To bring my Lent Series to an end, i’ve chosen a work rather fitting to the general atmosphere of Easter Eve, Rebecca Saunders‘ Void, for two percussionists and chamber orchestra. Saunders was recently awarded the 2015 Mauricio Kagel Music Prize, for composers who, among other things, “are forever in search of new forms of artistic expression and explore new aspects of musical reception”; it’s a description that aptly summarises Saunders’ music in general, and Void in particular. The work bears a few familiar hallmarks, beginning with a typically allusive single-word title, allusions that once again find the beginnings of their articulation in the writings of Samuel Beckett. On this occasion, Saunders’ inspiration comes from the last of Beckett’s tortuous Texts for Nothing; the text doesn’t actually include the word ‘void’, although it would seem to be an implicit omnipresence behind the breathless monologue, which, in reference to a ‘voice’, bears resonances with Saunders’ earlier work, not least her 2006 ensemble work a visible trace:
A trace, it wants to leave a trace, yes, like air leaves among the leaves, among the grass, among the sand, it’s with that it would make a life, but soon it will be the end, it won’t be long now, there won’t be any life, there won’t have been any life, there will be silence, the air quite still that trembled once an instant, the tiny flurry of dust quite settled.
Many of the concertos explored in this Lent Series have made a clear demarcation between soloist and orchestra, but here, despite their discrete timbral nature, Saunders embeds the percussionists within the orchestra; they obtrude from it constantly, but—another Saunders hallmark—all the players have a single mindset, working towards the same ends, moving in the same direction. This harmonious behaviour nonetheless finds expression in a way that is both inherently antagonistic and utterly equivocal: Saunders’ music searches without any confidence in an object to be found; there is simply the motivation, the urge, the necessity to continue (more echoes of Beckett). On the one hand, this lends the material a certain transience, clumping into complex phrases that move freely around a continuum between etherality and bellicose provocation, but which nonetheless pass, leaving the same kind of ‘trace’ as that alluded to above, invisible once its source has passed.
Yet Void has more, is more, than just a conveyor belt of intricately-sculpted gestures. In her approach to instrumental techniques and timbral combinations, Saunders is one of the most innovative of all composers, and the soundworld that Void inhabits is stunningly new: clangorous accents with unstable sliding pitches undulating from somewhere; abstract rumbles and shimmers that discover pitch focus and project it with a kind of fragile triumph. Each successive phrase is a challenge to almost everything familiar, and while the exhilaration that comes from such a bewilderingly unidentifiable display is relatively superficial, it acts as a hypnotic way into the piece; one simply doesn’t want to look away for a second, caught up in its captivating cavalcade of slowly-accumulating moments. And here, too, Void is more: although segmented, it grows, builds, expands, and the sense of individual phrases is lost within a larger instrumental texture that becomes an overwhelming collection of diamond-tipped impacts. Ominously, for all its internal momentum the music keeps cutting out towards the end, until a heavy pulse begins from within, propelling the piece on yet in the process seemingly accreting the orchestra into a dense solid object, struggling to move. Saunders kills it with a harsh metallic stroke, muted brass gargles heralding a strange coda of stasis and shufflings, queasily coloured by more peripheral glissandi and a sombre final drum.
It’s not true, yes, it’s true, it’s true and it’s not true, there is silence and there is not silence, there is no one and there is someone, nothing prevents anything. And were the voice to cease quite at last, the old ceasing voice, it would not be true, as it is not true that it speaks, it can’t speak, it can’t cease. And were there one day to be here, where there are no days, which is no place, born of the impossible voice the unmakeable being, and a gleam of light, still all would be silent and empty and dark, as now, as soon now, when all will be ended, all said, it says, it murmurs.
The world première of Rebecca Saunders’ Void took place at last year’s Witten New Music Days, performed by percussionists Christian Dierstein and Dirk Rothbrust with the WDR Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Peter Rundel.