One of the foci of this year’s Lent Series exploring larger-scale works is where time and material become convoluted. In the case of the next work i’m exploring, this kind of convolution applies not only to the music but also to the text that inspired it. Yes by Rebecca Saunders is a work derived from, rather than a setting of, the epic final episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Comprising just eight thought ‘utterances’ – to call them ‘sentences’ isn’t quite right as they mostly lack closing (or indeed any) punctuation – yet extending for over 24,000 words, this episode is known as Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy, a dream-like torrent of memory and reflection run amok, much of it highly emotionally- and/or sexually-charged. Parsing such an overwhelming outpouring of words is no easy task, and personally speaking i prefer to listen to it spoken aloud, transforming it into a stunning two-hour tapestry in which events from throughout Molly’s life are recounted in somewhat arbitrary, non sequitur fashion. While we can infer importance of these events from the simple fact they are being recounted, it can be more difficult to discern the relative significance of these events as well as their associated emotional baggage: love, rage, hope, regret, anguish and ecstasy are all in there, often simultaneously.
Saunders’ 75-minute response to the text creates a musical analogue of this experience. A work for soprano and 19 soloists, Yes disperses the players throughout the performance space, establishing a sound environment that the audience is positioned within. One could fancifully regard this arrangement as like sitting inside Molly Bloom’s head, being surrounded by her tangled criss-crossing recollections and sentiments fired out by the neural network of musicians all around us. My own experience of the work, at the UK première that began the 2018 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, was very much like this. On that occasion i commented in my original critique how the visual aspect of the work – as with many of Saunders’ works – felt like a distraction, and spending more time with the piece since then has reinforced that impression. Yes was admittedly performed in relatively low light, but being able to listen without any visual distractions – not inappropriate, i think, as it would be pushing it to describe Yes as having a ‘theatrical’ performance aspect – has greatly enhanced and deepened the experience. Furthermore, while Yes is something of a synthesis of Saunders’ two compositional modes – the players either individuated (for 24 of the work’s 25 modules) or united (in single module Nether, the only part of the piece to be conducted) – sonically speaking it isn’t easy to tell where the music switches between these modes.
Which brings me back to time and material, and the role and perception thereof. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to go into great detail about precisely what Saunders does in Yes. It’s less about what she does than the way that she does it. Not surprisingly the piece bears a close resemblance, behaviourally speaking, to her other modular, spacialised works. It has the same collage-like character as in works like murmurs (2009), Stasis (2011) and Stirrings (2011), superimposing and juxtaposing its discrete elements so as to create a sound network of constantly changing density and clarity. As in those and other pieces, an integral part of the listening experience consists of the attempt to discern possibilities of connection and relationship between these elements, an attempt that often produces different perceptions on each successive listen. Considering what i’ve said about the arbitrary and ambiguous nature of Molly Bloom’s rambling interior monologue – in terms of both specific details and their broader significance – this musical approach could hardly be more appropriate. And as in all of Saunders’ works of this ilk, the way we perceive both the passage of time and the nature of material becomes complicated. There are periods that feel fallow, as if nothing significant is happening, and equally sections where there’s so much apparent import that it’s almost impossible to know where or on what to focus our attention. This tension between longer-term consistency of tone (in the context of Yes let’s not call it a ‘stasis’, though that word is suitable in other Saunders works) and unpredictable shorter-term filigree – often wildly gestural – causes our perceptions to similarly shift between the large- and small-scale. As a consequence, Yes sometimes sounds monotonous or repetitious, but precisely the same thing can be said of Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy too; this is matched by sequences that are riveting in their minutely-constructed details, just as there are times when we linger over each and every one of Molly’s words as her latest juicy anecdote unfolds.
As i’ve indicated Saunders hasn’t so much ‘set’ Joyce’s words as used them as a behavioural model within which discrete portions of the text are embedded. Another way of putting this would be to describe the role of the soprano as being as much a timbral presence as a textual one. It’s natural to consider her a focal point – partly because of the obvious immediacy and tangibility of words in contrast to abstract instrumental sounds – yet for large portions of Yes she is either deeply embedded within the larger texture or absent entirely. For this reason, when we hear snatches of Joyce’s text we are at once drawn to the possibility of their meaning – yet the meaning itself comes not simply from the words themselves but from the much larger organic whole within which it is half-buried, the soprano just another sound element within many that together add up to a ‘voice’. It’s not necessary that we deduce each and every word; that’s not the point.
All of which suggests a musical experience to get literally lost in, and i think that that’s right. While many of the work’s details are magical and wonderful, Saunders problematises them with regard to which (if any) of them are more significant or meaningful. Like Joyce’s text, we hear them as part of a large-scale, haphazard stream of consciousness in which we progress and flit and drift and move, the music simultaneously marvellous and discombobulating, meaningful yet baffling. As such, it tends to feel deeply personal and obliquely impersonal at the same time. Either way, emotionally speaking Yes is enormously potent, both in its more withdrawn sections as well as its overtly orgasmic passages. It’s less a work to navigate through than to be (literally and figuratively) immersed within; it overwhelms us and, while it lasts, becomes the limits and the entirety of our perception.
This performance of the UK première was given at Huddersfield Town Hall by soprano Juliet Fraser with Ensemble Musikfabrik conducted – for some of the time – by Enno Poppe. In keeping with its immersive nature, my recommendation is listen through headphones, literally positioning the music within the head. And i would definitely suggest spending some preparatory time with Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy (which you can listen to here), in order to fully grasp the emotional enormity and scope of Saunders’ inspiration.
Programme Note (HCMF 2018)
Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy
Complete text (gutenberg.org)