Rebecca Saunders – Skin

by 5:4

In 2018, when exploring the music of Rebecca Saunders in that year’s Lent Series, i made the following remark regarding recordings of her music:

The fact that i’ve explored Rebecca Saunders’ recorded output over four articles suggests that she’s well represented by recordings of her work. But almost half of her compositions haven’t yet been recorded, including such major works as chroma …, insideout …, murmurs, traces and the three concertos Still, Void and Alba. One hopes as her reputation continues to grow and consolidate that the recorded picture of Saunders’ output will become yet more complete.

Rebecca Saunders on record (Part 4)

In the last few years that situation has improved a bit, but it’s been given an unexpected boost by the latest release from the usually more mainstream-oriented UK label NMC. Skin features three works by Saunders composed during the last eight years: the percussion duo concerto void (2014), Skin (2016) for soprano and ensemble, and the string quartet Unbreathed (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 performance at HCMF 2016), and Unbreathed following its world première at the Wigmore Hall in January 2018. i therefore won’t go into detail about each piece again here, though it’s important to stress how fantastic it is to have three three such substantial works by Saunders together on a single disc, in what are all outstanding performances.

It makes some sense that it’s the HCMF performance of Skin, by Juliet Fraser and Klangforum Wien conducted by Bas Wiegers, included here, as the work requires the players to be dispersed throughout the space, which worked particularly well in Huddersfield’s St. Paul’s Hall. Saunders’ music is typified by many things, one of the most obvious being struggle, effort, the determination to grapple, wrangle, articulate, and perhaps clarify. Fraser’s personification of Molly Bloom’s monologue is absolutely dazzling here, a locus of potential tangibility in the midst of a vast network of loosely but tangibly connected satellites. i’m always struck afresh by how raw Saunders’ music always sounds, like frayed nerve endings, electrified and bristling. It’s the only music i know that sounds so surface-oriented – laid bare – without ever being remotely superficial. It’s an essential part of that other primary characteristic, music caught between light and shadow, sound and silence. This is the aspect that makes writing about her work so challenging and difficult, due to its continual stream of channelled, focus activity, in which notions of structure and section (if they’re even present) always take second place to that overarching act of critical engagement. In this respect Skin is perhaps the most elusive of the three works on this album, though perhaps that’s a symptom of its nervous, fretful, stammering energy. Nonetheless, Fraser’s final exhalation is a moment of absolute directness, despite its meaning being as ambiguous as all that preceded it: achievement? exultation? relief? despair? death? life?

i’m still minded to regard the world première, captured on the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2016 box set released by NEOS, as the more effective rendition of the piece, but there’s not a lot in it, and in any case it’s just wonderful that this superb performance from Huddersfield has been preserved with such stunning clarity.

Surely one of Saunders’ most beautiful works, void is treated here to a low-key but hypnotic performance by percussionists Christian Dierstein and Dirk Rothburst (for whom the work was written) with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Enno Poppe. On the one hand, it’s a less dramatic approach than the world première, but i wonder whether that speaks more directly to the work’s inherent nature. There are many occasions throughout void when one wonders to what extent, if any, the performers’ actions amount to anything of substance, whether any of the details actually matter. Initially there’s the impression of a kind of slow flexing, as if the music were waking up, testing out movement. In the midst of this a weird, streaky pulse appears, like a group of marching wraiths. Yet it soon becomes apparent that this flexing isn’t preparatory but is the focus, all the music’s energy being channelled back into itself in a never-ending cycle of starting and fading. Is it an equilibrium? Is this the sum total of all its actions being cancelled out? Is it, in fact, a void?

i’ve noted before about the way the halting demeanour of the music becomes mysteriously continuous, and that’s again the case here, no doubt partly due to the behavioural similarities that permeate the primary ideas in the piece. All of which makes void‘s denouement all the more unsettlingly strange: first pitches become extended – a new element in this soundworld – then almost everything dissolves, leading to a hard-to-grasp final few minutes melding vestiges of that ghostly pulse with gorgeous, faint traces of shimmer. What’s been achieved? Are we anywhere different from where we began? Are such questions null and void?

Similar questions of negation and ‘anti-substance’ proliferate in Unbreathed, performed in this recording by the work’s dedicatees, Quatuor Diotima. After the 2018 première i pessimistically remarked that “While i’ve no doubt the piece will be widely-heard, the UK’s track record of supreme indifference suggests it’ll be a long time before we hear it again here.” Sure enough, i’ve never encountered it since (here or abroad), so this is a welcome return to a piece that really blew me away four years ago. In contrast to void, but similar to Skin, there’s a constant sense in Unbreathed that each and every action doesn’t just matter but is absolutely vital. The quartet contends around a single pitch, peppering it with swoops, slides, glistenings and tremolos, always – despite, again here, regular halting – giving the impression of a desperate tussling attempt.

As in 2018, one of the most fascinating things about the piece is the way the players meld together in the long first section, four bows wielded by a single musical voice, passing through varying forms of pulse, arriving at a point of furious intensity where, typically for Saunders, they crash to a halt, continuing faint and wiry. The latter portion of the piece finds the players separated, by which point that sense of struggle has more or less evaporated. It’s highly intriguing to hear what was such overt activity earlier now turned private, the quartet’s aims perhaps individualised, though the coda is a spell-binding coming together, as if the quartet were attempting to sing a slip-sliding song.

Three baffling, brilliant, beautiful compositions by one of new music’s most fearlessly, effortlessly radical composers. Few albums can be described as essential, but this is absolutely one of them. Released tomorrow by NMC, Skin is available on CD and download.

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Thank you for this account. My copy arrived yesterday and I was – in a much more general, considerably less musicianly listening than you evoke – blown away. Often enough, I hear stuff and think “yeah, yeah, that’s neat” (at best). Rebecca Saunders’ stuff stops me in my tracks and reminds me why I love the very idea of music.


In fact, the HCMF performance of ‘Skin’ was given in St Paul’s Hall in the standard voice+ensemble formation. ‘Yes’ was a spatialised performance in the Town Hall, in 2019, which is perhaps the one you have in mind!


Thanks for highlighting the NMC disc.

A couple of updates:
The concertos, Still and Alba, along with the bass clarinet duo Aether, are now available, on BR Klassik:–rebecca-saunders-still-aether-alba

The string quartet, Unbreathed, has been performed extensively across Europe and further afield, by Quatuor Diotima. There were 7 commissioners, so after the première in Wigmore Hall, the piece was presented at the following: Festival ECLAT, Stuttgart; Library of Congress, Washington DC; Klangspuren Schwaz; Musica Strasbourg; November Music, Den Bosch; and Philharmonie Luxembourg. These, plus a performance in Orléans, were all in 2018. The following year the piece was performed in Paris, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Aberdeen (SOUND), Copenhagen, Nijmegen and Stockholm. And since then, despite the lockdown periods in 2020 & ’21, there have been c.10 further performances, the most recent at Wien Modern last month. Of Rebecca’s recent works, it’s the most regularly programmed.

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