Premières

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 – 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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Electric Spring 2018

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Huddersfield is supremely talented at providing distractions (and shelter) from the vicissitudes of winter: HCMF does the honours at the start of the season, in late November, whereas at the other end, in late February, it falls to the university’s annual five-day festival of “electronic sonic exploration”, Electric Spring.

There are various reasons why over the last few years i’ve grown to love Electric Spring. First, it’s the mix of familiar and – most often – unfamiliar names: at most festivals one encounters the same composers again and again, and it’s exciting to have minimal use for one’s expectations. Second, it’s a festival that’s prepared to take big risks: of course, they don’t always work, but its preparedness to go places and try things fearlessly is so admirable, and whichever way the results go, they’re often spectacular. Third, i’ve rarely encountered such inordinate attention to detail in concert giving: everything from the sound system – based around HISS, the ultimate wet dream for surround sound enthusiasts – to the lighting to the stage presentation and everything else is always carefully considered and clearly matters enormously to everyone involved in putting the festival on. And fourth, which only makes my third reason more remarkable, all of the concerts are free, making Electric Spring, besides all else, an amazing act of generosity. 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 – 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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Estonia in Focus weekend: Helena Tulve – The Night-Sea Journey (World Première)

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To conclude this weekend i’m returning to the music of Helena Tulve and to another world première, which took place last November during one of Estonia’s main contemporary music festivals, AFEKT. A 17-minute work for saxophone, percussion and piano, in a way all one needs to say about it is encapsulated in its title, The Night-Sea Journey. The music is entirely directed toward the implied narrative of that title, inhabiting a nocturnal world of shadows and moonlight, progressing – in my mind, anyway – across water. At least, that’s one way of hearing it, taking the title literally.

Heard in this way, the piece conjures a foreboding, difficult soundworld. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe its music as lyrical – it is, abundantly – yet of the blackest, most brooding kind, drenched in uncertainty and anguish. Initially, there’s a sense of the trio huddled together, not so much playing as making tentative suggestions: a simple piano idea based on oscillating octaves, air noise through the sax, soft suspended cymbal rolls. It doesn’t seem to add up to anything at all, yet in light of where the piece goes from here, in hindsight it’s like lighting a touchpaper. Read more

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