Rebecca Saunders – Skin (UK Première)

by 5:4

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.

On the one hand, the introduction of a voice and a text into Saunders’ music is of great significance – while she could never be regarded as anything other than forthright, they bring a new level of directness to the music – yet the way in which the soprano communicates is to no small extent just as allusive and impressionistic as her instrumental narratives. The text itself is a complex agglomeration of words, phrases and soliloquies not so much ‘sung’ as articulated via a highly-wrought state of enormous emotional agitation – riddled with hesitations and a plethora of vocal tics – such that the meaning of the words – their bigger meaning, i mean, beyond their existence as phonemes and fragments – flits back and forth between vague vagaries (‘vagueries’?) of implication and acute explicit immediacy. Furthermore, repeat listenings to the piece reveal that this happens unpredictably and inconsistently: a passage that seemed a mess of obfuscation on one occasion can attain the clarity of a clarion call the next, and vice versa. Perhaps this is all a long-winded way of saying that both the message and the messenger in Skin are alive, elusive, fugitive – yet always retaining an unpredictable ability to connect directly to our empathy and our understanding.

Premièred just 18 months ago, Skin is the most recent piece i’ve discussed in this Lent Series, and as such, it’s useful to consider this work in relation to the fingerprints, predilections and obsessions that have become apparent when exploring Saunders’ earlier output. From a structural/dramatic perspective, rather than opting for either the stop-start halting approach – phrases and bursts of material interspersed with significant silences – or the push-pull concertina approach – intense episodes of detailed material alternating with ‘suspended’ periods of inertia – Skin employs both, with a halting delivery in its first and last thirds (the most overtly intimate sections of the work) and concertina-like through the centre. Skin isn’t described in this way, but it’s easy to hear it as a concerto for voice and ensemble, and from this perspective the solo soprano exhibits much the same type of relationship to the ensemble as in Saunders’ other concerto works. In other words (as i noted in my original review), it’s an essentially sympathetic relationship, voice and ensemble working together harmoniously in order to focus on the disharmony at the heart of the work’s mode of expression. Indeed, the voice is regularly echoed by, and forms passing duets with, various members of the ensemble, most obviously with the trumpet. Looking back through her output, the trumpet, perhaps more than any other instrument, clearly holds a uniquely pressing fascination and attraction for Saunders, no doubt in part resulting from her numerous close collaborations with Marco Blaauw.

When i wrote about Skin previously, i remarked how its “ferocity … was unexpectedly immense”, but spending more time with the piece i’ve come to realise that that word is inaccurate and unhelpful. This may well be her most intimate, tender (in many senses), fragile and above all tactile music to date: the soprano doesn’t rage but is instead impelled by a network of inner convictions and demons that provide all of the work’s motivation and momentum. It’s hard not to hear each phrase, even every word, uttered by the voice as a triumph: a brain-to-muscle-to-voicebox-to-sound small-scale success that, whether or not it takes one step closer to conveying meaning, manages one way or another (sometimes unwittingly) to at the very least emote. Very truly, better out than in. The nature of this vocal wrangling suggests a possible parallel with Saunders’ orchestral work traces: there, one sensed the struggle of the composer with their own material, and here there’s perhaps some evidence of her grappling for the first time with how to make the solo voice a new kind of literal mouthpiece.

In addition to the first UK performance at Huddersfield, available below, the world première of the piece is included on the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2016 box set released by NEOS last month. As was abundantly clear from my original article about this piece, the Huddersfield performance by Juliet Fraser with Klangforum Wien, conducted by Bas Wiegers, proved to be a genuinely amazing experience, presenting the piece as what i called a “full-blooded dramatic scena”. It makes the soprano the epicentre of a kind of inverted opera, at the same time exposing the convoluted filigree intricacy of its material. My recommendation – for the first time, at least – is to listen, as i did in St Paul’s Hall, with your eyes shut (or alternatively in darkness), and thereby grasp most clearly the multitude of ways the voice and instruments interconnect with and relate to each other.

Having been so blown away by this performance i’ll admit to being sceptical about the Donaueschingen recording, but i’ve come to the conclusion that, in many respects, it offers a compelling alternate take on the piece. This time conducted by Titus Engel, the evidently drier acoustic means that the hiatuses that feature at each end of Skin sound really prominent, creating the same kind of ‘infinite depth’ silences as occur in so much of her music. At numerous points, too, the instrumental and textural details have an increased clarity; as a consequence, the piece sounds much more like intensive chamber music than the operatic extent heard in Huddersfield, but it’s certainly powerfully effective. Furthermore, while the Huddersfield performance is arguably the more clear in terms of Juliet Fraser’s vocal histrionics, in the Donaueschingen recording she sounds positively alien at various points, adding unsettling frissons to our perception of the nature of the voice, making Fraser’s laboured delivery of the final two words spine-tinglingly exhilarating. But it’s impossible to pick a favourite: both are wonderful performances, fully manifesting the lyrical and dramatic heft of the work, and in the process suggesting that, with Skin, Rebecca Saunders may have entered a new phase of her creativity.

And that brings this year’s Lent Series to an end. i’m only too aware of the limitations of a series like this, and that in most respects i’ve only been able to scratch – perhaps, quite deeply – the surface of the music, but all the same i very much hope these articles will provide some badly-needed greater insight into Rebecca Saunders’ music, teasing out and clarifying some of the features and qualities that make it such a unique and important body of work. This Lent Series was a more than usually ambitious undertaking for me, and i want to thank James Joslin at Peters Edition for his help and generosity, and, of course, Rebecca Saunders herself, for answering my numerous volleys of questions (often within minutes!) and for the many insights and materials she provided, all of which greatly helped my appreciation and understanding of her work.

**The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.**


More, more dust. Dust.
More. Caught. More lies. Caught mine.
Stir, stir.
Stir lately.
Me yes.
And saw.
Me so, so.
Quiet, simple
No more. Quite quietly. Trick steady shit. Quantities oh. Skin that awful deep down.
One below and burning. Biting of the skin and. Melt, melt. Fabulous, it is wonderful. (Charging thoughts remnants.)
Shielded well sometimes like a secret. Disclosure still. And saw me. So, so, so. Quite simple. Quite stirring.
One below and burning. Biting. Melt, melt. Fabulous. So still, so, so. Stay so, stay, more dust. More skin.
Quite never understood. Biting of the skin. Melt, melt. Fabulous.
oh! still.
More skin
Nor Re-
Rest no more.
or Nor. more. more
Said. Shadows.
So, so, so. Stay so. Not unsaid. Some thing. Some moment. More dust. More skin. More said. Yes. No more
no say. Untold untruth. Conclude remnants and…
Rest Re-
Str- Strange, Str- yes str-
disclosure no more.
Tender, ri
oh so still.
Stay no more even if you, quite never understood
Ah! shit.
No I never no never understand. no more.
Quite quietly. Trick, steady, shit quantity.
Oh and that awful deep down.
More said. Nor unsaid. So, so, so. Quite. Quite simple. So still, so. Stay, more dust. More skin. Untold. Untruth. Even if you quite. Ah! Shit no never. Quite quietly. One below and burning. Biting. Melt, melt. Fabulous oh skin!
TRICK, steady shit. Quantities of. Quantities of. Awful deep down. Awful deep down.
Biting of the skin and
Charging. Thought’s remnants. Some thing. Some moment. Yes unnamed, remnants and dust. Crimson crimson. No more no say untold untruth. Conclude unnamed. Clouds, breathe and dust. Nearly, quite quietly. Quite almost remnants, our shadows. Untold of dust. More dust my skin. Yes quite simple. Stir still so quietly. [More quietly. Yes] deep down. Some light. Some burning. This dust. Biting more dust. More …
… lies. So told. So so. Quite simple, still so. Quite quietly. Quiet melting. Yes crimson no more …
Biting of the skin.
Melt. Melt.
Tar Oh oh
Oh stir.
Lies caught mine.
Cr- Cr- Cr- i Crimson, oh! melt.
Ah fire.
Fabulous I know it is wonderful. Told low. Marmor, dimmed in shadow. Stirring as if late. Oh yes and saw me. So, so. Quite simple. Quiet quiet. So still, so. Stay, more dust. More skin. Shielded well, sometimes like a secret. Disclosure still. Untold, untruth, even if you quite never understood. Ah! trick steady and one below and burning. Melt, melt and charging. Thought’s remnants. Some thing. Some moment. Crimson crimson, no? No more no say, untold untruth. Conclude unnamed …
Charging More Remnants
Breath and dust. Or deep down. Or down.
Deep All told.
Nearer nearer nearer
Never, no never.
Cau- Caught, mirror mirror.
deep down.
So so oh ah
ah r-
ah like

(turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and) Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice her for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious
sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the
pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibralter as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes
when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say
yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
Ki- Yes
So more dust.
In shadow.
Told low
So. Stir so, so.
Breath untold.
Clouds, our shadows.
Breathe. Quietly, quite. Nearly almost.
Of no name. say say.
Moving on, on
Yes, deep down, down.
Like fire, melt
tender so still.
More skin quiet burning. Burning
oh this dust bites.
Seeped in marmor.
So, so, quite simply melting.
Yes, crimson like fire.
No more.
More dust. Dust. More lies caught. Mine so told low. Marmor, dimmed in shadow. Oh…
And saw me. So, so, quite simple. Tender. So still. So say. More dust, more skin. Shielded well, sometimes like a secret. Disclosure…
More said. Nor unsaid. Shadows untold, untruth, even if you quite never, ah! Shit no never no more. Quiet quietly. Tricky steady quantities more skin. Oh that awful deep down. Below and burning. Biting of the skin and. Melt, melt. Fabulous, it is…
Thought’s remnants. Some thing. Some moment. Yes unnamed, remnants and dust. Crimson crimson. No? No more no say. Untold, untruth. Conclude unnamed. Clouds. Breath and dust. Skin. Nearly, quite quietly, our shadows. Inaudible. Of no name. Untold of dust. More dust. my skin.



Programme Note

skin /Skinn.
a taut flexible continuous outer covering or layering of the body or thing;
a film like a skin on the surface of a liquid or solid;
the skin of a flayed animal with or without the hair.

n. the delicate membrane separating the body and its environment — implies the phenomenon of touch, one of the five external senses, and through which the subsidiary sensory modalities of temperature, pain and vibration are partly perceived.

touch, somatosensory, tactition or mechanoreception: a neural perception generally in the skin, but also in the tongue, throat, and mucosa. Receptors respond to variations in speed and pressure (firm, brushing, sustained, etc.). adj. somatic, tactile.

to skin, to peel back the surface of; to shed an animal of its skin.

Under one’s skin: so deeply penetrative as to irritate, stimulate, provoke thought, or otherwise excite.
Under the skin: beneath apparent of surface differences: at heart.

Skin as a metaphor for transience — the continuous process of shedding dead skin and the growing of new.

Struck by a recording of an early production of Samuel Beckett’s television play The Ghost Trio (written 1975 and first broadcast in 1977), this text, spoken by the narrator in Act 1, was the absolute catalyst for this piece:

…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…

The main text is Skin is my own which gradually materialised during the long compositional process, and was partly inspired by collaborative sessions with Juliet Fraser. A section from James Joyce’s Ulysses, from the final passage of Molly Bloom’s Monologue, is quoted towards the end of Skin.

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Alan Munro

Bravo Simon, a totally compelling series.

[…] (2017). i’ve written extensively about all three of these works previously, void and Skin also as part of the 2018 Lent Series (and also, more briefly, after Skin‘s first UK […]

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