Born in 1955 in Rheinberg, Germany, and raised in Westphalia, Eva-Maria Houben’s musical career commenced at the age of 12 when she began playing organ in Sunday services at the church where her father worked as a presbyter. Subsequently working as a teacher at both school and university level, she has written numerous books of music, including The Abolition of Time: Thoughts on the utopia of unlimited presence in music of the 20th century (1992) and studies of composers from Schubert, Bruckner, and Berlioz to Vinko Glokobar and Hans-Joachim Hespos.

Parallel, but deeply related to her career as teacher and musicologist, since the year 2000, Eva-Maria Houben has been part of the Wandelweiser group—an international, though principally European, collective of composers and performers, including Antoine Beuger, Michael Pisaro, and Jürg Frey, whose work tends toward long duration, extreme quiet, and silence. During this time, as well as editing and co-editing three books on the group, she has written over four hundred compositions for a wide range of performers, solo instruments, and ensembles, many of them drawing on her own experience as a pianist and organist. Performing gentle interrogations of musical basics—“what is a chord?” asks the title to one piece—her work is at once focussed and wide open, her characteristic text prefaces drawing on verbal and visual images of wind, shelter, space, sky. These works offer considerable freedom to performers.

For Houben, distinctions between “open” and “closed” scores, between improvisation and composition are less important. Instead, in her book Musical Practice as a Form of Life, published in her own English translation by Columbia University Press in 2019, she coined the term “musical practice” to describe a conception of music that encompasses the process of composition, performance, and listening, gently dismantling hierarchies and traditions while also revealing the presence of a more flexible conception within the various branches of classical music. Houben and I took part in two long conversations over Zoom this June; our conversations lasted more than three hours. 

VAN: What does Wandelweiser mean to you?

Eva-Maria Houben: I was writing music before I came to Wandelweiser, but this was a time when I felt very alone. During this time, I was only [rarely] able to realize my ideal vision of composing. When I found the Wandelweiser group, I really changed the way I composed. Nowadays I have a clear idea of what composition is for me, but I had to work for a very long time to come to this. Now I’m certain that this is the way for me. And I did not have this feeling before.

No one can say what Wandelweiser is. [Laughs.] But for me, it’s the possibility of encounters with people, and learning that you never do anything alone. Music is sharing: sending scores, getting scores, talking, practicing together, meeting and having encounters. And learning: a great learning, as Cornelius Cardew put it! [Laughs.] It’s interesting to meet, not only other composers, but other people who deal with art or language or performance. You can learn a lot from other artists, and that’s a big field of human beings. I learn more and more about other people as Wandelweiser grows. I experience every day that music is a common idea we share. Music is, I’ve learned, a big we. Instead of I, I learned we. And now I can feel that we, even outside of Wandelweiser, and learn to love the we

You’ve said, “I am always composing.” What do you mean by that? 

Some people say to me: “Eva-Maria, you write so many compositions! How can you do that?” And I say, “It’s because I do not stop: I’m always composing.” If I ride my bicycle or if I go for a swim or if I sit in the garden listening to the birds, I’m always composing: it’s a form of life. When I’m on my bike or swimming, I compose in my head, and then I can sit and write. But I do not distinguish between composing in my head and composing on paper or on the computer.  And so I work on many pieces, sometimes simultaneously. I do not revise a piece when it’s concluded: it’s gone, and people perform it. I do not take it back and then work on it again. And I do not have the vision that I could create a perfect piece or the one and only piece. Every piece is one piece within a long row of pieces; it’s one step on a way that can never be finished.

For example, I have many pieces belonging to the series “by a departing light,” based on a poem by Emily Dickinson, and they always show another process of departing light, becoming smaller and smaller and vanishing and vanishing musically. There are so many ways to show this, and one piece is only one step; then the next pieces come, like waves. And the circle goes on and on and on, and you understand more and more and more about what departing light could be and what musical practice could be. One piece explains and comments on another. And so I never stop. That’s what I mean when I say I am always composing.

Paradise that ends is no paradise. I aim at unfinished processes. There is the energy and the potential to go on and on.

What is the relationship between composition and improvisation in your work?

I’m often asked, “Is this composition fully notated, does it have a complete structure or no structure?” I must say that questions concerning the structure do not tell us much about the piece. To me, every piece has a structure when it is performed. Even in improvisation, you can’t do anything without gaining a structure, so for me composition and improvisation are two ends of a wide scale. Often, my compositions have an origin in improvisation. So did Robert Schumann: look at a piece like “Kreisleriana.” And the composition is neither better nor worse than the improvisation. I think these methods of analysis and talking about music are ideas musicologists need to explore a piece. When I listen to music, it is not important which aspects are notated or not notated. It doesn’t have any meaning for a listener.  

When I compose, I want to have a piece that gains shape from performance to performance and that can be fluent. For me it’s not so important that the performers try to realize a difficult structure. The piece is open to multiple interpretations, and I noticed that the identity of a piece remains even if you let it loose, even if you do not try to fix it. You can’t recreate it by transcribing or notating it more exactly. It happens in the moment of performance.

The challenge, if you write a score, is that it must be clear. A text score can be as clear as a detailed score with exact pitches and rhythms. I have scores that consist exclusively of text, and some which are more or less notated with exact pitches, exact rhythms, exact details. But then often I add a poetic description, a poem of my own or by another writer, which could lead the performers to certain associations and images in their mind and help them perform. I do not want to tell them too much. Instead, the poetic text can guide them. For example, when I say, “finding together a path into silence,” it’s clear that the musicians become progressively softer and listen closer. This is better for me than to write mp and then p and then pp. That would be another way, but then the performers would always be looking at the score and would lose their listening. “Finding together a path into silence” is a poetic description of the same process. It frees the performers to act.

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In your book Musical Practice as a Way of Life, you write: “It is about losing. We get rid of everything we think we possess. Maybe musical practice could be described as losing and giving up for lost.” Tell me more about this idea of “giving up for lost.” 

In musical practice, we grow older together. But in the moments when we perform, play, sing, and share, we often forget that time is an arrow running from left to right. We forget that we grow older. There is a lot of music that enables us to forget time, and to lose ourselves. That’s the best thing we can do: lose ourselves, lose the fear of getting older and the fear of dying. And so we have the chance to be really free in the moment: free from time, in one way, but that’s also the depth of time. We learn time as a vertical line from heaven to earth, and it’s often combined with the feeling of losing ourselves. And we can learn that by losing the sounds, we give the sounds away and we do not fear them going away. Losing becomes a process of gaining the feeling that the earth, the cosmos, has so many worlds within it. A stone, a grain of sand has a cosmos of things we can observe, and you can feel this in the sounds.

"In musical practice, we grow older together. But in the moments when we perform, play, sing, and share, we often forget that time is an arrow running from left to right." Eva-Maria Houber in @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

When everything is given up for lost, I learned that I can lose the sounds and nothing happens. And that’s the moment when you can truly learn to improvise. When you want to improvise and you play a sound, you fear that you lose this sound and you must act all the time, and when there is silence, you fear that the silence lasts too long. But that makes it impossible to improvise: the clock runs on and you have no chance to overcome the clock. So instead, you must lose yourself and try to enjoy the resonance and the echo of the space. When you play a sound and you give it up and it finishes, and you stay silent, let’s say for two or three minutes, and nothing happens, you become more and more free. And then you can learn to improvise—not before. 

Giving up for lost has to do with the utopian process. It does not stick to certain sounds, to certain arrangements, to certain situations. It does not want to hold on to the moment. It accepts that every moment goes away. I feel I can fall into this passing of time and nothing is worth keeping. I feel that I can learn from the sounds going away, and I can learn to accept my own deconstruction and to give myself up. By this, I can learn existential conditions in music. And that’s the same as maintaining the utopian vision of the future, going further on.

When I improvise, I do not know what the next sound will be. Every sound could be the last one. Theoretically I could fall down from the chair every moment and that’s it: this sound was the last one. We are going on, “together on the way,” and the way is weak, and we give it up and we lose it, but giving something up for lost and losing oneself is in fact a utopian idea. We don’t own anything. For me, this promises freedom. ¶

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David Grundy’s book Ensembles (Blank Forms) features the full version of this interview with Eva-Maria Houben and will be published in 2024. 

David Grundy

David Grundy is the author of “A Black Arts Poetry Machine: Amiri Baraka and the Umbra Poets” (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019) and coeditor, with Lauri Scheyer, of “Selected Poems of Calvin C. Hernton”...