Rebecca Saunders – Stirrings (UK Première)

by 5:4

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.

In the case of Stirrings, a 16-minute work composed in 2011, there’s an obvious comparison to be made with murmurs. Stirrings is also a collage, also for nine players, the material of which is also a collection of carefully-defined ‘sound surfaces’ (the definitions in many cases being almost identical to those in murmurs), on this occasion performed by alto flute, oboe, clarinet in A, bowed crotales, piano, violin, cello, double bass and harp. The last two of these form the work’s only duo, with the rest acting as soloists, all dispersed throughout the performance space, though again Saunders desires that their individualisation is wielded with close consideration to how it impacts upon the rest of the ensemble’s material; indeed, the alto flute, clarinet and violin “need to be close enough to form a single sound-world”, while everyone must “listen to each other closely, although keeping your own individual pulse. Make dialogue, creating clear diagonals through the architectural space.”

Saunders’ inspiration once again comes from Samuel Beckett: the score features more quotations from his short story Company (lines from which preceded the score of murmurs), serving as a description for the sum total of the ensemble’s actions:

In dark and silence to close as if to light the eyes and hear a sound. Some object moving from its place to its last place. Some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more. To darkness visible to close the eyes and hear if only that. Some soft thing stirring soon to stir no more.

By the voice a faint light is shed. Dark lightens while it sounds. Deepens when it ebbs. Lightens with flow back to faint full. Is whole again when it ceases.

The work’s title – and its modus operandi – comes from the title of Beckett’s final prose work, Stirrings Still (Saunders composed two works bearing this title in 2006 and 2008), a single line from which is also included before the score: “The strokes now faint now clear as if carried by the wind but not a breath and the cries now faint now clear.”

Everything i’ve said thus far indicates that Stirrings and murmurs are essentially synonymous, yet aurally the two works are very different. It’s not splitting hairs to claim that a stirring and a murmur aren’t the same thing, and to prove the point Stirrings is less about vague utterances of remote ideas (with an implied sense of complicated communication) than the impression of soft movements of objects that may or may not have communicative content or any kind of inherent purpose. In fact, we’re back to the distinction i made between murmurs and traces: though in many respects the similarities (on paper) may suggest otherwise, the ‘sound surfaces’ in Stirrings are passive, and as in traces, our interaction with them is intrinsic, though this time without an accompanying aural testament of the composer’s and performers’ engagement with the materials.

traces is also relevant due to the way the detuned double bass again sounds especially prominent, becoming the timbre around which the rest of the ensemble assembles at various points through the piece, at times seemingly acting to drive certain sounds to coalesce into small accumulative peaks. However, more than in either traces or murmurs, Stirrings more emphatically dislocates the connection between the players (notwithstanding Saunders’ remarks), to the extent that there’s often a strong sense of the players being lone figures moving in a large space at night – she states that the space “should be completely dark” – with any apparent connections between them easily dismissed as tricks of the light. This only makes the overwhelming but understated lyricism that’s continually projected all the more stunningly beautiful – it’s hands down one of Saunders’ more relentlessly gorgeous scores – given extra bite and sparkle from the polarised extremes of the double bass and crotale registers.

Regardless of the veracity of the ensemble’s inner connections, the combined effect has the hazy disorientation that results from over-tiredness (or experienced upon waking), its sound surfaces sliding around at the mercy of their own instability, in the process semi-unwittingly forming the outline of melodies and the semblance of duos, trios and more in a strange kind of drowsy – borderline narcoleptic – counterpoint that contains the traces of dialogue.

The UK première was given on 8 December 2013 by the London Sinfonietta directed by Baldur Brönnimann, during the Sinfonietta’s ‘New Music Show 2013’, part of the South Bank Centre’s ‘The Rest is Noise’ concert series.

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