Rebecca Saunders

Mixtape #43 : International Women’s Day

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As today is International Women’s Day, for my March mixtape i’ve allowed myself to indulge in a celebration of fabulous music by women composers and musicians. Compared to most of my mixtapes, this was one of the more difficult to create, for two reasons. First, because the shortlist of music i was keen to include wasn’t remotely short, but simply enormous (137 individual tracks, lasting a little over 12 hours), and second, because deciding which of them to omit was tough in the extreme. In the end, though, i found an interesting and, i hope, imaginative way of navigating through such a bewilderingly diverse collection of music. There’s no particular structure to the mix as a whole this time, as i was simply allowing myself to be drawn spontaneously from piece to piece, sometimes smoothly, sometimes breaking things up with non sequiturs.

There’s a not quite even split between instrumental and vocal music, though both of these terms are interpreted pretty eclectically. The latter range across the spectrum of sentiments, from poignant and painful (Brika, Laura Sheeran, FKA Twigs, Galina Grigorjeva, Lori Cullen) to passionate and elated (Anna von Hausswolf, Cocteau Twins, Princess Chelsea, Sleigh Bells, Jackie Trent, Ari Mason, Vanbot, Carice van Houten, Peaches, Trio Mediaeval, Ladyhawke), both of widely varying orders of magnitude, alongside the more reflective (EmikaRóisín Murphy, Demen, Zola Jesus, Nynke Laverman, OY, ionnalee, Robyn) and downright demented (Jennifer Walshe – who else?).

As for the instrumental music, not all of it is non-vocal: the pieces by Gazelle Twin, Lauren Redhead and Annette Vande Gorne occupy an electroacoustic place in between, each utilising voices in different ways. As for the rest, perhaps the most applicable continuum is between strains of agitation and disquiet (Jocelyn Pook, Kristin Øhrn Dyrud, AGF, Copeland, Zeena Parkins, Elizabeth Anderson, Natasha Barrett, Mica Levi, Wendy Bevan, Clara Iannotta, Pauline Oliveros, Rose Dodd, Vanessa Rossetto, Chaya Czernowin, Rebecca Saunders, Arlene Sierra, Galina Ustvolskaya, Line Katcho, Milica Djordjević) and calmer, more measured music (Olga Neuwirth, Linda Catlin Smith, Anna Þordvaldsdóttir, Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Chiyoko Szlavnics, Unsuk Chin, Christina VantzouÉliane Radigue, Delia Derbyshire, Isnaj Dui, Susanne Sundfør).

Elizabeth Parker‘s radiophonic cheerfulness doesn’t qualify as either of those, but then pretty much none of the 60 wonderful pieces i’ve featured on this mix fit neatly within one particular box or label: their inventiveness is boundary-challenging, which makes them ideal for a day like today. Apropos: i’ve ended the mix with a track by Frida Sundemo that beautifully captures a sense of optimism, which i think is also ideal for this particular day; the song’s theme is love, yet its emphasis on ‘flashbacks and futures’ seems an apt phrase for the confident, forward-looking attitude exhibited by all of this music, and which this mixtape celebrates.

The mixtape can be downloaded and streamed below; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain each of the albums: Read more

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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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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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Wigmore Hall, London: Rebecca Saunders – Unbreathed (World Première)

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Rebecca Saunders turned 50 towards the end of last year, so 2018 effectively counts as her anniversary year, and the celebrations began last Thursday in London at the Wigmore Hall, with the world première of her new string quartet, Unbreathed, by Quatuor Diotima. The occasion was notable in no small part due to the fact that, despite being one of the UK’s most renowned composers, her work is rarely heard here. Premières are rarer still, with most of them taking place in Huddersfield; the last time London saw a Saunders world première was ten years ago with the first version of Chroma, performed at Tate Modern, and the ones before that date back to the mid-1990s.

Quatuor Diotima positioned Unbreathed betwixt two other works, Szymanowski’s 1927 Second Quartet and Schubert’s massive String Quartet No. 15 in G, composed late in his life. The Szymanowski was odd when it wasn’t being just plain meh, whereas the Schubert was a fascinating and at times excruciating tl;dr study in how far material could be pushed and worked while still holding onto its integrity (personally, i thought the integrity was emphatically broken, but in some ways that only added to the experience). While the Diotima’s performance of both these works was outstanding (and, in the case of the Schubert, herculean), it was more telling in the way it provided an interesting and useful perspective on the Saunders, particularly in terms of the nature and precision of pitch. Read more

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