Maya Verlaak: All English Music Is Greensleeves

Sunday 17 January 2021

There’s more irony in this title than first appears. This collection of pieces by Verlaak is itself a hearkening back to a golden age, but her reiteration of the past deals with the rediscovery of forgotten ideas and making them new. Time and again, her compositions recall the spirit of exploration and discovery in the British experimental music scene of the early 1970s. Amongst the alumni of the Scratch Orchestra and their fans, the dividing line between music and art had never before been so dangerously blurred. They too reworked the past, drawing upon folk and popular classics and then subjecting them to analytical processes with varying degrees of irrationality. This British strand of the avant-garde was typically playful and subversive, but with a gentle side that embraced amateurism and acknowledged the inherent sentimentality of their means and methods. It was a fertile scene, but its fading seems in retrospect to be as much a product of commercial forces as of ideas moving on. By the 1980s, much of what was presented as the cutting edge of music was given over to second-guessing the audience’s tastes in a quest for ‘appeal’. For a younger generation, a cursory study of the early 70’s uncovered a lot of unfinished business.

In Another Timbre’s All English Music Is Greensleeves, Verlaak brings back this quiet, forgotten 70’s as a living tradition. The title work, which has been performed live in various forms, does not deal with the implied subject as an artefact, but as the outcome of the history of English music teaching and performance practice, as observed by a young Belgian composer recently arrived from studies at the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague. In a modern twist, the music’s controlling processes are fluid and automated by a computer which decides which pitches chosen by the ensemble will cause a pre-recorded performance of the same piece to start, or stop. It’s a clever exploitation of the practice of sight-reading, and Apartment House’s rendition here captures the genteel, pocket-sized grandeur suggested in the title, refracted into a more fragmentary, ghostly formality.

Some of Verlaak’s pieces have tended towards the stunty (cf her Tape Piece collaboration with Andy Ingamells or Females premiered at Music We’d Like To Hear in 2018) but in this collection the focus remains on the music. Ideas are clearly present to substantiate the sounds we hear, but their means of operation remain tantalisingly unclear without further explication. The two solo works, Formation de Sarah and Formation de Mark respectively pit violinist Sarah Saviet and pianist Mark Knoop against a remorseless computer-generated tutor. Each performance creates a new system of pitches to which the performer must respond and negotiate. In Formation de Sarah, violin plays against sine tones and bowed nails; for Formation de Mark the relationship between performer and computer model is more fraught, with electronic tones replaced by recordings of an untrained voice attempting to sing perfect pitch. The computer’s vocalised cues sound more like a rebuke than a guide. The wobbly coexistence of objective formal rigour with human imperfection, with mechanisms of reproduction as a confounding factor, recall the early 70s works by composers like Gavin Bryars and Christopher Hobbs while still posing vital questions surrounding authenticity to the present-day listener (and performer). The music is still direct and clear, using its simplicity of means to bring those complicating perturbations of sound to the surface.

The remaining ensemble pieces are more overtly playful, in a serious, childlike manner. Lark uses formative childhood experiences as material and means, transcribing recovered cassettes of the four-year old composer improvising songs and using a music-box to regulate the musicians. The simple melodies and cultural references add pawky sentimentality to the staggered runs of single notes, always slightly off-kilter. Song and Dance ‘An excessively elaborate effort to explain or justify’ is an exercise in analysis taken in earnest, expecting the musicians to interpret a listening study of the music and infer the music from the written analysis, at a remove from the notes themselves. In each of these pieces, the joke is for (on?) the musicians, but the wit is audible to the listener as the ensemble struggles to achieve a coherent performance despite everyone’s best efforts. With Apartment House playing, it’s probably not much of a struggle really, but they beautifully convey the delicate synthesis of gracefulness and humour required to make these pieces work most effectively, without ever needing to milk it for pathos or a laugh.