As i’ve noted in previous articles in this Lent series, there are very strong and clear themes and interests – obsessions, even – running through Rebecca Saunders‘ music, with concomitant aspects of overlap and even tautology from work to work. In this respect, Saunders’ entire output can be heard as the ongoing, evolving dogged pursuit of certain lines of enquiry, but in the case of three particular works – the concertos Still (2011, violin), Void (2014, percussion duo) and Alba (2014, trumpet) – Saunders has grouped them together into a discrete series, in which the title of each work “defines a condition, or state, of absence in relation to sound, to space and to colour, respectively”.
While colour has hardly been absent as an active element in Saunders’ music in recent years, it’s been less explicitly signalled than during the first decade of her output (1994–2005), when a large number of her works directly referenced colour in their titles. ‘Alba’ is the Latin for ‘white’, and this is not the first time she has been inspired by this colour, exploring it previously in albescere (2001) – a wondrous work for 12 instruments and 5 voices that’s crying out to be released at some point – as well as a more recent composition, White (2016) for double-bell trumpet solo. Though there are clear similarities in their titles, Alba is at some considerable remove from the soundworld of albescere. Both works draw for inspiration on Samuel Beckett – as do the other concertos in the series, Still and Void – in the case of Alba words from an early poem of the same name (published in Beckett’s 1935 anthology Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates). However, whereas albescere has a distinct air of contemplation running through it – characterised more by its periods of gentleness and restraint than by the gruff eruptions that punctuate them – Alba is a work articulating relentless energy. The title and content of Beckett’s poem allude to the Old Provençal poetic form that has similarities to the aubade, being a song of two lovers lamenting their forced separation in the early hours of the morning (the implication being that their love is illicit, the pre-dawn separation being for fear of being discovered). However, Saunders has appeared to focus more on the implications of the word ‘alba’ from the perspective of its colour connotations, as summarised in her programme note:
Devoid of shade and greyness, white is notably ardent, the colour of fury.
There’s that word again: “fury”. While we’re thinking about connotations, it’s worth remembering that there’s a lot more to fury than just an expression of anger. The word does connote that, but it speaks too of violence, fierceness and passion (back to the lovers again), and throughout Alba it’s these qualities that are most evidently manifest; it would be a mistake to describe it simply as ‘angry’ music.
Looking broadly at the piece, it’s another example of Saunders’ engaging compositional fixation on a single idea, which on this occasion takes the form of an interplay between closed and open sounds. These are primarily executed in respect to a three-point continuum – open (unmuted) → harmon mute, open → harmon mute, closed – and most often throughout the work finds expression in a motif where a sustained closed pitch forces its way open, in the process causing a microtonal distortion (see left; click to enlarge). Perhaps we see here, in its simplest form, the essence of the vehement fury underpinning Alba, precipitating all of its energy and its actions. Certainly this idea becomes another of Saunders’ incessant itches that just won’t go away, and due to the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra – which, even more than in either Still or Void, is an influential one, the trumpet acting as a powerful catalytic force – means that this fragmentary idea is established as the very grain of Alba‘s musical behaviour and narrative.
As in so many of her works – it’s almost a quintessential element – this narrative through the first half of the work is articulated haltingly, in fits and starts interspersed with hiatuses that together form something of a parallel to the open-closed polarity employed by the trumpet. i described the trumpet as catalytic, which it is, but the orchestra does a lot more than just imitate its material or even support it in an obvious way. One of the most prominent recurring ideas offered by the orchestra is something that i can only describe as a ‘diaphanous sheet’: a faint cluster, static or slightly shimmering – sometimes created by the accordion, more often by the strings – that both provides colouration and context for the trumpet, as well as a complete contrast to it (describing them as a ‘sheet’ seems fitting as this echoes a key word in Beckett’s text). They don’t just float around, disconnected, but become energised in various ways, most obviously when channelled into sequences of quick surges or long-term imposing crescendos, yet they nonetheless possess an uncanny quality that makes the sum total of the players’ actions feel simultaneously grounded and supernaturally charged, all the more so considering the occasions when their apparent effect on the trumpet is to nullify its pitch content, rendering the instrument’s output a melody of croaks.
The latter half of the work moves away from the halting manner of earlier, Saunders now avoiding any moments of repose or pauses for thought, instead maintaining energy and intensity through a mixture of momentum and dramatic suspensions, in a kind of structural concertina movement. This results is an overall increase in the music’s volatility which, following an enormous outburst of the most relentlessly clattersome metallic percussion, begs the question of whether or not Alba is able to retain its power when being maintained like this for so long. It seems to me that there’s another connection here to the work’s underlying theme of light: if we liken the ferocity of the orchestral behaviour to the intensity of light, then perhaps as we experience this over many minutes we ‘adjust to the glare’ so to speak, our ears adapting to the brightness (in the same way as they adapt to the darkness in her work).
The trajectory that the trumpet undergoes, though behaviourally playing out within well-defined limits, is a complex one, and whether or not its fate is apotheotic is debatable. Towards the end, having again been reduced to croaks and distorted pitches, and passing through an extended episode where everything sounds tethered to the same spot, the trumpet emerges in a moment of apparent strength (or, at least, assertion). This is immediately quashed with another ‘sheet’, emerging from the trumpet’s note but rapidly expanding, after which the trumpet, as if by magic, is transformed into a bizarre but beautiful language of high chattering pulses, an effect Saunders calls ‘electronic birds’. The effect on the orchestra is fascinating, causing them swiftly to disengage and disappear, almost as if they no longer understand the soloist at all. Whether this transformation in the trumpet is a moment of transcendence or derangement (bringing to mind, as it does, the unhinged conclusion of Richard Barrett’s ne songe plus à fuir), is impossible to say. Maybe it’s both: aren’t both words equally applicable to the infinite luminosity of love?
The UK première of Alba was given in November 2015 at Glasgow City Halls, with the work’s dedicatee, Marco Blaauw, in the solo role, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov.
alba L. fem. of albus “white”, from PIE root *albho- “white”, albe OE.
In painting the most extreme bright and light achromatic colour to the point of absolute luminosity. Devoid of shade and greyness, white is notably ardent, the colour of fury.
Alba is the final work in a series of three concertos – Still, Void and Alba. Each title defines a condition, or state, of absence in relation to sound, to space and to colour, respectively, and each refers to a text by Samuel Beckett.
Taken from the collection Echo’s Bones, Alba is an intensely lyrical poem. Beckett weight each and every word and its shadow, its echo. This poem ends looking forward to the short and intense prose texts written at the end of his life – and his profoundly reduced, almost skeletal, prose, both mercilessly direct and yet exquisitely fragile.
before morning you shall be here
and Dante and the Logos and all strata and mysteries
and the branded moon
beyond the white plane of music
that you shall establish here before morning
grave suave singing silk
stoop to the black firmament of areca
rain on the bamboos flowers of smoke alley of willows
who though you stoop with fingers of compassion
to endorse the dust
shall not add to your bounty
whose beauty shall be a sheet before me
a statement of itself drawn across the tempest of emblems
so that there is no sun and no unveiling
and no host
only I and then the sheet
and bulk dead