The Grammar of Listening

Written by: Frits van der Waa

Published in: Brochure, Theo Verbey

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 The Peryton (1990) and The Simorq (1989) 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. Adam’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 Benoit Mandelbrot, of which the shape is repeated down to infinite micro-levels (another idea that could have been taken from a story by Borges).