliest authors on species counterpoint stressed how crucial it is that the cantus firmus, the unchanging tonic, the unchained melody on which the species' rests and to which it returns, possess an adamantine beauty. While I prefer some of Prayer's cantus firmi over others - they are all lovely, a few are simply gorgeous - Prayer has been meticulous in establishing the ground for his process of  melodic accretion and subtraction. Within the rules of the species, a real fire crackles in Prayer's work; the beautiful melodies are smeared and streaked with noise before they are gradually extinguished. Prayer's music gives you something impossibly lovely for a brief time, but subtraction is inherent in these strange species; it is counterpoint made to fade.

Eva-Maria Houben's orgelbuch, 14 short works for a rigorously restrained organ, is an exultant example of subtraction's creative possibilities, and is, along with her releases from 2005 and 2007, Abregistrieren and Von Da Nach Da, among my favorite works found in the Wandelweiser catalog. There is about her organ works a quality so self-evident and natural, you wonder how it can sound so bracing and new - the elemental sound of air, of breath, of streams sustained by stops and pistons and by the composer and musician. On the earlier Abregistrieren, Houben brings forth the luxuriant, stately presence of streaming air, in a drone work that creates a sphere of time as enveloping as those of Eliane Radigue (this piece, among a few others by Houben, are sampled in Michael Pisaro's stunning Asleep, Street, Pipes, Tones 2011). On orgelbuch, Houben works within self-imposed strictures, rather rigorous parameters for the manual and pedal stops. The result, as I suggested above, is that Houben inhabits the spaces between dramatically delimited sounds and silences. Her brief sonic excursuses, some flutey, some grave and grounded, seem offered to the air for a brief flight or a suspended moment, before they vanish. This is the music of nearly nothing, as Houben would have it - the blackbird whistling, and just after. It is among the most extraordinary music I have heard in some time, brought into being - breathed into being - as much by subtraction as accretion.


Eva-Maria Houben

Title from Shizuteru Ueda, Die Gottesgeburt in der Seele und der Durchbruch zur Gottheit. Die mystische Anthropologie Meister Eckharts und ihre Konfrontation mit der Mystik des Zen-Buddhismus, Gütersloh: Mohn, 1965.

Notation: Bach, Houben
Photo: Houben (Fergus Kelly)

In Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird,  Stevens closes the well-known referenced stanza thusly:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

I would suggest Houben's music tosses off that duality, and so I wrote the blackbird whistling, and just after. This, to my way of thinking, makes all the difference.

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