– Silence – Disappearance
Some thoughts on the perception of “nearly
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
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
goes on in the overtones played after a long pause.
And if you would ask me for a statement to composing, to my composing
– I would answer: listening becomes the awareness of fading
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
never forget that the organ is a wind-instrument. My pieces for organ
and my “installations” for organ (the installations
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 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
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
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
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 –
– disappearance” and about “nearly
and I begin to offer you first of all some thoughts on disappearance.
My first study to “presence” was a book titled:
Abolition of Time. Thoughts on the utopia of unlimited presence in
music of the 20th century”. This book was published in 1992.
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
(“Ursprung und Gegenwart”: “Origin and
Presence”). Many musicians and composers at the
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
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,
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:
and Time”) But he thought that by improvising the musician
have experiences of time he never would have otherwise. There are
publications in the last years about the “Free
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
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” –
eye – ear. I think that the experience of presence depends on
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
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.
Instigations to listening”, 2005) ends with these thoughts:
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
As an annotation to dynamics „nearly nothing“ may
compared with Schoenbergs „wie ein Hauch“
breeze“; Arnold Schönberg, sixth piano piece, 6
Klavierstücke op. 19; Anton Webern, zweites
aus Fünf Stücke für Orchester op. 10) or
hörbar“ („nearly inaudible“) or
(Anton Webern, third piece for orchestra, Fünf Stücke
für Orchester op. 10).
We listen to the movement La harpe éolienne –
(The aeolien harp – remembrances) of
Lélio ou Le
retour à la vie (Lélio or the Comeback to Life).
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
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
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
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
harp (2009) for harp solo, played by Rhodri Davies
Yesterday I played two pieces of John Cages works for piano:
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
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”.
one of the first to radically expand the listening space by his
reference to “nearly nothing” (“presque
You may listen “between” – and there are
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).
Sonate B-Dur, 1;
player: Wilhelm Kempff
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
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
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
perdendo”: keep on decaying! You may perhaps speak of an end
after finishing the piece; but sometimes sounds
or “perdendo” will last and never finish. You will
lot of examples in traditional music. A very good one: Hector
Berlioz’ March of the Pilgrims, second movement of the
Harold in Italy. The last sounds: “sostenuto
nachtstück (nightpiece) (2007) for double bass, played by
Music may exist “between”: between appearance and
disappearance, between sound and silence, as something
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
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:
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.
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
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 –
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
without composing; to create situations: something might happen.
The best – perhaps: you really don’t know if a
might have happened or not. This performance will be present for you
© Eva-Maria Houben