Maya Verlaak: Trace / Frank Denyer: Screens

Sunday 3 March 2024

Maya Verlaak’s metamorphosis into an English eccentric continues apace. Her new album Trace from Birmingham Record Company comes without text on the cover and without explanations for any of the pieces it contains, save that they’re to do with “personal approaches in the compositional process.” Her previous collection of works, on Another Timbre’s All English Music Is Greensleeves, showed an interest in reviving the values of the British avant-garde from the late 1960s and early 70s, before it was exhausted by Maoism and Minimalism, using the personal and the homespun as the means for experimental practice instead of confirming certitudes. The more recent works and recordings on Trace show Verlaak advancing this line of thinking into new territory; specifically, that territory being the musician’s homes. Each piece was written for the performers heard here, and the act of Verlaak travelling all over between Berlin and Penrith to record them playing her music at home alludes to a wider project in which the goal is not to make a point, but to find out what may be learned. Any thoughts of cosy domesticity are quickly upended by the puzzling tasks the composer sets her musicians: not rebellious but obstinate, in an English manner. For starters, the opening piece Anticipation is the only one requiring a second musician, and thus a cross-Channel overdub of Paul Zaba singing upon Luca Pignata’s accordion, with lulling melodies that gradually tend towards drones, aided by a shruti box that comes and goes. That dreamlike grey zone between melody and stasis recurs in All English music is – with Howard, featuring none other than Howard Skempton on accordion essaying increasingly distracted derivations from the well-known tune, each successive phrase leading further away from the listener’s expectations and towards some unrecognisable form of organisation. An adaptation of this pieces is also played on harmonium by Kate Halsall: All English music is – with Kate begins with the material’s fragmentation and abstraction further advanced, producing a monologue of gruff exhortations.

In the two longer compostions, Whispers finds Kate Ledger at home in York with her piano, but before you hear the keyboard Verlaak’s score first instructs her to gasp a high note and blow into the microphone. It’s the beginning of a meticulous series of exercises requiring Ledger to execute precise moments of extreme pianistic brevity, with mandated singing and breathing on cue, while pitted against electronic bleeps that imply both tuning-fork stringency and smartphone intrusions. Ledger manages it all very cleanly, threading some semblance of melody out of substances that are much drier and more discrete than they first appear. Meanwhile in Antwerp, trombonist Thomas Moore peforms Mutations, a wonderfully baffling work where the notes he plays rise and fall according to some unexplained process that may or may not involve the analog synth bloops that regularly surface throughout the piece and/or the litany of spoken pairs of near-homonyms, alternate pronunciations and false cognates that are rattled off in the background. It’s both simple and dense, the most satisfying yet of her linguistic puzzles to blur word, speech and music. Each piece here, really, functions in the same way as an unsolveable riddle, with a type of intellect that prefers the senses over philosophy. Incidentally, the title track is a brief portrait of Joseph Kudirka at home in Berlin, humming while turning out clotted chords on a music box. It all leaves me looking forward to the next instalment of Verlaak’s music, so long as the Proms commissioners are kept frightened away.

Frank Denyer is English but you couldn’t tell this from listening to his music. He’s created a sound-world so utterly his own that it could plausibly come from any one place or time as another – something frequently said with less accuracy about Xenakis – given how little it seems to rely on any observable cultural tradition. Another Timbre has built up an invaluable edition of Denyer’s music over the years, most recently documenting two major works, the complete Melodies cycle and the immense The Fish that became the Sun. Their new release Screens compiles five more pieces, composed across a span of nearly fifty years. They’re performed by the Octandre Ensemble, who have championed Denyer’s music over the years, including a memorable concert in 2018 which included some of the works presented here. Denyer’s music is intimate and confronting; if it shocks, then it does so through a naked emotional frankness stripped of all rhetorical devices, whether symbolbic or signifying. Another Timbre’s recording emphasises this with a wide dynamic range that still never gets loud except in relation to the extreme tenderness with which Octandre plays. A vast panoply of instruments and objects are used here to create sounds that seem at once natural yet unimaginable. That timbral ingenuity is at the forefront of the two Unison pieces from the early 1970s heard here, with additional voices from Joshua Ballance and Juliet Fraser. Fraser also sings on Screens and 2021’s Five Views of the Path, with a yielding humanity that adds greater poignancy to parts which could easily treated as just another instrument in the ensemble. Fraser and Octandre premiered Screens at that 2018 concert, with Denyer here repeating his spoken interlude. In Five Views of the Path and in 1990s Broken Music, percussive sounds predominate amongst the ensemble, yet Denyer and the Ensemble make the eclectic timbres cohere melodic and harmonious, even when pitch is absent.