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 – 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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Town Hall, Birmingham: Celebrating Carter

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i really like concerts devoted to a single composer. Regardless of how much pre-existing knowledge one may have, the opportunity always goes a long way toward, if not defining that composer’s music, then at least clarifying certain truths about it. This was definitely the case with the latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group last Sunday in the city’s Town Hall, celebrating the music of US composer and longevity show-off, Elliott Carter. For myself, i would have to describe my contact with Carter’s work over the years as ‘light to intermittent’, and i admit that that’s partly of my own making. The reason is a simple one: pretty much every time i’ve listened to something of Carter’s i’ve felt kept at a distance, for reasons i’ve never been able adequately to fathom. So last Sunday’s concert was as good a time as any to grow a pair and indulge in a large-form encounter with his music. It worked: up to a point, everything became clear.

In hindsight, Two Thoughts about the Piano, composed in 2007 and performed on this occasion by guest pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, seems a perfect paradigm for the impression given by the whole concert, which was a divided one. The first movement, Intermittences, could hardly have sounded more composed, the result of a carefully worked-out and -through method or process. That’s hardly a problem of course – still less a fault – though Aimard’s sublime fleet fingerwork was nonetheless hardly able to inject much breath into the material. In fact, and this is a concomitant result of this aspect of Carter’s music, Aimard often appeared like an automaton, moving with the effortless ease that had come from extensive and subtle programming. Whereas the second movement, Caténaires (‘catenary’, a mathematical term denoting the way a chain hangs between two uneven points), could hardly have been more different: almost like a literal stream of inspiration, the progression from being formed in Aimard’s neurons to spilling from his fingers apparently almost instantaneous. It was genuinely thrilling, but the disjunct nature of the two movements was the most striking facet of the work. Read more

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Ensemble Musikfabrik – Stille, Label Musikfabrik

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Let’s talk about Ensemble Musikfabrik. First off, the German ensemble is responsible for some of the most memorable and fascinating concerts i’ve ever attended. Their performances during the 2016 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival remain personal favourites, both the opening weekend concert – including among other things, Georg Friedrich Haas’ I can’t breathe and Marcin Stańczyk’s marvellous Some Drops, both showcasing trumpeter Marco Blauuw – and also the concert based around the ensemble’s fabulous recreations of Harry Partch’s microtonal instruments, featuring Claudio Molitor’s hour-long act of sonic wonderment, Walking With Partch. But even more than these, the concert that remains most affectionately in my memory – one of the most exhilarating concerts of my life – was their performance at the one-off Bristol New Music festival in 2014, where the combination of Partch’s And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma with a medley of works by Frank Zappa must rank as one of the finest acts of music-making that the city’s Colston Hall had ever experienced. What all of these concerts demonstrate is Musikfabrik’s generous and warm openness to all forms of experimentation, no matter how weird or ostensibly ludicrous, in conjunction with a level of determination and commitment that’s nothing less than absolute. Only an attitude like this could have led to the Partch instruments being so painstakingly and lovingly recreated, as well as to the development of new iterations of familiar instruments, such as their double-bell brass instruments.

The ensemble’s outlook is mirrored entirely on their recorded output which, more than most, goes a long way to capturing the vivid discombobulation of their concert performances. Their most recent disc, Stille, the twelfth in their ongoing series Edition Musikfabrik, is yet another case in point. It’s true to say that a Musikfabrik concert can and often does involve a certain amount of acclimatisation, and it’s also true for Die Bewegung der Augen by Evan Johnson. As with all four works on this disc, it’s a piece exploring silence, or rather the fact that silence “is never empty” (from Johnson’s programme note). Clearly the by-product of a lot more activity (in one form or another) than is audibly apparent, Johnson’s music here sounds private, not merely behind closed doors but positively internalised and miniaturised, as though we were privy to small-scale activities and actions that would otherwise be entirely oblivious to us. Its little bursts of material surrounded by silence gradually instigate a different mode of listening, one where i came to feel like the Incredible Shrinking Man, becoming smaller and smaller to the point that its tiny sounds and gestures yawned ever more impossibly above me. Beyond this, particularly in the second and third movements, a halting lyrical streak emerges that, in such a pint-sized context, sounds enormously poignant. Read more

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HCMF revisited: Aaron Cassidy – The wreck of former boundaries/Liza Lim – How Forests Think

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Later today i’ll be jumping in the car to begin my annual pilgrimage to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and it seems appropriate to conclude this week’s revisiting of previous years with mention of a recent CD featuring two larger-scale works that both received their first UK performances at last year’s festival. It’s pretty common to hear new music at HCMF and then lose all sight and sound of it for years afterward, due to a lack of further performances on these shores or a CD release. So it’s unusual and enormously welcome that within a year of hearing Australia’s foremost contemporary music ensemble ELISION perform Aaron Cassidy‘s The wreck of former boundaries and Liza Lim‘s How Forests Think, both are available on a CD released by Huddersfield Contemporary Records. Moreover, the recording is of that very same live performance at HCMF 2016 which, considering how exciting and immersive that concert was, makes it even more of a treat.

i discussed both pieces at length in my original review of the concert, and while this isn’t a new performance, this recording offers a fresh perspective of each piece, one that at times draws significant contrasts with the experience of hearing them live in St Paul’s Hall last November. Lim’s piece in particular left me with a lot of questions and concerns, some of which have been addressed by the CD. Read more

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HCMF revisited: Laurence Crane – Movement for 10 musicians

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One of the awkward aspects of attending the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival arises from the fact that, when choosing which concerts to attend, there’s an unavoidable fear that one will inevitably miss something fantastically memorable and/or stunningly ground-breaking. The next piece in my HCMF revisitings is a case in point, from a concert i ended up kicking myself for missing in 2013. The work began life in 2002 as Movement for Ensemble, composed for Dutch ensemble Orkest de Ereprijs who presented it at that year’s Gaudeamus Music Week. The following year another Dutch group, The Ives Ensemble, commissioned a slimmed-down version of the piece for a series of performances in conjunction with Rotterdam Dance Works, whereupon it became Movement for 10 musicians.

The entire piece is made from just three very basic ideas:

  • three chords, rising up a scale, emphasising the interval of a 6th, over a sustained pitch;
  • two chords, falling a semitone, with shared pivot notes;
  • a two-octave rising diatonic scale, in octaves, over a sustained pitch.

It unfolds like a cross between Ravel’s Bolero and Howard Skempton’s Lento. Crane repeats the first two of these ideas numerous times in groups of 2, 4 and 6, but despite how obvious these repetitions are, and the structural blocks they form, the piece is not first and foremost about this. Harmony is what ultimately demarcates the work’s overall structure, which falls broadly into four sections. Crane positions the music at a cadential liminal point, founded upon a tonality of E – floating between major and minor – with regular suspended fourths and sevenths that push and tilt it towards the key of A. Three of the work’s four sections do actually end with this cadence, though the way the chord of A is rendered – enriched with sevenths and ninths, but lacking a major or minor third – lends it both a harmonic conviction and neutrality that are entirely in keeping with the tonal fluidity that pervades the piece. Read more

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