Lent Series

Veronique Vaka – Lendh (World Première)

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To bring this year’s Lent Series to a close, i’m returning to a piece i first heard a few months ago, during Iceland’s Dark Music Days festival. One of the most memorable works from that week in Reykjavík was Lendh, by Canadian composer and cellist Veronique Vaka. In her programme note, Vaka talks about the work’s inspirational roots in nature, specifically to a geothermal area in south-west Iceland called Krýsuvík. Lendh can therefore be thought of as something like a ‘subjective translation’ of that region into sound. Although Vaka isn’t originally from Iceland (though she is based there), her piece is very much part of a prevailing orchestral tendency in Iceland (also prominent in the music of Anna Þorvaldsdóttir) toward impressionism, in which the qualities and forces of nature are not so much depicted as become metaphors for abstract musical impressions.

Fundamental to the way Vaka uses the orchestra in Lendh is the creation of a large, multifaceted but cohesive unit that sounds just as much rooted in biology as geology. There’s a sense of groups of instruments acting as component parts of a larger organic entity – one might almost call them muscles or tendons – that together act to make the music move and flex. The key thing about this is that the orchestra is working as one, where individual actions are of lesser importance (in terms of being perceived) than the larger formations of which they are a crucial part. Read more

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Marc Sabat – The Luminiferous Aether (World Première)

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What happens in a composition, both in terms of moment-by-moment activity as well as long-term direction, can sound highly organised and micro-managed or spontaneous and accidental (not necessarily reflecting the way in which they were composed, of course). More interesting is when a piece blurs that distinction and sounds like a complex mixture of the two, as is the case in Canadian composer Marc Sabat‘s 2018 orchestral work The Luminiferous Aether. The work’s title comes from the mysterious material once postulated to exist throughout the universe, comprised of a substance that would act as the medium for carrying light (luminiferous) while, miraculously, having no effect at all on any of the bodies moving through space. The aether was disproven conclusively in the late 1880s and subsequently consigned to history with Einstein’s theory of relativity. Yet the historical conception of the aether – of something manifesting everywhere yet being neither understandable, explainable nor detectable – is one of the driving forces behind Sabat’s piece.

As i’ve already indicated, there’s a clear sense pervading The Luminiferous Aether that order and chance are equally likely to be the cause of what happens in the music. It’s not difficult to hear the work as akin to a journey through space, randomly encountering varying quantities of density and void, disarray and alignment. As such, it brings to mind Poul Anderson’s 1970 hard sci-fi novel Tau Zero, where a damaged spacecraft – stuck in the unfortunate position of being in an unstoppable state of permanent acceleration – passes through huge intergalactic distances in relatively short periods of time, arbitrarily encountering regions of emptiness, matter, pattern and noise. Quite apart from its resemblance to what happens in The Luminiferous Aether, what i also like about that analogy – though i’m not for one moment implying the music has any connection at all to the novel – is that it introduces a cosmological aspect that might not suggest itself when listening to the piece, that of vast distances and speed manifesting in apparently slow rates of movement and change. It’s a valuable paradox to hold in mind. Read more

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Peter Maxwell Davies – Symphony No. 9

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Though it lasts only 23 minutes, is cast in a single movement and was described by its composer as being “very modest”, Peter Maxwell DaviesSymphony No. 9 is a seriously substantial, thought-provoking work. Composed in 2012, those of a more republican persuasion might be put off by it being dedicated to “Her Majesty the Queen, on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee”, but the symphony is about as far from being strewn with bunting as it’s possible to get. It seems to me that the work is, in fact, focused on Britain, and in a way that will always offer food for thought, but which at the present time in particular, with the lamentable, seemingly never-ending wranglings over Brexit potentially reaching their denouement in the coming days, provides a whole lot more to contemplate and consider.

The symphony portrays an entity, a body, represented by the orchestra, that is essentially at war with itself. Max presents this civil war – made to sound deliberately militaristic from the outset – in the first part of the work (though nominally in a single movement, it is structured in two large, connected parts), and while it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that the cause of the conflict stems from the brass, the reality is more subtle: they just happen to be the loudest and most demonstrative group. In truth, pretty much every section of the orchestra is a distinct faction making no meaningful attempt to integrate with or accommodate the others. At best, there’s a certain amount of ‘listening’ going on, though increasingly the wind, strings and brass all tend to talk over each other, trying to shout each other down and occasionally hurling abstract insults. Read more

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Judit Varga – …alles Fleisch… (UK Première)

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All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls…

Words from the biblical book of 1 Peter, set to music in Brahms’ German Requiem and thereby alluded to in the title of Hungarian composer Judit Varga‘s orchestral work …alles Fleisch…. Composed in 2013, the piece commemorates flautist Zoltán Gyöngyössy, who died two years earlier. In her programme note (see below), Varga describes the piece as a requiem, though the soundworld is quite far removed from the kind of connotations that that word might immediately suggest. Certainly, considering the meaning of the word ‘requiem’, there’s very little rest in the piece. Or, rather, what traces of rest there are are militated against by a continual strain of tense, fidgety restlessness. Sometimes these two elements seem superimposed, as if they were parallel but disconnected from each other, while elsewhere they seem to be permeating each other in a complex, discomfiting amalgam of mood. Read more

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Arne Gieshoff – Burr (World Première)

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“You put structures in place, and then they kind of surprise you.” Words said by German composer Arne Gieshoff prior to the first performance of his orchestral work Burr. This seems entirely appropriate, since the piece takes its name and inspiration from burr puzzles, in which pieces of wood are arranged to form complex interlocking geometric shapes. In his piece, Gieshoff has sought less to suggest the geometry than the complexity, and perhaps also more than a little of the frustration that can arise when attempting to solve these puzzles. As such, the work’s six-minute duration veers unpredictably back-and-forth between episodes of energy and enervation.

The result of these wild oscillations is that each successive episode tends to sound more extreme than its siblings. So the more energetic passages, which begin the piece, progress from sounding muscular and flamboyant – an exercise in blatant showing-off – to a more desperate and confused kind of activity. The trumpets in particular, wonderfully busy in these sections, increasingly take on the quality of a bunch of mad birds chattering randomly away at each other all at once, while the percussion seem obsessed with filling their bars with ever more crashes and splashes. Another way of putting it, and it’s perhaps an odd word to use, is that there’s something dutiful about these episodes: gradually less about a simple display of energy than the compulsive need to appear to be energetic. It’s a subtle and fascinating shift. Read more

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Harrison Birtwistle – Donum Simoni MMXVIII (World Première)

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Fanfares are strange things. Short, loud and flamboyant, like hearing an introduction being given by the world’s biggest extrovert. Back in the days when i flirted with being a percussionist, my role in fanfares seemed to amount to little more than providing brief, barely-controlled crashes and bangs at carefully-coordinated moments; and as a composer, the one time i’ve written one was when my then-fiancée asked me to compose the music to accompany her walking down the aisle at our wedding. Up to a point, convention took over: there weren’t any bangs or crashes (being for two trumpets and organ, only an accident could have caused them) but they remain 90 of the most overblown seconds i’ve ever created.

Yet – maybe that’s exactly what a fanfare should be, maybe that’s the point of them. It’s conceivable that fanfares provide a kind of pre-concert equivalent of the post-concert applause: a huge burst of cacophony that cleanses the palate and clears the air in readiness for what is about to follow. ‘Twas ever thus, perhaps, though ’twill not always be the case, and Harrison Birtwistle‘s latest addition to this particular genre certainly goes beyond standard issue bombast. A work for wind, brass and percussion composed to herald the start of the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2018/19 concert series, Donum Simoni MMXVIII is, at its title translates, a gift for the orchestra’s conductor, Simon Rattle.

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Catherine Lamb – portions transparent/opaque (World Première)

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I am interested in the long introduction (unfolding) form, in elemental tonal interaction, in aggregation and augmentation, in liminal perceptual states, shifts in density, the filtered atmosphere, and intense, focused experiences.

This is how US composer Catherine Lamb summarised her music to me in 2017. On that occasion, they served as an introduction to her then new piece Prisma Interius V, being premièred at that year’s Proms, but they apply just as much to portions transparent/opaque, composed in 2014. The work’s title hints at the presence of light, and this is primarily explored in an atmosphere of constantly shifting colour and clarity. In addition to these aspects, Lamb throws in a couple more, titling the work’s two movements ‘expand’ and ‘saturate’ respectively, suggesting something of the way this atmosphere manifests within its broader theoretical space or boundaries.

Using just the strings of the orchestra, ‘expand’ sets up thin, drawn-out lines of microtonal pitch, shaded with varying quantities of noise. Initially, though faint, these lines are concentrated in a small space, like the beam of a flashlight in thick fog. The fact that it’s obviously a tight cluster makes no difference to the integrity of what is practically a single, multifaceted line. Only very slowly does the titular expansion start to take effect, the widening harmonic palette articulated in alternation with brief hiatuses. Read more

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John Oswald – I’d love to turn (World Première)

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Many people will likely have first encountered the work of Canadian composer John Oswald through one of two things: either the wonderfully weird collection of ‘Mystery Tapes’ he began putting out in the early 1980s or, more likely, his 1989 album that gave the name to a new form of musical creation: Plunderphonic. Oswald’s entire career has been dominated by this approach to composition, initially by plundering existing recordings that became the basis for intricate and deeply irreverent electronic collages – the most mind-boggling being his 19-minute Plexure from 1993 – and later by pilfering bits and bobs of material as the basis for mangled and reimagined instrumental works. Since 2004 these have formed part of a series given the, from a linguistic perspective, equally plunderphonic title ‘Rascali Klepitoire’, including I’d love to turn, which was composed in 2014.

Oswald has used three compositions from the 1960s as source material for the piece, all very different from each other: The Beatles’ A Day in the Life, Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Terry Riley’s In C, which in the context of I’d love to turn are deconstructed and distilled so that their respective essences remain, providing rhythmic drive and harmonic clarity (Riley), nebulous transforming textures (Ligeti) and a simple gestural motif (Beatles). What Oswald makes from these essential elements has the heightened, off-kilter eccentricity of a hallucination or a state of delirium. Read more

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Naomi Pinnock – The Field is Woven (World Première)

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The inspiration for Naomi Pinnock‘s 2018 orchestral work The field is woven is a series of paintings from 1979 by Agnes Martin titled The Islands. From a distance, these paintings appear to be squares of off-white blankness, yet on closer inspection details become apparent, in the form of colours and carefully-arranged lines and grids. As in Pinnock’s earlier piece Lines and Spaces, this becomes the basis for music where ostensibly great simplicity belies quantities of underlying complexity.

It’s arguably less meaningful here to talk about formal structure and shape, which seem to be a secondary (perhaps even incidental) consideration, than about the arrangement of ideas. The opening portion of the work, which lasts around five minutes, involves various ‘bands’ of chords slowly juxtaposing and colliding. While they exist outside a harmonically-rooted world, there’s nonetheless a palpable sense of stability: dissonances sound like dissonances and are swiftly ‘resolved’ after appearing, and furthermore the entire music appears to be rocking and pivoting on and around a single, fixed axis. This develops from oscillating into a kind of call and response between sections of the orchestra, the beginning of a dialogue of sorts that toys with the possibility of what plausibly appear to be chord progressions, but this turns out to be an illusion. Instead, the work arrives at a gently undulating hocketing that gradually muddies the clarity of its tonal makeup while increasing the rate of its exchanges. In the bigger scheme of things everything is still moving at a pretty lethargic pace, but within the context of The Field is Woven this sequence sounds positively hurried. Read more

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Kristin Þóra Haraldsdóttir – In Praise of Darkness (UK Première)

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One of the things i particularly enjoy when listening is the sense of not knowing where i am, uncertain of what exactly the music is doing or where it’s going: of being kept, for a time at least, in the dark. It’s this kind of ‘darkness’ that i think typifies the orchestral piece In Praise of Darkness, by Icelandic composer Kristin Þóra Haraldsdóttir.

Much of the work’s first half exhibits an interesting ambivalence, caught between impulses towards reticence and confidence. The latter can be heard both in a repeated-note idea that appears near the beginning, starting in low flutes and migrating through the winds, but most strongly in loud, deep notes intoned by the brass. The former manifests in a more global sense of caution that pervades the whole orchestra, in which sounds feel placed with fastidious consideration and care, and where no particular idea has sufficient impetus to cause a catalytic effect. As a consequence, details emerge and dissipate, and everything seems to be hanging in space with the range of movement of a mobile. Read more

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James Clarke – Untitled No. 9 (World Première)

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British composer James Clarke‘s output has moved away from having poetic or allusive titles, and for the last 12 or so years his works have either been given a codename indicating the year followed by a letter (e.g. 2013-V) or are simply ‘Untitled’. The fact that the latter are numbered suggests, if not continuity, then at least a putative connection, though the instrumentations of the Untitled works vary widely: a large ensemble (No. 1), piano and orchestra twice (Nos. 2 and 8), solo piano on three occasions (Nos. 3, 5 and 7), voices and string quartet (No. 4) and soprano and five players (No. 6). The latest, Untitled No. 9, composed in 2017, is Clarke’s first to be written solely for orchestra. It’s an episodic and elemental piece, two qualities that are in many ways at odds, the episodic structure indicating organisation and clarity, acting in opposition to the elemental nature suggesting wildness and untempered behaviour. Brought together in Untitled No. 9, the result is unsettling yet beguiling, and in an unexpected way they end up complementing each other. Read more

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Liisa Hirsch – Lävi (World Première)

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Being the first day of the season of Lent, today marks the start of the 5:4 Lent Series. This year, i’m going to be exploring works written for full orchestra, beginning with a piece by Estonian Liisa Hirsch. Hirsch is an intriguing composer; i’m still at a relatively early stage of getting to know her work well, but what i’ve encountered thus far suggests that, among other things, texture – or, more specifically, the way a texture changes over time – seems to be significant in her work.

That’s certainly the case in Lävi [‘threshold’] which i was fortunate to hear a couple of years ago during the Estonian Music Days. There’s a lot going on in the piece, but it makes most sense to speak of it in quite general terms. The title is all-important. ‘Threshold’ is an interesting word to use in a musical context as it indicates both stasis, referencing a fixed point, and movement, implying progression through or past that point with the concomitant suggestion of an ensuing effect or change in state. In the specific context of Hirsch’s music, it seems to me that the emphasis is put not simply on the duality but the liminality of this idea, focusing on the identity of material, the nature of change between identities and what constitutes the tipping point from one to the other. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – Skin (UK Première)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50

…this is the room’s essence
not being
now look closer
mere dust
dust is the skin of a room
history is a skin
the older it gets the more impressions are left on its surface
look again…

These words, spoken by the narrator in Samuel Beckett’s 1975 play The Ghost Trio, were “the absolute catalyst” for the work with which i’m ending my Lent Series celebrating the music of Rebecca Saunders, Skin. It’s another of her works about which i’ve written previously, following its UK première at HCMF 2016, though as will be clear from that article the extent to which i was knocked sideways by the piece didn’t exactly lend itself well to writing anything beyond a relatively superficial marvelling at its nature and impact. It’s very good, therefore, to return to Skin and explore it a little closer and deeper. Completed in 2016, it’s the first of her works to feature a solo voice and a sung text, in contrast to the three previous occasions (mentioned in my previous article) when she’s used small groups of voices in an essentially timbral/textural role. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders on record (Part 4)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50Before i conclude my survey of the available recordings of Rebecca Saunders‘ music, i want to flag up some omissions. There are three works that i’m not able to discuss at this point as i haven’t yet got hold of copies of the discs on which they’re featured: rubricare (2005) which is on Harmonia Mundi’s About Baroque double album, as well as CRIMSON – Molly’s Song 1 (1995) and company (2008), included on the 1996 and 2008 Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik CDs. If and when i eventually obtain these discs, i’ll review them together at a later date. There’s also one other piece of hers that’s been released very recently, which i’ll be discussing in my final article in this Lent Series.

Saunders’ earliest acknowledged composition is Behind the Velvet Curtain, a work for trumpet, piano, harp and cello completed in 1992, available on a recording by – yet again – Ensemble Musikfabrik, as part of the Musik In Deutschland 1950–2000 series. There’s something sketch-like about the piece, almost a kind of testing of certain ideas – ideas that would turn out to have great significance in her work – in order to experiment with their behaviour and operation. The most obviously nascent idea exhibited by the piece is an emphasis on certain pitches, acting as roaming focal points which the four players continually follow and assemble around. There’s a playfulness about this, with each shift in the focus being initiated – ‘suggested’ might be a better word in most cases – by one of the players, becoming the basis for a short episode of varying clarity. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – Alba (UK Première)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50As 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.

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Rebecca Saunders on record (Part 3)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50Continuing my survey of recordings of Rebecca Saunders‘ music, i’m looking today at a cluster of pieces featured on compilations as well as a couple of standalone releases. The last work i wrote about, still, initially bore the provisional title rage, and while Saunders ultimately pulled back from this in favour of something more ostensibly benign, on two other occasions she has given works a similar title: fury. The earlier of the two, for double bass solo, dates from 2005. Saunders clearly has a certain fondness and/or fascination with the double bass, which has been used prominently in many of the works i’ve discussed so far in this Lent series, often making a defining contribution to their respective soundworlds. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – still (World Première)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50The next piece i’m looking at in my Lent Series celebrating the music of Rebecca Saunders is something of an exception on 5:4, as it’s a work i’ve written about before. Saunders’ violin concerto still dates from 2011, and i explored the piece six years ago, following its first UK performance at the Barbican in February 2012. The world première, performed by the same forces – soloist Carolin Widmann and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sylvain Cambreling (Lionel Bringuier directed the UK première) – took place several months earlier, on 29 September 2011 at the Beethovenhalle in Bonn, as part of that year’s Beethovenfest. It’s fascinating to return to this piece and appraise it afresh, both from the perspective of that alternate performance as well as with regard to Saunders’ other work.

Once again – it’s tempting to say ‘as ever’ – Saunders draws on Samuel Beckett for inspiration: the title of the work comes from Beckett’s short story Still, the final lines from which Saunders quotes in the preface to the score:

As if even in the dark eyes closed not enough and perhaps even more than ever necessary against that no such thing the further shelter of the hand …
Leave it so all quite still or try listening to the sounds all quite still had in hand listening for a sound.

This is expanded upon in Saunders’ usual way through having meditated upon the meaning and connotations of the word ‘still’, which she likens to “unchanging, ongoing, with an exhausting insistence, always, in essence, the same”, “stasis … two starkly contrasting states, in a fragile state of equilibrium” and “the framing of sound with silence, of ‘stillness’ imagined – silence being an endless potential, waiting to be revealed and made audible”, leading to a behavioural character summarised as “pulling gently on the fragile thread of sound, drawing out from the depths of imagined silence; or alternatively, sound erupting from the stasis of relative silence”.

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Rebecca Saunders on record (Part 2)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50In continuing my survey of recordings of Rebecca Saunders‘ music, i’m turning my attention now to works that are earlier than everything i’ve explored so far. Stirrings Still, released in 2008 on the Wergo label, is an excellent survey of what we might call (for now, at least) ‘mid-period’ Saunders, featuring five works dating from the period 1999 to 2006. It’s interesting to note the aspects of similarity and difference between these pieces and her more recent work.

The Duo for violin and piano was originally composed in 1996, revised three years later, and its main concern, rather than on a specific musical idea or gesture, is on the nature of the relationship between the two players. In this regard, it can’t be insignificant that the work’s original title was A thin red line – making it the third work of Saunders’ to feature a colour in its title, after CRIMSON – Molly’s Song 1 (1995) and the under-side of green (1994) – as this original title, with its clear connotation of courageous, indefatigable military resistance to attack, is quite clearly paralleled in the roles taken by the violin (protagonist) and piano (antagonist). However, in changing the title to Duo, Saunders makes a much more subtle point: a duo is definitely what they are, but what they never do is duet. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – Stirrings (UK Première)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50i’ve already used the word ‘obsessive’ in this Lent Series, and i’m sure i’ll be using it again in due course, but it’s important to note that the strain of obsession that repeatedly rears its head in Rebecca Saunders’ music is a reflection of her own compulsive attitude towards sounds and ideas. In my discussion of murmurs i remarked about the work not being a comment on society, and this is due to the fact that Saunders’ overwhelming concern – not just in this piece but in much of her output – is directly with sound itself, the way a certain action or gesture speaks, both in its own right as well as within different contexts, juxtaposed with other gestures or actions. Her fascination is so meticulous that it seems almost anthropological – sounds, instruments and players as discrete species being rigorously researched – and as a consequence becomes an obsession that not only manifests within compositions but across them, to the point where one wonders whether there’s a certain amount of tautology in her work, due to the behavioural similarity between certain pieces.

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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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