Rebecca Saunders

Heard anew: Rebecca Saunders

5 questions for the composers featured in the »Elbphilharmonie Visions« New Music festival.

When it comes to classical composers, most people think of old masters such as Beethoven and Mozart. But the »Elbphilharmonie Visions« festival demonstrates that contemporary music can also be »just as rich and diverse as humanity itself« (Alan Gilbert). The festival’s programme features only music by contemporary composers. Not only is that musically very exciting, it also offers an amazing opportunity to ask the composers questions about their works and the process of creating them. How do you go about composing? Do you have a concrete idea of the work before you sit down to write it, or does it emerge only when you start? What role do your surroundings play? And what are your hopes for your music?

The Festival composers talk about this in short interviews. In this case with British composer and Berlin resident Rebecca Saunders, about whose music her colleague Enno Poppe says: "I know hardly any other composer who works so precisely with sounds as she does. There is love and work in every detail.«

How does Rebecca Saunders sound?

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Rebecca Saunders
Rebecca Saunders Rebecca Saunders © Astrid Ackermann

Do you already have a strong vision of a work before you set about writing it?

It varies enormously, depending on the work. A new piece asks a question - it seeks and traces. It may be exploring the potential of a fragment of sound, investigating divergent timbral palettes, exploring the architectural characteristics of a space, setting up a formal conundrum and breaking it. But it is always essentially about sound itself - the pure unadulterated physicality of the listening experience, conveying and exploring this. Most works contemplate the absence or presence of silence. Silence is an ideal that can be sensed or implied, but never actually be heard or felt - I like this. A thing that is not. Silence frames sound and provides the framework within which sound is percieved - it preceeds and follows the sonic event, it is the moment of waiting, of tension, of expectation; it is the saturated empty page, before the first sound is notated on the page. The play between silence and sound is fragile, volatile and exciting.

What role do non-musical factors play in your work?

I think everything plays a role and feeds into the sounds and images. It can be a painting, observing the stroke of the brush, an impression of an installation, a written phrase or a whole novel, a chord, or a piece of music, all of which can inspire a chain reaction and a new work falls into the void. But it can equally be the sound of workmen hitting stones day in day out outside my window, the wind of a hurricane, observing the pull of the tide or the colours in the supermarket shelves. It is a question of observation and focus, I think.

At the »Elbphilharmonie Visions« festival, contemporary orchestral music plays a more prominent role than probably at any other concert hall in the world: 18 works by 18 composers are being performed on nine evenings. Do you think that's a good idea, or is it the wrong strategy?

There is no correct strategy – such a celebration of the originality and diversity of contemporary music is simply fantastic. It is one of many ways of creating exciting concert experiences. Of course, it is also critically important to combine the old with the new as a matter of course. Contemporary music needn´t be classed as the »other« - it is all music.

What does contemporary music need to do to win the public's favour? What improvements to concerts would you like to see  – today and in the near future?

A new piece of music is an invitation to listen and engage. As opposed to older classical music, it invites us to embrace the new and unexpected. It sets an impulse, whether physical, emotional or intellectual. There is no message or meaning in that sense, it is not the means to an end. It is the thing itself. Music is extraordinary and unique in that it can imply and suggest in an almost magical way. It gives space to that which is so difficult to articulate. Peter Brooks said in his The Empty Space, »The musician is dealing with a fabric that is as near as man can get to an expression of the invisible«. I found this beautiful.

To win the love the audience? Perhaps the following:

- intelligent programming, where an audience is encouraged to be curious as opposed to thinking they are »missing« something that needs to be »understood«

- more concert programs combining the old with the new, implicitly, so that contemporary music is not regarded as that strange »other«

- to hear contemporary music in all kinds of contexts, in traditional surroundings, but also in new spaces, reaching out to inquisitive and curious new audiences who may usually be more at home with other art forms, like the visual arts, electro-acoustic music and dance.

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The music of Rebecca Saunders at »Elbphilharmonie Visions«

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