Most musicians who become deeply invested in contemporary music follow a route that brings them first through the fundamentals of their instrument and the canon of the repertoire. From there, they branch out into the wild, overgrown jungle that constitutes the avant-garde.
The Dutch pianist Reinier van Houdt’s journey was the polar opposite of this conventional path. He taught himself to play piano before starting lessons, at the same time that he was experimenting with radios, recording devices, and electric guitar. “I was sort of doing my own things,” he said during a recent phone interview from his home in Rotterdam. “I played only the stuff I liked.”
When van Houdt auditioned to study at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, he played works by Cage and Messiaen instead of Beethoven or Schumann. “And they listened and said, ‘Well, I don’t know if he’s playing the right notes but he sure has to learn some other music,’ ” van Houdt said with a laugh. “So I had to learn some Chopin, some Liszt. And I really liked it, actually.”
“I liked it.” Van Houdt returned to this casual causal explanation several times during the conversation. It was a refreshing change from much of the discourse in classical music, where the weight of history and the desire to make one’s mark drive many decisions. It is nice, sometimes, to be reminded that an accomplished instrumentalist did something because, well, he liked it.
There is, however, nothing casual about the music for which van Houdt has gained notice. That’s especially the case with works of the Wandelweiser composing collective, which are unusually sparse, delicate, and shot through with silence, and often unfold on a vast temporal scale. Erstwhile Records has just released a three-CD set of van Houdt playing works by Wandelweiser composer Michael Pisaro. On Tuesday he plays Pisaro’s 75-minute “Green Hour, Grey Future” for piano and electronics at a Goethe-Institut Boston concert presented by Non-Event.
Van Houdt’s immersion in Wandelweiser’s idiosyncratic sound world has its roots in his affinity for the music of John Cage, who visited the Royal Conservatory while he was a student there. He played portions of Cage’s “Music of Changes” and Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano for the composer. “He listened and said, ‘Yeah, you’re a very good pianist. I like it a lot.’ That’s the only comment I got.”
Van Houdt’s first interaction with Wandelweiser came when its cofounder, Dutch composer Antoine Beuger, sent him some of his pieces, which the pianist couldn’t find a way to perform. Then he heard Beuger perform his music with his own ensemble, and he suddenly understood that they were extending the project that Cage had begun with his famous silent piece, “4’33”. ”
“Instead of taking the silence just as a concept, you can also listen to it,” van Houdt said. “Silence is not just silence; you listen to the environment. And if you listen really closely to the environment, you start realizing that in a way your ears are making it into music.”
Many Wandelweiser compositions, including Pisaro’s, try to upend the idea of a piece as something that advances in linear time. One of Pisaro’s favorite compositional concepts is that of a mist. In a mist, van Houdt explained, you can see what’s closest to you clearly; as you look further away, the picture grows richer but less distinct. So it is with “Green Hour, Grey Future,” which begins with a series of resonant notes on the piano accompanied by a pure sine tone — they are the clear present of the “green hour.” The harmony becomes richer as the piece unfolds until finally the music is overtaken by noise, the promise and uncertainty of a “grey future” that accompanies you everywhere you go.
Despite his focus on contemporary music — he has premiered pieces by Robert Ashley and Alvin Curran, among others — van Houdt still plays some of the traditional repertoire he learned at conservatory, often mixing new and old works to show how they experiment with the same ideas. Why? Because he likes it, naturally. And, he added, “I think it definitely enriches how I play the piano. Because I have so many roads I could take. I have much more options than without it.”
Reinier van Houdt
Presented by Non-Event. At Goethe-Institut Boston, Dec. 6, 8 p.m. Tickets: $10-15. www.nonevent.org