Eva-Maria Houben – Breath For Organ (2018)
Being a critic and a writer has its pitfalls, particularly when faced with what a piece of music is and does on its own discrete terms, against its potential, effect, and proximity within a broader cultural framework or context. At the extreme, it is possible for a work of lesser quality, or one beyond a listener’s taste, to hold the potential for a profoundly positive effect. It is equally possible for a work of stunning accomplishment or beauty to instigate, be part of, or contribute to, sweeping, negative consequences. What is impossible, is for work of art to escape context. It sits within one or many, contributes to sculpting of its own, and is in constant discourse with that which surrounds it. Such, in my view, are the complexities when faced with the output of The Wandelweiser Group, an assembly of composers and musicians whose music I intuitively enjoy, but whose effect on, and place in, the contexts of experimental and avant-garde music, I am inclined to appose.
The Wandelweiser Group was founded by Antoine Beuger and Burkhard Schlothauer in 1992. Over the years, it has become a fairly expansive group, with no geographic center – in addition to Beuger and Schlothauer, including Jürg Frey, Michael Pisaro, Dante Boon, Eva-Maria Houben, Radu Malfatti, Craig Shepard, Manfred Werder, and numerous others. In base principle, the reasons behind why Wandelweiser initially came together appear simple and just – a group of like minds, joined by a shared love for a certain kind of music, assembling to support one another. Unfortunately, what the group presents themselves as, against what they embrace, advocate, and often perpetrate – sometimes consciously, others not, can be a very different story.
The first thing to acknowledge within the output of Wandelweiser, is its tendency to conform to a narrow set of ideas and frameworks. It demands a fairly experienced ear to distinguish the work of one composer from the next. This isn’t fundamentally bad. Had the members chosen to undermine the totem of authorship, working anonymously under the banner of Wandelweiser, it could be incredibly inspiring. It is however, not the case – the reasons and origins being far more dubious – a kind of group think, veering toward formalist orthodoxy and aesthetics. The Wandelweiser Group regularly cites a reverence for, and a dedication to, the ideas and music of John Cage (and, to a lesser degree, composers like Morton Feldman), with a particular emphasis of silence as a compositional element. It is the group’s connections to Cage’s ideas, with their lasting legacies, from which many of the problems spring.
In the years since his death in 1992, the image of John Cage has grown to towering scale. He has been made a saint within the world of avant-garde and experimental music, and the Wandelweiser Group has played a part in the making of this myth. At present, the composer’s place is relatively unchallenged, a product of a careful sanitation of history and an obscuring of context. Particularly for a composer whose music few people – even devoted fans of avant-garde and experimental music, admit to listen to or like, one should ask why Cage occupies the place he does, while many of his rough contemporaries, composers like Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, Lou Harrison, and James Tenney – often more revolutionary and radical than he, linger in his shadow. Cage’s legacy is far more connected to the enduring effects of the era in which he emerged, and the ideas which he presented, rather than what he composed. He is almost entirely unique in this position. People read his books, cite and quote him endlessly, but rarely engage with his music.
While he began composing slightly earlier, Cage came to prominence in the period following the Second World War – an era during which The United States was becoming a true imperialist power. Part of this ascension was dependent on the country wrestling the seat of culture and intellectual life away from Europe, and within this process Cage was a perfect pawn. He was brilliant, charming, charismatic, and presented seemingly radical ideas with a fairly digestible delivery – an emblem of American progress and ingenuity – a good talking head. This is not to say that Cage wasn’t profoundly important and influential within the world of avant-garde music. Few have had the lasting effect he has, but it is crucial to understand the context and why.
Cage’s revolutionary ideas primary orbit around three territories – indeterminacy – chance as a compositional element, silence, and the use of non-instrumental sound sources and prepared instruments. The problem is, almost none of Cage’s big ideas were his own. Indeterminacy had been in use for decades by composers like Henry Cowell and Charles Ives. Early versions of prepared instruments date to the end of the 19th century. Non-instrumental sound sources can be found in the work of Futurist and Dada composers from the first quarter of the 20th century, and within Musique Concrète during the second. And silence, with the exception of its unique deployment within a single work, can be seen as an extended rest because it is placed in proximity with sounds – not particularly radical. Cage’s one true revolutionary act is found in a single work – 4′33″ from 1952, during which the performer sits in “silence” at the piano. It is an effort of classic Dada endgame antagonism, designed to elicit its own rejection by the audience, but, even here, Cage wasn’t the first. Decades before, both Alphonse Allais and Erwin Schulhoff had separately composed works entirely made up of extended silence – works now conveniently ignored by history. What made Cage’s work radical was not the thing itself, but the ideas which it placed into the world. 4′33″ is a piece of performative theater. The piano and pianist are a rouse, designed to frame context and expectation. It proposes that silence is impossible, drawing focus to the ambient sounds of the room and those generated by the audience – objects which fill the perceptual void left by the silent piano. Through the expectation of musicality provided by the context, these sounds are intended to be perceived as holding a value equal to music. This is Cage’s great contribution – the elevation of naturally occurring sound and ambience to a value which is normally applied to their organizations – to appreciate, for example, the sounds drifting through an open window on similar terms as one might a symphony. What is crucial to recognize, is that Cage’s use of silence in all his other works is fundamentally different than that of 4′33″. They deploy silence as a structural element, rather than a means to draw the ear toward chance occurrence and value of sound in its raw materiality. In such works, silence is a stable volume with integrity. It is to be respected with equal value to a note, rather than something to be filled, and thus serves a definitive function within an idiom of sparse or minimalist composition. Within the context of post-war America, Cage may have seemed radical and symbolic, but very little of what he presented, or has been subsequently credited with, was new. Like so much of his country’s capitalist productivity, he simply made better versions out of the achievements of others.
As a sum total, Cage’s ideas seem to propose the possibility for total freedom within music – a shedding of historic shackles, allowing for chance, and for music to be composed from an endless territory of sources. In reality, the composer wanted nothing of the sort, and therein lay the crucial dangers of his legacy. Unlike many of his peers, Cage was a forceful advocate of control and the long standing architectures of the institutions of Classical music. He didn’t want to break down the walls, he simply wanted to bend them to his will – to build the institution in his image. Through his charm, intellect, and the accessibility of his ideas, he became the loudest voice in the room, quickly followed by a culture of sheep. He was know for vocal pronouncements of support for those who carefully followed his rules – the continuation of his legacy, and vicious attacks on anyone who dared to stray beyond the orthodoxy he constructed – Julius Eastman and Glenn Branca being famous cases, as was the entire idiom of African American led improvisation. For Cage, experimental and avant-garde music was a dangerous territory in need of definitions and rules, to be deployed by the capable – educated elites, essentially white men from European and American upper and middle-class backgrounds. And so his music and ideas have remained, carefully guarded and harvested by those so called elites.
There is a simple statement made by Michael Pisaro, one of the more prominent voices within the Wandelweiser Group, in an article from 2009 which attempts to illuminate their origins and practice. Responding to his own question about why we like what we like, he says – There’s no reason to love this music. One just does (or one doesn’t). Aesthetics and history come after the fact…. The last thing I would want to do is to normalize something I continue to find strange. While this may seem innocent enough – even logical and convincing, it illuminates an entire world of proximity, action, and intent, not to mention privilege. It only takes a glance at the histories and contemporary realizations of experimental and avant-garde practice, to see the dominance of a fairly narrow cultural framework – almost always highly educated, almost always white and male, and almost always from privileged economic backgrounds. Though there are exceptions, it seems plausible to easily deduce that one does not simply love this music. Access to it is opened by education and the confidences which comes with the benefits of privilege. While perhaps not intentional, Pisaro’s statement is a rationalization of elitism – that only a certain number of people can or will like this music, thus allowing it to exist in isolation were it can guarded and controlled, just as Cage preferred. This stands entirely in opposition to the spirit from which experimental and avant-garde practice springs – High-Modernist idealism, which, rather than pandering to the elite classes who had long held exclusive access to the arts – its audiences and makers alike, set out to smash hierarchy – to bring advanced ideas and forms of art into everyday life. While never truly successful in achieving its hopes, Modernism, and thus the avant-garde, was founded on a faith in the capacity for understanding possessed by all people. Cage betrayed this spirit, as often do those who follow in his footsteps.
The idea that aesthetics and history are entirely sculpted retrospectively is both irresponsible and absurd. While constantly in flux and evolving, they are very much the product of actions and interventions in real time, and of privilege and inequity. An object’s fate – its access to authoring of history – always a product of subjectivity, rests in the hands of its own context, as much as those which follow. It is the kind of statement which reveals the privilege of the speaker, implying that they retain the luxury of ignorance regarding their own privilege – presuming that their voice is important and will be naturally heard.
Finally, perhaps the most inexplicable element of Pisaro’s statement – The last thing I would want to do is to normalize something I continue to find strange. While this begs countless questions, given the framework within which is made, it seems to imply that avant-garde and experimental music, or, at the very least, elements of them, are strange. While I can not possibly conceive of how the product of an artist’s creativity, when made honestly and in good faith, could be strange, this is a fairly common default toward making these sonic territories exclusive. Not long before his death in 2017, Charles Duvelle, a composer and the pioneering ethnographer who founded Ocora while working under Pierre Schaeffer, recounted what had initially drawn him toward the music of Africa and other indigenous traditions from across the globe – that they displayed a clear relationship with avant-garde and experimental music. Given that this is easily heard, there’s an argument that the avant-garde is simply embarking on a process which returns music to a more normal state – to something which European music and its extensions had lost along way, but was retained in other places. Ironically, Pisaro’s sentiment undermines even the best of Cage’s intentions – those which offered an endless spectrum of material sonority for use within music – not because the were strange or unfamiliar, but for the precise opposite – that they exist all around us in everyday life – to place them in a new context and normalize their presence there. The avant-garde is about progress and long lasting positive change, not its initial or sustained shock to the system. Cage’s concepts and ideas are not difficult to understand. They are simply a challenge to a set of presumptions about what defines music. Of course if this is unfamiliar to a listener, it might seem strange against their expectation, but it is an easy leap to conquer with a certain willingness, guidance, and proper explanation. To classify a music as strange is to deny its potential. To refuse it a state of normalcy, is to co-opt and cloister.
What does seem strange, is that the Wandelweiser Group, a collection of composers and musicians who are frame themselves as a vanguard of experimental music, so staunchly pursues ideas which came into the world over three quarters of century ago (and even longer if you trace them back to their true root). Had Cage done the same, he would have been clinging to the world of Wagner, Verdi, Brahms, Mahler, Debussy, Strauss, and Tchaikovsky. Not exactly the door to progress, let alone revolution. Of course the pace of progress has slowed significantly in recent years, but one should ask how much of this has to do with the fact that certain composers and listeners can’t seem to put the 1950’s to rest. The art-word managed. You don’t see it rehashing Rauscheburg and Twombly. The world of dance managed. You don’t see it rehashing the Cunningham. Why can’t the world of experimental music? The answer is simple. It has, and did so long before Cage died.
Looking back over the history of avant-garde and experimental practice, most of the important output, produced in the eras following the 1960s, developed beyond the confines of Classical music. The Fluxus hope to dismantle the idea of a composer, with the barriers and institutions surrounding advanced forms of music, at least to a certain extent, succeeded. Artist’s like Tony Conrad led the way by joining forces with Faust. Pauline Oliveros introduced grassroots tools for interfacing with sound and composition. Mauricio Kagel preferred the medium of television over the concert hall. The artists of Groupe de Recherches Musicales increasingly embedded their works in film, or presented them in acousmatic form. Free improvisation became a people’s revolutionary music. Composers like Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham grew from the context of punk. Artists like Arthur Russell, Julius Eastman, Ellen Fullman, Phill Niblock, Laurie Spiegel, Arnold Dreyblatt, Annea Lockwood, Christina Kubisch, George Lewis, and Carl Stone forged cross-contextual connections everywhere they went. The list goes on and on, with advances in technology ever quickening the pace, placing experimental music in the hands of the people. Over the final quarter of the 20th century, this music became so diverse and expansive, existing in so many geographies and contexts, with its influence and applications so broad, that it is impossible to say what it was – to define. Most importantly, it had become impossible to contain – the one thing that John Cage increasingly feared.
For many John Cage was a sweet, charming man – the lover of mushrooms who birthed a revolution in sound. While he had long displayed a latent conservatism, during the last decade or so of his life, the era during which many of the members of the Wandelweiser group and others began to engage with his ideas, this became increasingly pronounced in his music and actions. Concurrently, the 80’s witnessed something of Cage revival. Celebrations, symposiums, and concerts were held. Classes were taught. Books were written. A new generation gathered at his feet to hear what experimental music was. It was this generation, many embracing the idea that experimental music belonged safely within the confines of classical music, or some parallel but equally cloistered equivalent – a fundamentally conservative, regressive, and destructive idea, becoming academics, writers, and artists / composers, who are largely responsible for Cage’s current and questionable proximity in history.
When I’m asked to review a record, I have a very simple process. I listen to it. If I like or am engaged by what I hear, I do my best to agree to write about it. This seems like the most logical and democratic course – to let the work speak for itself, regardless of who made it. If it’s good, it’s good… usually. So far this process hasn’t failed me. It has, however, led to the complex situation within which I now find myself. Back in January the folks over at Second Editions, a label whose efforts I like, applaud, and respect, asked me to consider their upcoming release, Eva-Maria Houben’s Breath For Organ, for review. I listened to it, really liked what I heard, and promptly agreed. For the most part, because of my process and belief in democracy and access, I try to fairly consider anything, whether I am aware of an artist’s previous work or not. Houben’s name rang a bell, but I couldn’t place it. When sitting down to write, I did a little research and discovered that she is a very active and prominent member of the Wandelweiser group. Rather than scrap the review, I allowed the situation to provide me with a rare kind of challenge – how do you negotiate a work that you like and think has quality and worth on its own discrete terms, but belongs to so something larger which has the potential for long term negative consequences.
Eva-Maria Houben – Breath For Organ (2018)
Eva-Maria Houben is a composer, pianist, musicologist, and university professor based in Dortmund, Germany. She is also the director of the Tonstudio des Instituts für Musik und Musikwissenschaft der Universität Dortmund. Since the middle of the 2000’s she has released a daunting stream of releases – nearly 50 in total, largely housed on Edition Wandelweiser or her own imprint, Diafani. Breath For Organ is the personification of subtlety and constraint – an hour and 15 minute work, which the title more or less aptly describes – the central element being the passage of air through an organ. While I’ve encountered a number of works or performances over the years which incorporate an organ’s “breath”, and the passage of air through brass and reed instruments is a structural and textural element regularly deployed by a vast range of improvisers, Houben, through duration, commitment and constraint, pushes and transforms this sonorous territory into its own total world. Like much of Wandelweiser’s output, it belongs to a spectrum of composition which sets out to recalibrate the listener’s expectation and a relationship to dynamics and tonal, structural, and rhythmic relation within a work – through an extreme form of constraint, draw the ear toward subtle, and often lost, occurrences and interactions of sound. In Houben’s hands, and across the length of Breath For Organ, the result is stunningly beautiful, immersive, engaging, and rewarding – the grating texture of air punctuated by shifts and leaked tones generated by its relationship to the organ’s pipes.
What must be asked when engaging with something critically, is what that thing sets out to do, what it achieves, and what its broader context and potential is. Breath For Organ, in many ways, is the product of the kind of endgame thinking which gave us 4′33″ . It searches for a form of progress, embarking on a process which is intended the shift the listener’s expectations, understanding, and relationship to a certain territory of sound, but, once achieved, doesn’t particularly allow for further exploration. It is so constrained and discrete, that it seems unlikely that Houben will embark on a process of building a large body of work within this territory of the organ’s potential, nor, were she to do so, would many listeners find the results particularly rewarding, or be able to distinguish one work from the next. Once reaped, like 4′33″, the work’s rewards are best deployed beyond it’s own boundaries. While this is a perfectly reasonable creative practice and pursuit, it very often risks painting itself into into a corner – becoming a “one-liner”.
This is where we must ask what a thing sets out to do, what its broader context and potential is – what it contributes to and creates. Admittedly, perhaps to my own discredit, had Houben not belonged to the Wandelweiser group, it is highly unlikely that I would have placed her under the critical microscope I am, but that thing, something I feel to be a negative force within the contexts of experimental and avant-garde musics, has inevitably colored where I understand her to reside – a maker of good work which contributes to something bad.
In many ways, the questions surrounding the Wandelweiser group belong to a sprawling conundrum which threads its way through the last century – what do you do with a creative object which is linked to something ethically questionable? This is something intellectual circles have faced when contending with the work of Heidegger and Celine, both abhorrent anti-Semites with connections to the Nazi party, with the criminality of Genet, currently with the #metoo movement, and many others. In those cases the questions largely addressed the negotiation of great things made by bad people. The Wandelweiser conundrum is more complex because, at least to my knowledge, most of the group’s member are good, well- intentioned individuals who make reasonably good work, but who contribute, perhaps without considering it, to the perpetuation of unethical realities, many of which descend from the actions of John Cage, and directly undermine the potential and spirit of our context.
Cage, progressively toward the end, despite the radical ideas that he helped popularize, was fundamentally conservative. His ideas and actions attempted to define (and thus constrain the potential of) experimental and avant-garde music, and limit its applications to elitist contexts – to the highly educated beneficiaries of social, cultural, racial, and economic privilege. For decades there have been a largely suppressed series of critiques which highlight many of his actions as racist, sexist, and, despite being queer himself, homophobic. The use of Cage’s ideas does not fundamentally mean that one participates with or perpetuates these evils. Sartre drew extensively on Heidegger, attempting to strip their evils and deploy what was noble in them for the greater good, but never attempted to obscure the truth of their root. What is undeniable, is that the elitism, segregation, and undermining, growing directly from Cage’s idea of orthodoxy, continue around us today, and seem to be gathering steam.
In recent years, I have encountered increasing concern among members of the experimental music community about the participatory role of avant-garde Classical music, with associative extensions, largely growing from, or associated with, academia, in defining experimental music – that this collective voice is obscuring a vast range of practices and contexts, coming to be a signifier in and of itself. This is something I have also observed. Experimental music is more diverse in race, gender, and practice, as well as more geographically and culturally expansive, than it has ever been, yet the authoring of its histories and defining characteristics seem to grow ever more narrow – owned by highly educated white men from Europe and the United States, with a token nod given to handful of women and artists from Asia.
What becomes incredibly hard about evaluating this process is knowing how active or conscious it is. The authoring of history is often a consequence of access to its artifacts and preexisting knowledge from which a historian departs, thus it is very easy for historic sins to be perpetuated in the present.
The community surrounding avant-garde and experimental music has always been small, but its access to resources has certainly changed over the years. Looking back, during the era which stretched from the 1950’s to the 90’s, it was large and diverse enough to sustain a surprising number of independent record labels, publishing houses and periodicals, which, in their totality, represented a broad and international diversity of intent, proximity, and practice. Tragically, with perhaps the exception of the number of record labels, this is no longer the case. The sources of information are increasingly narrowed and contained. This is a simple consequence of economics, rather than active intervention. What becomes very notable, is that culture which was largely sculpted through its active independence from institutions, now increasingly is defined and voiced from within institutions, particularly via academics and university presses – the narrow context which willingly loose money on subject with such a small range of interest. Crucially, this is not a practice of philanthropy. It is a sustaining investment – when a music can be defined, it can be taught. When something is taught, it becomes an economy. For something to have an economy, it needs a validating history. And thus, without counterpoint, this context has become a singular and powerful voice.
If you search for books by or on John Cage, more than 1000 entries appear on Amazon. Most of those not written by Cage, are authored academics, are published academic presses, and draw directly on the wealth of texts that Cage left behind. Searching for books on any other avant-garde composer of similar stature is likely to yield a small handful, if any at all. Trying to find any broad survey of practice which doesn’t frame Cage as the fount, is nearly impossible – part of vicious cycle of books being the primary sources for further books, rather than first hand experience or primary sources and voices. The histories of experimental music no longer appear as they did in real time. Cage and his disciples – many having become conservative academics and composers – figures like those belonging to the Wandelweiser group, are largely at the root of this change.
Of course I don’t have a fundamental issue with academics or academic intuitions. Most of my family are teachers and academics, and I am very much a product of my access to those institutions – a prestigious New England boarding school, even more prestigious art schools, and an Ivy League University. What I am unwilling to ignore is the connection of my own privilege – economic, racial, gender, and sexual orientation, with my access to those institutions and the benefits and further privilege they have provided, nor their base realities and the inequities they sustain. The structure of academia, for all its good, equally operates as an armature serving self-interest – producing histories constructed to support the ideologies of those who construct them – those ideologies delivered to subsequent generations to establish sustained support. Thus, with the voice of experimental music increasing growing from within academia, we must ask what ideologies our context supports, sustains, and pursues. If it is part of a system which benefits from, pursues, and perpetuates privilege and inequity, then those elements must be exorcised. Failing that, it must be smashed, destroyed, and built again – barred from those who perpetrate such sins. Ignorance and naivete is unacceptable and no excuse. Silence is consent. Inaction is complicity.
Cage’s ideas and actions, whether explicitly intending to have such an outcome or not, have certainly helped sustain elitism, privilege, inequity, silencing, sexism, and racism. As abhorrent and unacceptable as this is, given the character of the society we live in, it isn’t that shocking that a bunch of privileged white people would want to colonize something and claim it as their own, consciously or unconsciously denying the histories of those who are inconvenient to their orthodoxy of definition. What has always surprised me about the reverence for Cage, is the desire and willingness to appropriate his terms, definitions, and territories, all of which, creatively, are incredibly limiting. Avant-garde literally translates to fore-guard – those who, when delving into new territory, take the most dangerous, lead position. To experiment, is to embark on a process to which the outcome is unknown. Thus, being a proximity and process, by very definition, avant-garde and experimental music can have no concrete definition. The pursuit of the unknown is the only thing about it which can be known. The process which Cage embarked on – defining and constraining, instigated a transmogrify – the shifting of these practices toward a series of signifiers – sonorous territories, approaches, or structures which could be recognized, and thus denote a proximity, which then concludes with a form of ownership. This is a process of aestheticization, and is fundamentally against the spirit of the avant-garde and experimental. It is the solidification of an orthodoxy, no different than those which exist within other immovable traditions of music which are no longer living. The avant-garde and experimental are not a “sound”. They are a practice and spirit.
Of course, within a practice and proximity which is so diverse, having explored so many possibilities and ranges of sonorous materiel and source, fatigue and exhaustion is inevitable – a seeming endpoint of new territories and possible progress. Part of this is a consequence of our own history – its tendency to be shaped by the expectation for radical, paradigm shifting actions and objects. It is the inevitable slowing of this progress which has played a role in a tendency to reflect on our history and willingness to accept the application of concrete definitions – taking on a fairly passive role, allowing the loudest voices to occupy the consciousness. In reality, ownership remains with each of us. There are no definitions, only the terms of our spirit, hopes, and what we pursue, – our expectations, and what ethical standards we hold ourselves to. Avant-garde and experimental music where founded on the hopes to make the world a better place – to introduce a wonderful and rewarding sound into the lives of all, to explore and to wrestle advanced forms of music from the elite classes – to gift them to everyone. It was founded on a belief in the capacity of all people – what they could hear, appreciate, and make – on the potential of open, classless, international and truly democratic conversation through sound. So I ask, while I am sure they are all well intentioned and good people who have every right to make the music they make, is this what the members of Wandelweiser pursue? Are they a force for good, or are they, even if their music is of great quality, reinforcing the very institutions we hope to smash? It is impossible for work of art to escape context. It sits within one or many, contributes to sculpting of its own, and is in constant discourse with that which surrounds it. It is up to us to define what our context is.
– Bradford Bailey