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.

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.

Maya Verlaak & Andy Ingamells: Tape Piece

Friday 23 October 2020

Art gags: don’t you just hate them? Especially when they’re made by artists. If it’s going to work at all, you’ve got to commit to it – ideally by just keeping on pushing the idea past all decency until it becomes funny out of spite. Maya Verlaak and Andy Ingamells’ Tape Piece is an uncommon creature, being a composition made in 2012 which has since been performed on repeated occasions. It’s a duet in which each performer wraps themselves in a roll of adhesive tape and then, having accomplished this, break free of their self-imposed bonds. A cute pun, an amusing gimmick and it makes an entertaining little piece. I think I’ve seen a performance myself, but while trying to confirm this started to doubt that I really had. This hazy and possibly false memory speaks both to the work’s conceptual simplicity and its lack of substance.

Now, Verlaak and Ingamells have released a recording of the piece and have done it a great service by pushing the idea further. This is an entirely analogue production, recorded direct to tape and then dubbed onto a limited edition of cassettes. (Digital download is available for the less fashion-conscious.) More than an obligatory act of documentation, the recordings take on a new life as music, without the distraction of the theatrical gag. It also helps that the sound here is loud and detailed, which was mostly lost in my (fanciful?) experience of the live performance. You can truly enjoy it as a piece of old-school electronic noise – a genuine tape piece. The recordings are direct and unpolished, with each sound brutally impersonal, even the vocalisations during some of the more diffult ‘escape’ sections. Tape Piece is evidently one of those odd ideas that persists in the creators’ minds, that takes on greater significance and necessity as wider implications become clear. The composition is in three movements (each using a different type of tape), summoning up various associations and comparisons both within the piece and to other compositions; it is specifically a duet, which opens up greater sonorous and structural complexity while also inviting unspecified cultural allusions.

It’s a brief piece: four realisations have been collected here for the listener’s discernment. The brand names of tape are identified in the notes, but unfortunately not the recording dates or venuesyou have to look at the inlay card and read the recording dates and venues, it’s printed right there you dope.