Composers Prize Winner
Diptych/Being-Togetherby Seth Brodsky
I want to briefly develop one of two thoughts here about the music of Eric Wubbels, and then I am happy to leave you be. This one is less a thought than a preliminary self-exemption: stop reading, go listen, what else is there to say really? This isn’t just cheek. This is deeply unquiet music that often leaves one quiet. The mysteries are legion but not exactly deep or dark. An aggressive transparency refutes the idea that “ineffable” means ungraspable, wraithlike, unbodied. This is hard music, in a performative but also a physical, almost mineral sense, not so much “crystalline”—usually a visual descriptor—as crystallographic: music that cleaves along certain predetermined but often surprising structural planes. This concreteness, this auditory CRACK!, is axiomatic in Wubbels’s work: daunting, fact-like, ubiquitous, and above all, iterable. The core of the music is not just repetition but repeatability, the power of the cut to make something happen, and then to happen again. But, perhaps because there is never a doubt that something is musically there, that some thing has musically happened, there is always a corollary uncertainty of what and why. The irrefutable crack of that-ness brings into being a silent doubt about what-ness, like an answer preceding a question, again and again, and this causal glitch engenders a gyre of overpresence and lack. Repetition, the “glue of music,” denatures itself. It becomes a fissile force, tearing as much as binding. And yet—in the memory of the work that reverberates after its end, one hears an anamorphic concord that never appeared during the event itself.
What emerges is one of the stranger experiences of musical time unfolding today. And of course, this is what I most want to tell you about. And of course, this is what is most elusive. But if I cannot write you “inside” the time of this music—which is, as some of Wubbels’s titles stress, its “being-time,” its very “interbeing”—there may be something useful in savoring the way it deflects words, and in following their ricochets. Not least into larger theaters. Wubbels’s music is classically ascetic, issuing a demand to its performers, and a plea to its listeners, to empty themselves of their identities, and to open themselves to what can happen in this emptiness. But there is also something unsettlingly contemporary, even au courant, about it. T.W. Adorno’s old anxious wish for new music—that, however lonely and niche, it harbors radical truths about a cultural hegemony that spurns it—is not exactly untrue here. In Wubbels’s work, one can hear the unlikely, dialectical antagonist of a larger “cultural style”—what Anna Kornbluh coins simply as “immediacy”—at work everywhere from literary memoir to digital streaming, conspiracy theorizing to neofascist riot, capitalist hypercirculation to bomb cyclone.1 Wubbels’s music, surely not a conscious response to what it develops alongside, is nonetheless bound up in all this as its inversion: a project of dilation and displacement in an era that demands and suffers absolute compression and monstrous flow; a feat of mediation in an age that detests and disavows it; an unsentimental celebration of the sonic gap, the auditory CRACK!, at a moment when all life is racing to fill and cover its ears.
 Anna Kornbluh, Immediacy, or the Style of Too Late Capitalism (London: Verso, forthcoming 2023).
I want to briefly develop one of two thoughts here about the music of Eric Wubbels, and then I am happy to leave you be. Mark Twain’s golden insult is playing in my head again: “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” Wubbels’s music is—at least as good as it sounds. But I am mulling a paraphrase: Wubbels’s music is … different than it sounds. This is partly a matter of distinct simultaneous orders of hearing. “Sounds like” is an imaginary order, founded on similarity, echo, mirror, dyad, duo—this last word an anchoring signifier for Wubbels, at the heart of his extraordinary ongoing series of “piano and …” pieces. These works comprise an epic investigation into what it means to play with another, to be musically together with someone else, both in the literal sense of synchronicity, and in a broader sense of being-with, being-near, being-close. These scores are to the 21st-century duo form what Luciano Berio’s Sequenze were to the 20th-century solo form. And appropriately, they offer a response through splitting, doubling, an axiomatic cleaving.
What a wonderfully strange paradox: a crystallographic music, constitutionally riven on the temporal axis, its repetitions tearing it forward in cracked-up time, while, synchronically, each player remains tethered, bound, utterly beholden to the other. This is what I mean about a music being “different than it sounds.” Fission and disjunction may define the soundworld and compel it forward; repetition may invert its standard role and become a dehiscent force. But they only widen and deepen a gyre whose power comes from—dare I say it? Love, eros, a vital clamor in the service of union.
This is not the same as union itself. Wubbels’s relationship to the harmonic spectrum, and to just intonation, is illuminating here. Upper partials are essential to his harmonic explorations; and some moments seem to summon the overtone series as a primordial sonic drive: vibration’s ineradicable endogenous pressure, the envelope of its fate. (Witness the heaven-opening moment a little less than halfway through “Schisma—PANEL II (‘Harmony’)” in being-time from 2015.) But spectrum and intonation do not seem to hold a cosmic authority for Wubbels; there is no sun salutation to the fundamental as some ungraspable gnostic perfection, nor any melancholy at its ultimate absence. The music, often almost ostentatiously exacting and virtuosic, seems uninterested in perfection. It gravitates not toward the chordal orb as an image of oneness, but the beating interval as an engine of two-ness. Always the two, and then the work: coupling, mediating, the slow, fragile, erotic, imperfect work of knitting back together in space what it breaks apart in time.