Rebecca Saunders

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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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 and Mauro Lanza and 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, and 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 and 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 and 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 and tested (and tired) ideas. Read more

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