In Mexico City, 7-Eleven carries bottled water in the shape of a dumbbell. One day on vacation, I bought one, drank the contents, took a picture, and sent it to Michael Maierhof, one of the most original composers working today and a master manipulator of the sonic properties of plastics. Would he like me to bring it back? “Looks great. Would work as a 3D object for example. Please put it in your bag if you have space,” he answered.

Weeks earlier, I had met him for the first time at his apartment off the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, a street once known for its sailors and prostitutes and now the modern equivalent: Ryanair tourists and bachelorette parties. I had recently heard his “Splitting 32.3,” for two percussionists playing electric toothbrushes and their packaging—the former as a bow and the later as a cello. The piece was full of noisy textures with complex overtone structures, and I asked him where the idea of plastic as resonating board came from. “I got a toothbrush from my bank as a promotional gift. And I was so thankful that I actually bought the dental insurance. It was an Oral B—I remember not wanting to experiment with my own toothbrush, and this one was lying around. I took off the brush and started using just the metal part, and thought, ‘This is powerful,’ ” he said. He brought out an old toothbrush package and showed me its contours, tracing them with his fingers, showing its possibilities for the production of sound.

YouTube video

Michael Maierhof, “Shopping 4”; Suono Mobile

Maierhof’s compositions are both engulfing, like a warm bath, and bracing, as if the bath had suddenly been filled with chunks of ice. His “Splitting 36.4” for piano has a grating, metallic intensity, shot through with sine waves—produced by sonic motors—and silence. “Shopping 4,” perhaps his most famous work, for three players on balloons, builds an array of propulsive textures and shards from plastic; in the middle, it achieves an microtonal wailing texture reminiscent of the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi. I asked Maierhof how he achieved this. He tried bags from the supermarket first. Then he saw someone walking by with a balloon, and realized he could get similar sounds with less effort due to the higher tension and mass of the objects. “I made the mistake, when I first met him, of comparing his music to Lachenmann’s,” said Brian Archinal, a percussionist who teaches at the University of Arts in Bern. “And he said, ‘No, it’s not a deconstruction of the instrument. It’s a construction of a new instrument.’ ”

To say that Maierhof composes music for everyday objects is both true and an unfair reduction of his talents. That phrase conjures images of Fluxus-era, provocative experimentation. But he has thought in great detail about sound and its production, and worked hands-on with his instruments, traditional and otherwise. The same is true of form: his music is “like Conlon Nancarrow’s in its clarity of structure,” said the percussionist Víctor Barceló.

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Asked about influences, the composer cited axiomatic systems from math, hip hop, and the ambient sound of helicopters used by commuting one-percenters in LA. His stunning “Splitting 5,” for violin, video, and tape, reminded me alternatively of fiddle playing in the high-pressure atmosphere of Venus and mashups by the cult DJ Madlib. (The hip hop excerpts in the piece are actually from Mos Def.) “Splitting 5” includes fragments of airplanes and darkness on video: “Strangely, I’ve been making videos without sound or with reduced sound lately,” he told me. In a later work, “Splitting 34,” the action consists of a seduction and rape scene from Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America,” cut, doubled, and with the sides switched. The piece is meant to be a visual version of his musical principles, and it works. Like his music, the effect of the video is tense, oppressive, yet somehow ecstatic. There is no sound. He said, “Silence, sound; fascination, repulsion; disgust, excitement. They always go together, and I want both.”

Maierhof grew up in a tiny town called Dietershausen in central Germany. He sang in a small village choir with his mother, where he learned to read music. But it was not a musical household otherwise. “We didn’t listen to music, we didn’t listen to the radio,” he said. He wanted to learn piano, but his parents said no. So he took up painting. Even then, he didn’t get lessons, so he taught himself.

A high school friend of his played organ in the town church, though, and let Maierhof substitute for him. He hacked his way through Bach chorales; something clicked. Maierhof went on to study math and music education at university in Kassel, a larger town nearby, where he learned piano seriously and enough flute and cello to experiment. After his degree, he moved to Hamburg, immersed himself in art history and philosophy, and gigged as the conductor of a local choir. They asked him to write his first piece, which was based on texts from the pamphlet of a discount supermarket chain.

Maierhof is gay, and when he talks about Hamburg, it’s with the affection of someone who has found his place. The opposite is true of Dietershausen—he had to leave his hometown “to survive,” he told me, it was “hell.” In St. Pauli, a famously left-wing neighborhood, he met artists, fashion designers, then, later, his boyfriend of 16 years. He worked briefly as a bike messenger and taught piano. He has lived in the same apartment ever since.

A still from “Splitting 34.” 
A still from “Splitting 34.” 

Maierhof didn’t receive his first paid commission until he was 34, and used the time to develop his broad interests in other forms of art. This openness, along with his autodidactic approach to composition, left a clear mark on his music. He is a close looker, listener, and observer. One gray afternoon, we attended a gallery exhibition of the video artist Omer Fast in Berlin together. Of a section marked with a warning about pornographic content, he said, “We definitely have to see this.” Later, in the café, he recalled finer points about the works, such as the number of separate screens in one video piece. Another night, we met up for beers, and he described the details of a recent “Lulu” staging in precise detail. “That’s what I love about art,” he told me. “I take the [toothbrushes] out of their packaging and play with them. I’ve never looked at them before. I think, ‘Plastic cups aren’t rounded enough, you don’t get good transitions between their sections with the motor. I need something with a more complex 3D shape.’ And then the packaging is lying on your desk..and you see it.”

“See it” is the right expression, as Maierhof’s artistic process recalls nothing more than that of a painter. Making brush stroke gestures, he said, “I do this. No. Erase it. Do that, and it’s better. That’s how you give yourself the chance to develop a style. It’s all hearing. I start from the beginning and go to the end, and then I make the proportions. I’m always like, ‘This is too short’ and ‘This is too long.’ ”

I mentioned that sometimes I’ve found myself wishing that certain textures would be longer; I’ve wanted to wallow more in their complexity. But that’s on purpose. He said, “When something’s too long, I myself become the focus as the listener. I love that. It’s a shift, a change in perspective. And then I grab them back, give them something to listen to, and it’s too short. That’s the fascination of art, which no one can understand who doesn’t make it. There’s this empty room that contains all possible decisions. And you have to decide.”

Despite the constant “genre-defying” rhetoric of publicists, Maierhof’s place in the new music world is hard to define, and that hasn’t helped him. He’s neither a conceptualist provocateur nor a Spectralist explorer of overtone beauty nor an off-scene improviser. Instead, he’s a deep listener who writes detailed scores and whose message, if there is one, would be a subtle call to make use of the plastic detritus that populates our world. This combination hasn’t always been easy. In 2000, he had a premiere at Darmstadt, and after his piece, someone wrote “Maierhof Shit Music” on the walls of the concert hall and in books. “I’ve met with a lot of resistance,” he said. The recently completely Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg is an architecturally gorgeous beacon of a concert hall that cost taxpayers €789 million, but to its great shame, Maierhof, possibly the most important local composer, hasn’t yet been programmed there. He’s had trouble even getting tickets, and when he does go, people have texted and made chit-chat during the performances.

But a genuine joy in the intricacies of his craft has kept him going. “If I don’t get to compose every day, I get annoyed,” he told me. When I finally gave him the dumbbell water bottle from Mexico, a wide grin spread across his face, and he held it and raised it in his arms like a kid who convinced his parents to buy him a present. Young, talented groups such as the Nadar Ensemble and Ensemble THIS | Ensemble THAT have been increasingly providing him with outstanding performances. Maierhof’s music is on the right side on history.

YouTube video

Maierhof, “Splitting 4”; Brian Archinal (Percussion)

During our first interview, he spoke about his life and work for two hours, and then was clearly exhausted. He suggested that we take a walk down to the harbor, and we made small talk. The wind was biting and bitter. We walked to the edge of the water and looked out. I remarked that the Elbphilharmonie building was quite beautiful. He agreed, but said that the more amazing thing was a ship, painted in green and white, on our left hand side. The ship was called the Rickmer Rickmers. A sailboat, in 1912 it traveled a shipping route from Hamburg to Chile.

I was reminded of something he had said about an hour and a half before. The Belgian artist Jan Bas Ader, who disappeared in an attempt to cross the Atlantic in a sailboat in 1975, had made a film of himself. His head is cropped off, and he’s arranging flowers in primary colors. For his artist photo, Maierhof had done an imitation of Ader’s image. The first time I saw it, I thought, “You can barely see him.” Now I think: the point is to look closer. ¶

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… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...