You certainly know what you want, exclaimed Pierre Boulez during a master class in 1995, impressed with student composer Robin De Raaffs Opus 1, the string quartet Athomus. The French grand old man of composition praised his younger colleagues individualistic, consistent musical language and his feeling for sound colour.
The work Athomus (1993) represents an early stage in De Raaffs essentially fractal composition technique. The title is taken from Liber de musica, a treatise by the theoretician Johannes Vetulus de Anagnia written around 1350. In his treatise Vetulus assigns an absolute time value to individual note values, relating them to the smallest division of a calendar day, the athomus. In De Raaffs string quartet the athomus represents a zero point of musical parameters, an extreme reduction of note length and interval size that functions as a germ cell for the compositional process. The steady beginning unfolds into a process of contrapuntal and rhythmic agility. After a time the calm of the beginning returns, only to be disrupted once again. Although derivatives of the athomus appear throughout the work, the compositional germ is restated in its actual form only at the very end.