Rebecca Saunders turned 50 towards the end of last year, so 2018 effectively counts as her anniversary year, and the celebrations began last Thursday in London at the Wigmore Hall, with the world première of her new string quartet, Unbreathed, by Quatuor Diotima. The occasion was notable in no small part due to the fact that, despite being one of the UK’s most renowned composers, her work is rarely heard here. Premières are rarer still, with most of them taking place in Huddersfield; the last time London saw a Saunders world première was ten years ago with the first version of Chroma, performed at Tate Modern, and the ones before that date back to the mid-1990s.
Quatuor Diotima positioned Unbreathed betwixt two other works, Szymanowski’s 1927 Second Quartet and Schubert’s massive String Quartet No. 15 in G, composed late in his life. The Szymanowski was odd when it wasn’t being just plain meh, whereas the Schubert was a fascinating and at times excruciating tl;dr study in how far material could be pushed and worked while still holding onto its integrity (personally, i thought the integrity was emphatically broken, but in some ways that only added to the experience). While the Diotima’s performance of both these works was outstanding (and, in the case of the Schubert, herculean), it was more telling in the way it provided an interesting and useful perspective on the Saunders, particularly in terms of the nature and precision of pitch.
Anyone familiar with Rebecca Saunders’ work will know that she has a fondness for two things in particular: small, specific gestures that become the nucleus of and catalyst for pretty much everything else that ensues in the piece, often displaying an obsessive streak, and quicksilver material that flies past so quickly it can be difficult on a single listening to take in its plethora of details and the way they’re developing and evolving. Unbreathed (pronounced as ‘breath’ not ‘breathe’) is fundamentally different from this. In terms of inspiration, however, the piece is in keeping with her previous work, drawing on the connotations of words within a Beckettian mode of expression. With regard to Unbreathed, the specific starting points go a long way to clarify the two concepts that characterise the piece: negation and remoteness (in terms of both distance and vagueness). Consider Saunders’ inscription in the score, laden with these concepts:
Inside, withheld, unbreathed,
Absent, silent, void,
Either, neither, sole,
An epigraph from Haruki Murakami, also included in the score, expresses these concepts further:
The skull is enveloped in a profound silence that seems nothingness itself. The silence does not reside on the surface, but is held like smoke within. It is unfathomable, eternal, a disembodied vision cast upon a point in the void.
(from Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World)
So far, so relatively familiar, yet the way these concepts were explored sets Unbreathed apart from most if not all of Saunders’ work of the last few years. The first of its two sections initially felt as though it were all about just one main pitch, projected such that it was as if the quartet were twiddling with various filters that kept blurring, altering, refracting and obscuring it. If anything, though, this only served to make one’s perception of that pitch more pronounced, the obfuscation actively drawing attention to it, and this, together with the sense of repetition that accompanied this opening episode – the quartet repeatedly presenting new, increasingly remote renditions of the pitch – established an immediate clarity of both form and content that is unusual in Saunders’ work. Not for long, though; at some point it became clear that the pitch had by now been left behind (or processed beyond recognition), the quartet – relentlessly playing as one, as if their bows were linked together – now focusing their attention elsewhere, directed into more and more rapid, runaway material. This was where the music moved from remoteness to negation: on the one hand, this was more familiar Saunders territory, though the material was so violent and torrential that i continually found myself wondering whether it constituted substance or was actually the manifestation of some kind of ‘anti-substance’, Quatuor Diotima channelling a cross between dark matter and a phantasm. Whatever it was, it burnt itself out in a massive tutti climax.
The shorter second part of Unbreathed (which could almost be regarded as an extended coda) returned to remoteness, the quartet, now individuated, articulating very quiet sounds in a disembodied way, even to the point that they seemed disassociated from their instruments. As hinted at by the end of Saunders’ inscription, the music gradually reunified, demonstrably seeking to become something more tangible, yet the result was even more remote, like an idea buried beneath encrusted layers of accretion and process, while at the same time constantly slip-sliding around, unable to maintain its balance. Somehow, the conclusion did attain a strange, unexpected form of equilibrium (stability would be too strong a word for it), as though the filters twiddled at the start finally brought things back into focus at the very moment the piece ended.
Despite suffering from an appalling number of contributions from the clusterbomb of bronchial hooligans lurking in the Wigmore Hall audience, Quatuor Diotima’s performance of Unbreathed was mesmerisingly effective. And while one expects to feel disconcerted and challenged when listening to Saunders’ music, Unbreathed was clearly something different: more contained perhaps, certainly more immediate and direct, though in its exploration of remoteness and negation once again requiring a lot more than just a single listen to fully grasp and relish its filigree intricacies. While i’ve no doubt the piece will be widely-heard, the UK’s track record of supreme indifference suggests it’ll be a long time before we hear it again here.