Rebecca Saunders

HCMF 2016: Trombone Unit Hannover, Klangforum Wien

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The palpable buzz surrounding events at this year’s HCMF featuring music by composer-in-residence Georg Friedrich Haas (of an order considerably greater than that of the previous few years) continued before and during yesterday’s morning concert given by Trombone Unit Hannover. This was no doubt due to the UK performance of Haas’ remarkable Octet, a piece i celebrated earlier this year, but prior to this were three shorter works for solo trombones (it was surprising and very disappointing that the complete ensemble was only featured in that one piece). Another work of Haas’,  aus freier Lust…verbunden…, one of ten solo pieces also performable as a decet, began by episodically exploring different takes, approaches and attempts at melodic utterance, moving back-and-forth between being open and muted (somewhat distracting on this occasion), before passing into painstaking gradations of microtonality (a hint of what was to come later), as though we had zoomed up close to examine the minute undulations on the surface of each pitch. More engrossing was Xenakis‘ short 1986 work Keren, taking the instrument on an even more exhaustive journey by turns fanfaric, lyrical, rude, plaintive, briefly lost and then blazingly focussed, prosaic and profound; having probed the extremes of the instrument, Xenakis finally plunged it into impossible depths. A piece that, thirty years on, still sounds impressively fresh. The last of these three opening ‘overtures’ was provided by Anders Hillborg, whose four-minute miniature Hautposaune is a witty cross between a duet and a squabble, the trombone grappling with a rigorously motoric tape part. Hillborg sets things up so that the one and only chance the instrument gets to break free of the tape’s constraints results in a helping of deliciously ripe cheese, before bringing about a furious, full-throttle conclusion, the piece practically crashing into its final barline like a train smashing into buffers. But, understandably, it was Haas’ Octet that emphatically stole the show, with its astonishing evolution through unisons, near-unisons, clusters, Shepard tone-like overlapping glissandi, quasi organum, harmonic series (beautifully executed with the ensemble partially muted) and ferocious buzzing growls. The way Haas imbues this overall evolution with such a seamless sense of organic inevitability is truly remarkable, and Trombone Unit Hannover’s ability to articulate each element with such ridiculous accuracy is just jaw-dropping. Read more

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HCMF 2016: Walking with Partch, Klangforum Wien + Arditti Quartet

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From queries to plings: following an opening night that raised more questions (and objections) than its respective composers perhaps intended, Saturday night at HCMF moved emphatically in the direction of the epic. Not simply in terms of duration, although that was certainly a factor: Claudia Molitor‘s 60-minute Walking with Partch, the world première of which was performed by members of Ensemble Musikfabrik, didn’t simply justify its duration but absolutely required it. Using a few of the ensemble’s fabulous recreations of Harry Partch’s microtonal instruments, the piece unfolds at a pace that allows everything, both the assortment of instrumental interactions and also the sounds themselves, time to speak, to resonate and to be considered. From the start, sporadic material from various players mixed with electronic textures, there was a clear sense of timbral connectivity, elements of imitation that later became more substantially worked into fully-fledged dialogues, usually but not always in the form of duos. While a great deal of Walking with Partch sounds like the product of structured and/or partially pre-planned improvisation, there were times when a broader impetus dominated the ensemble, such as when a strange triple metre initiated a kind of grotesque dance comprising distorted and contorted lines, or a later brass and bass clarinet trio that sounded like a disintegrated chorale. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – Void (World Première)

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To bring my Lent Series to an end, i’ve chosen a work rather fitting to the general atmosphere of Easter Eve, Rebecca SaundersVoid, for two percussionists and chamber orchestra. Saunders was recently awarded the 2015 Mauricio Kagel Music Prize, for composers who, among other things, “are forever in search of new forms of artistic expression and explore new aspects of musical reception”; it’s a description that aptly summarises Saunders’ music in general, and Void in particular. The work bears a few familiar hallmarks, beginning with a typically allusive single-word title, allusions that once again find the beginnings of their articulation in the writings of Samuel Beckett. On this occasion, Saunders’ inspiration comes from the last of Beckett’s tortuous Texts for Nothing; the text doesn’t actually include the word ‘void’, although it would seem to be an implicit omnipresence behind the breathless monologue, which, in reference to a ‘voice’, bears resonances with Saunders’ earlier work, not least her 2006 ensemble work a visible trace:

A trace, it wants to leave a trace, yes, like air leaves among the leaves, among the grass, among the sand, it’s with that it would make a life, but soon it will be the end, it won’t be long now, there won’t be any life, there won’t have been any life, there will be silence, the air quite still that trembled once an instant, the tiny flurry of dust quite settled.

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HCMF 2013: Séverine Ballon

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Today’s first concert was given by French cellist Séverine Ballon. Her recital comprised UK premières by Hèctor Parra & Mauro Lanza & a world première by Rebecca Saunders, together with a classic of the repertoire, James Dillon‘s Parjanya-Vata, composed in 1981. It was especially good to hear this again; it’s a long time since i have, & Ballon’s spectacularly fiery commitment to the work’s whirlwind climax left me wondering why i’d left it so long.

Hèctor Parra’s electroacoustic tentatives de réalité is an exercise in frenetic action. Parra’s programme notes always go to great lengths to inform as to the extra-musical points of origin, but on this occasion intention & result seemed insufficiently interconnected. In short, one never felt as involved as Ballon clearly was. The material establishes a kind of monotony that wasn’t especially helped either by the nature of the electroacoustic interaction—cause & effect a-go-go—or by its sonic fingerprint, which in many ways felt like an amalgam or catalogue of a multitude of all too familiar tried & tested (& tired) ideas.

Mauro Lanza’s la bataille de Caresme et de Charnage, on the other hand, appeared at first to be the kind of thing from which i instantly recoil, modestly absurd antics caught up in a continuous state of revolution. But it became rather engrossing to hear the work’s opening pitched utterances becoming increasingly frustrated & thwarted. As the level of implied strain intensified, the cello was reduced to a pathetic figure, grinding out increasingly flatulent parps & guttural blurts (the inclusion of a foot-powered whoopee cushion couldn’t have been more apposite). This extended episode was followed by a short, enigmatic epilogue comprising lightly tapped sounds—hard to rationalise but strangely effective.

Three times Rebecca Saunders has explored the implications arising from a complex variety of double trill (in Fletch, Ire & Still); now, she has added a fourth work, Solitude. The trill itself doesn’t appear until around two-thirds through the piece, & then only fleetingly; most of the duration is concerned with far darker & more heavyweight material, much of it founded upon the special timbres of Saunders’ regularly used de-tuned C-string. The title may invoke loneliness, but the music is certainly not inactive. Unlike some of her work, there is very little silence in Solitude, lending a desperate & somewhat manic quality to the cello’s unstoppable railing. In keeping with Saunders’ keen interest in destabilised sounds, almost nothing in the piece sounds remotely grounded or sure; however, an incredibly poignant exception to this occurs shortly before the end: a snatch of perilously-aligned double-stop unison melody. It’s a very moving moment, all the more so as the music then lapses back into the C-string’s blankest low sounds, played such that they become ridden with overtones, destroying their coherence. Séverine Ballon’s rendition of this highly wrought material was brilliant, as was Saunders’ compositional achievement, yet again following her intuitive nose & discovering shockingly new frontiers of possibility.

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HCMF 2012: Arditti Quartet

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Two months may have passed, but memories of the all-too-brief weekend i spent at HCMF 2012 are alive & well; so let’s pick up where i left off.

The second day of my HCMF experience began once again in St Paul’s Hall, confronted by the understated marvel that is the Arditti Quartet. Despite the palpable excitement that pervaded the previous day’s concerts, the atmosphere in the hall on this occasion was that unique kind of highly-charged tension that only a few performers & ensembles can engender. The quartet had brought with them four works that initially seemed strikingly different from each other, but three of them ultimately proved to be united by a common line of enquiry, making the most of out of, materially speaking, very little. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Ensemble Resonanz

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The first day of my weekend at HCMF ended back where it had begun, in St Paul’s Hall, for a late-night concert by Ensemble Resonanz, conducted by Peter Rundel. The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3 & comprised just three pieces, all focussing on strings, two of which featured solo cello, played by Jean-Guihen Queyras.

It began with the UK première of Rolf Wallin‘s Ground, the title of which alludes to the cyclic Baroque form of divisions, whereby a repeating bassline (the ground) is gradually overlaid with layers of faster material. That description probably suggests a certain amount of mayhem, but Ground is a decidedly pensive piece—Wallin describes it as “about finding rest”—in which the solo cello is closely surrounded by the rest of the strings, together forming a close collaboration. Furthermore, while the work has no repeating bassline (seven chords are the indiscernible equivalent here), it is highly episodic, exploring an extensive cycle of moods & atmospheres. A collaboration it may be, but it’s an intrepid one, bringing to mind a gradual descent into the earth (a connotation of the title?), passing through increasingly dark & ambiguous layers of strata. What makes the piece particularly interesting is its central melodic identity; Wallin allows tension to manifest itself in diffident, unstable music, but it never comes off the rails, preserving the sense of a pre-planned mission, rather than a mystery tour. At the work’s conclusion it enters its most cryptic episode; bordering on a stasis, both soloist & strings arrange themselves into a dense web of gently wafting notes. It begs the question: is this the ‘rest’ Wallin was striving for? or is the mission not yet completed? Read more

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Mix Tape #24 : Noir

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It’s time for a new Mix Tape, & once again it reflects my current predilections & listening habits. Film noir, & particularly its musical analogues, are much on my mind at present, so the new Mix Tape reflects that, drawing on 23 examples of muted monochrome. The similarities between these pieces are often very strong, yet the range of language used is considerable. The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble, Tor Lundvall, David Lynch & This Will Destroy You opt for heavy-laden music pulled by a sluggish pulse, throwbacks to the past from the cusp of an apocalyptic future. Tangentially related, Ulver, Demdike Stare & Asher find regularity in the artefacts that litter the surface of their hauntological materials. Gareth Davis & Frances-Marie Uitti, Aphex Twin, Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky) & Cosey Fanni Tutti & Philippe Petit all offer a kind of fin de siècle melodic scrutiny, while First Human Ferro, Access to Arasaka, Angelo Badalamenti & Sleepy Town Manufacture & Unit 21 grimly obsess over chord progressions, some fragile, some aching with nostalgia. Read more

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