Anniversaries

Rebecca Saunders on record (Part 1)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50Alongside the individual pieces i’m focusing on in this Lent Series, i’m also going to be providing an overview of as much as possible of Rebecca Saunders’ music that has been released commercially. When i started planning this series of articles last autumn, my perception was that there wasn’t very much of her music available, but investigating more thoroughly has revealed that around half of her compositions to date – 28 pieces – have been released on CD and/or digital formats, though in some cases the recordings are a little tricky to track down. i’m going to start by looking at three pieces that make for an interesting comparison with the pair of works i’ve explored so far. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – murmurs (UK Première)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50

Since the trace is not a presence but the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates itself, displaces itself, refers itself, it properly has no site; erasure belongs to its structure. And not only the erasure which must always be able to overtake it (without which it would not be a trace but an indestructible and monumental substance), but also the erasure which constitutes it from the outset as a trace, which situates it as the change of site, and makes it disappear in its appearance, makes it emerge from itself in its production.

Got that? This quotation from Jacques Derrida is one of the texts Rebecca Saunders uses in the notes that precede the score of her 2009 work murmurs. The piece is one of several she has composed that she calls a ‘collage’, in this case one for ensemble but described as being “of seven parts”. This is a reference to the number of discrete musical “sound surfaces” – Saunders’ term – that are deployed throughout the piece, comprising five soloists: bass flute, oboe, bass clarinet, violin, and piano (player 1), and two duos: piano (player 2) and percussion, and viola and cello (a total of nine players, not 10 as erroneously indicated in numerous online sources). Saunders’ use of the word ‘collage’ is a useful descriptor for the way these entities are deployed as well as the way they relate to one another, though both are more complex than they seem at first. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – traces (UK/Austrian Premières)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50Rebecca Saunders turned 50 towards the end of last year, so to mark this milestone the 5:4 Lent Series will this year be dedicated to her music. Over the course of the next six weeks, i’ll be looking at a number of her pieces in some detail, as well as providing a survey of her work as represented by CDs and downloads. Although Saunders is British born, her music is neglected in the UK; with the exception of Huddersfield, which has consistently provided a platform for her, performances in Britain are infrequent, and premières – notwithstanding last month’s at the Wigmore Hall, a real rarity – are virtually non-existent. It’s perhaps not surprising that Saunders’ music should be better known on the continent, particularly in Germany where she has long resided, but it’s disappointing (though not surprising) that one of the UK’s most renowned and radical compositional figures should be so ignored on her home turf. Furthermore, there has been relatively little serious discussion of her work, so my hope is that this series can go some way to improving that situation.

i’m going to begin with traces, a work that originally dates back to 2006 but was revised in 2009, a process that bumped it up from being for chamber to symphony orchestra. One reasonably expects different performances of the same piece to shed new light and tease out extra details, but in the case of traces that’s true to a surprising degree. i first got to know the piece from the UK première at the 2009 Proms, but some time after i heard a broadcast of the Austrian première and realised i hadn’t really got to know it at all, as it sounded so different. More recently, there was a third opportunity to hear the work when it was performed in Glasgow in 2015 (possibly the Scottish première), which only confirmed the fact that there’s something about traces that makes it seem almost entirely reinvented with each new performance – or, and this is perhaps more pertinent, that there’s something akin to a game of Chinese whispers going on. Read more

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Brian Ferneyhough – Fanfare for Klaus Huber

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Today is the 75th birthday of one of the UK’s most consistently remarkable, bewildering, surprising and moving composers, Brian Ferneyhough. By way of a miniature celebration, here are two recordings of his shortest composition, Fanfare for Klaus Huber for two percussionists. It’s a piece i feel somewhat connected to: composed in 1987, the first performance took place in December 1989, at the Musikhochscule in Freiburg (by Ensemble Recherche), and the UK première was organised by myself, given at the Birmingham Conservatoire on 12 December 1996, by Thallein Ensemble (whom i was directing at the time). The work lasts for only a minute, and is concerned with presenting ‘unique sonorities’ as Ferneyhough describes them, each of which is only heard once. From a timbral perspective, this means that each performance of the Fanfare is likely to sound entirely unique, though structurally it falls into five clear sections.

These two performances of the piece were given by the Guildhall Percussion Ensemble as part of the Barbican’s ‘Total Immersion: Percussion!’ day in January 2015. The range of sonorities used rather wonderfully gives the impression that the players were wielding the innards of assorted clocks and timepieces, an impression strengthened by the way Ferneyhough progressively slows down the durations in several of the sections, which here sound like clockwork mechanisms winding down. Much of the writing is very delicate, occasionally punctuated with loud accents, manifesting in these performances via crash cymbals, some particularly strident toms and a rather spectacular whistle. Read more

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Blasts from the Past: Dmitri Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No. 2

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On this day, in 1966, Dmitri Shostakovich turned 60, and the evening brought a birthday concert including the world première of his Cello Concerto No. 2. The piece is well worth singling out for celebration, partly because to my mind it starts to resolve the very real difficulties that confront listeners when they engage with his music on anything more than the most superficial level. Put simply, there’s a problem, and it’s one i mentioned in a recent review (on Bachtrack) of his first Violin Concerto, composed over a decade earlier:

The challenge for audiences is to accept the fact that the composer had essentially just two modes of expression: slow, circling clouds of intense anguish and fast, flippant exercises in military precision. The challenge for performers is to find something fresh and vital within this variegated tautology, in order to locate and extract the essence of a man who, on his own admission, felt a compositional need to “resort to camouflage”.

Without wishing to get into an argument with myself, this problem by no means prevents one from enjoying and, more deeply, from grasping the acute intensity of feeling and distress that doesn’t merely underpin the music but burns within it like a molten core. Yet the problem remains, and it’s easy to feel frustrated, even downright annoyed, in Shostakovich’s company, at how entrenched these twin aspects of his compositional personality seem to be. (It would be arrogant, i think, to criticise his circumspection; one suspects he simply wanted to stay alive.) The Second Cello Concerto, though, moves beyond this, into broader and less certain waters, quietening down the grotesque jauntery in favour of an immense dive into the darkest depths of introspection. Through three movements lasting a little more than half an hour, Shostakovich tapped back into some of the radical spirit of enquiry he explored much earlier in his life (from the time of the Fourth Symphony and earlier), and began to develop a new way forward. Read more

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Commemorating Milton

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Last week saw the centenary of the birth of American composer Milton Babbitt. Babbitt continues to be a neglected figure, and personally speaking, the anniversary served to remind how little i know of his music and how rarely i’ve encountered it over the years. Those in a similar situation will no doubt be interested in the Babbitt Centenary Concert taking place tomorrow evening at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space in New York. The concert, which will also be video-streamed live, is being given by the NY-based Cygnus Ensemble, and features two works of Babbitt’s – including Swan Song No. 1, written specifically for Cygnus in 2003 – alongside music by students and colleagues of Babbitt, all world premières. There’ll also be a pre-concert interview with soprano Bethany Beardslee-Winham, for whom Babbitt composed numerous works, including Philomel, Vision and Prayer (also being performed in the concert), Du, and A Solo Requiem.

The complete programme is listed below; more details can be found at the Cygnus website and the live stream (which is free) will be available at livamp.com/cygnus. The concert starts at 7:30pm local time, which means a late night for those outside the US who want to catch it as it happens, but for everyone else it’ll be available to stream afterwards at a more congenial hour.

Milton Babbitt – Swan Song No. 1 / Vision and Prayer
Charles Wuorinen – Cygnus
Paul Lansky – Just Once
Konrad Kaczmarek – Toggles and Triggers
Jonathan Dawe – Glass Harmonica
Frank Brickle – Ab nou cor / Piazza Piece / City of Orgies
David Claman – To the Master of the Meteor

 

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In memoriam: Toru Takemitsu – Seasons

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An anniversary i wasn’t able to observe due to being engrossed in my Lent series was that of the death of Tōru Takemitsu, who died a little over twenty years ago, on 20 February 1996. i can still remember the day vividly; at the time i was an undergraduate at the Birmingham Conservatoire, and as i was walking to the library someone came rushing over to tell me he had died. It’s fair to say that, among the composers (and also some of the percussionists), the news of Takemitsu’s passing was a profound shock, and the rest of the day felt black and mournful. Just like one of his great sources of inspiration, Olivier Messiaen, no-one sounds like Takemitsu – only an idiot would try to – and few have been able to compose music that so completely and simultaneously embraces austerity and playfulness within a cross-cultural intermingling utterly filled with an innate sense of beauty and wonder. For myself, barely a week goes by when i don’t find myself in the company of his music, and i never, ever experience it as anything less than genuinely miraculous. Read more

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