dutch version

Essay for a Donemus-brochure on Theo Verbey, january 2006

The grammar of listening

In a famous story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges the Aleph is mentioned, 'the place where all places of the earth come together, seen from all corners, without merging'. In the music of Theo Verbey one sees the same aspiration to universality. His oeuvre is less staggering and its diameter is less compact than the two or three centimetres the author ascribed to the Aleph, but it is just as Borgesian in its kaleidoscopic richness and its many references to, for one, the work of Borges: the titles of De Peryton and De Simorq are derived from his Book of Imaginary Beings.

Already in 1992 Verbey said, 'I try to compose music that is influenced almost up to its saturation point: not by fifty, but by hundreds of years of tradition.' The numerous compositions he has written since then confirm that his dialogue with the past has only become more labyrinthian and intense. In a way Verbey can be compared with the American John Adams, who is also painstakingly on the lookout for influences and absorbs them without renouncing his identity. However, the comparison is bound to fall short. Adams's music has its roots in minimalism, while Verbey's has its roots in serial music that is based on numerical structures, even though it has become a lot more consonant over the years. The influence of Boulez can still be heard in an early work like Inversie (Inversion, 1987) and until the present day his music is based on systems of numeric relations - a way of thinking that comes directly from the 50s and 60s, although the result is completely different in sound.

Verbey has named this process fractal technique, after the complex figures discovered by the Polish-French mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, of which the shape is repeated down to infinite micro-levels (another idea that could have been taken from a story by Borges). Verbey's numerical structures may be less complex and based on simple numeric relations, but nevertheless the rhythmical networks he derives from them often reach to five or six layers, ranging from the proportions between individual parts to the relations between note values.

The result of this method is that Verbey can achieve all kinds of musical mimicry without forsaking his own identity. Medieval polyphony pops up in his Fractal Symphony, the swan from Saint- Saëns' Carnival des Animaux swims around in his Trio, the tango music by Piazzolla and a quotation as an homage to Claude Vivier wander about in his Schaduw (Shadow), nevertheless his music is always recognisable with its characteristic asymmetrical swing, its interwoven foreground and background, its clear structures and its often mosaic-like set up.

Verbey aims to reconcile the achievements of modernism and tradition, and to realise a way of composing that corresponds better with what he describes as the 'grammar of listening'.

Hence a clear preference for clarity and detachment becomes apparent in his oeuvre. Verbey's universe has more in common with that of concise clockmakers such as Reich, Ravel and Stravinsky, than with Teutonic blusterers such as Reger, Rihm and Stockhausen. He does not avoid grand gestures, climaxes and drama, but he does not loose his head and as far as emotions play a role, this is first of all a value added by the listener. The same preference for transparency becomes apparent in his orchestration, which is always designed to please the ear, as well as to clarify the structure. Characteristic of this, and of Verbey the analyst, is his frequently performed orchestral arrangement of Alban Berg's Sonata opus 1, in which he spotlights the thematic relationships conveyed in the black and white keys, by giving them colour and contrast.

Borges writes in the Aleph: 'Every language is an alphabet of symbols, of which the use presumes a past shared by the interlocutors.' The great thing about Verbey's music is that it does not exclude any interlocutor. Although it reveals its riches more readily to those who can recognise the references to various traditions from the present and the past, it is also accessible to the listener who has nothing but his ear to go by - for this is first and foremost the composer's beacon.

(translation: Hilary Staples)

© Frits van der Waa 2008