Rebecca Saunders

CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Celebrating Sir Harrison Birtwistle at 85

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The latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, last Sunday, was an extended celebration for the 85th birthday of Britain’s most radical musical octogenarian, Harrison Birtwistle. In fact, the occasion was marked by not one but two back-to-back concerts, the first of which gave prominence to performers taking part in the ensemble’s NEXT scheme, coaching early-career instrumentalists. In addition to eight works by Birtwistle, the concerts included music by Rebecca Saunders and Australian composer Lisa Illean. Read more

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Murmurs

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Since the appointment of Stephan Meier as artistic director in 2016, it’s been good to see Birmingham Contemporary Music Group starting to move beyond the relative safety that typified its mainstream-centric vision in preceding years. The group’s most recent concert, last Thursday, featured two British works alongside music by composers from Asia. However, far from being yet another example of ‘east meets west’ (a staple contemporary music cliché), on this occasion the two didn’t so much ‘meet’ as east tried to sound a bit like west, while west remained essentially indifferent to any and all notions of geography.

Not that South Korean Donghoon Shin, BCMG’s current Apprentice Composer in Residence, should in any way be deliberately aiming to make his music sound archetypally ‘eastern’, but it was interesting how much of his new work for sheng and ensemble, Anecdote, seemed actively to be avoiding it. The second of its three movements was the kind of anonymous, generic, crash-bang romp that could have been written by pretty much any average UK mainstream composer, though the presence of the sheng – performed, as ever on such occasions, by Wu Wei – did at least detract from its otherwise overfamiliar gestural palette. The piece was more engaging in its outer movements; the opening, in particular, was seriously lovely, full of delicate colours, while the final movement utilised the sheng best of all by blending it properly with the rest of the ensemble, integrating to articulate a slow, solemn music that, at its close, became beguilingly ghostly. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Ensemble Musikfabrik, Christian Marclay: Investigations

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It’s not unusual, considering HCMF’s openness to stepping outside the bounds of convention, for a new work at the festival to have to overcome how extraordinary it is. That was certainly the case in Huddersfield Town Hall yesterday afternoon, where Christian Marclay‘s Investigations received its world première. It wasn’t just that the piece had been hyped up beforehand, but the more simple fact that it’s not every day you get to see twenty pianos – two grands, 12 baby grands and six uprights – used in a composition. Even before the music had started, and for some time after, one had to overcome the mere spectacle of it. This very evidently could be felt among the audience, who took some time to progress from marvelling at the number of pianos and laughing at the unusual antics of the pianists, to settling down and starting to engage more meaningfully with the music.

The piece uses 100 photos of pianists in the act of performing as its ‘score’; this set of images is given to each of the twenty pianists who then need to interpret the photos and notate below the image their rendition of what’s happening. These 100 pages of ‘score’ are played through by each pianist independently; obviously, this allows for considerable variation in the work’s duration, and on this occasion it lasted around 50 minutes.

Marclay could hardly have titled the work better. From the outset it was clear that this was a lot more than just the sum of each individual pianists’ investigations (though it was that), being a much broader experiment investigating, among other things, the fundamental music-making progression from interpretation (of the score) to reproduction (performing it) to accumulation (combining with others). This last aspect was the most unexpected; while each pianist articulated their material independently, they nonetheless were intimately involved in each others’ performances, since a great many of the interpretations required two or more pianists in order to execute them. Regardless whether one focused on individual players or widened the scope to listen to assorted sub-groups or everyone, Investigations exposed the way that any creative act can be regarded as an agglomeration of small details, combining and coalescing to form larger shapes and structures. The primary way the piece did this was by being both an atomisation, constructed from a total of 2,000 individually perceptible musical moments (20 players x 100 images), and a distillation, each pianist seeking to present the essence of what is captured in each image – resulting in an overall emphasis on gesture as the fundamental musical building-block. (If a journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step, perhaps a composition of 2,000 ideas starts with a single gesture.) That’s not especially new or revelatory, of course, but the particular way it was teased out and manifested in Investigations was fascinating, reinforced further by the way the material petered out as each pianist finished, throwing yet more emphasis on the importance of each and every gesture. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Ensemble Musikfabrik, Christian Marclay: To be continued

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On the opening night of last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, i remember pondering about the shift in tactic regarding the festival’s opening gambit. In 2017, there was a move away from the full-throttle shock and awe that has often typified HCMF’s opening nights, but the first concert of the 2018 festival, yesterday evening, saw a return to the more ambitious scale of previous years, yet in a totally transfigured way. In the Town Hall, in the company of Ensemble Musikfabrik and soprano Juliet Fraser, HCMF 2018 began with the UK première of Rebecca Saunders‘ 80-minute epic Yes.

In many respects, it’s a work that takes us back into familiar Saunders territory. i’ve remarked previously on the qualities of similarity – even, in the best sense, tautology – running through Saunders’ work, and in Yes we’re once again in a land whose contours and landmarks are shaped by a semi-tangible, emotionally-laden engagement with the words of James Joyce. This connects it to any number of Saunders’ other works, but being a piece for soprano and ensemble there’s an obvious connection to be made to Skin (heard at HCMF two years ago). This connection was reinforced by certain articulations – for example, words uttered from behind a hand – and interactions, such as those between the soprano and a muted trumpet, a particularly memorable relationship exhibited throughout Skin. 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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