Rebecca Saunders

Rebecca Saunders – A Portrait

On a perpetual expedition into the unknown, with an unmistakeable signature – a portrait of one of the most successful composers of our time.

It’s not easy to find a quiet corner here in the Cologne café Funkhaus, which is jam-packed on a cool lunchtime in May 2023. Pop music blares out of the speakers, a coffee machine splutters, dishes rattle. I remember from our last meeting that the composer comes from the busy London district of Brixton and loves noise and construction sites. Rebecca Saunders quickly finds a free table that I had missed, right at the side, and we are already talking about her music even before the ginger tea and cappuccino arrive. Music that was produced in the silence of her Berlin flat and that was performed for the first time the previous night. »Skull« is a work for fourteen musicians – it’s an incredibly lively piece of music and anything but bony. Saunders, along with Ensemble Modern, has just been feted at a very well-attended concert in the Cologne Philharmonie, not just for »Skull« but also for »Scar« and »Skin«, the entire triptych that is now complete after seven years.

She is visibly pleased. She has never been one to take such things for granted, not since she was awarded the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize in 2019 as the first female composer to receive the honour – although it did annoy her that some seemed to find that fact more important than her work. Saunders is not the type to take to the limelight and force her message across. Yes, she is confident, but her most striking qualities are thoughtfulness, openness and curiosity.

Rebecca Saunders as Composer in Residence

In season 2023/24 five concerts provide a fascinating insight into the work of this award-winning British composer. On stage: specialists such as the Ensemble Modern and the Arditti Quartet.

Audio-Einführung zu Saunders’ Residenz

Rebecca Saunders
Rebecca Saunders © Astrid Ackermann

Melodies – yes or no?

Since we are both completely under the spell of the brand-new work, it’s a great opportunity to get to know her method of working as things currently stand, at the beginning of a new development even. But for that, it’s helpful to know what’s come before. To know how and why Rebecca Saunders, who was born in London in 1967, broke free from British traditions three decades ago and settled in Germany, accompanied by an »absolute aversion to writing even a single melodic fragment«. Not that melody had ever been forced upon her. The young Rebecca enjoyed listening to the singers her parents accompanied on the piano, »and Brahms was my great love,« she says with a laugh. »I was a violinist and I played and performed the sonatas with my father.« She was already writing songs as a child: »writing melodies was something that came naturally to me«.

»Does your work have a mouth?« :Lessons with Wolfgang Rihm

She might have continued to write melodies in Edinburgh, where she studied composition, had a professor there not given her cassettes featuring the latest avantgarde music. »It was a complete shock,« she told me at a previous meeting in Berlin. »My eyes had been opened. What? That exists?! A sound that is simply there for its own sake, that does not refer to anything other than its own physicality!« The piece that had blown her away was one of the »Chiffres« by the composer Wolfgang Rihm. »I have to go there«, she decided. She was determined to learn from him.

The 23-year-old went to Karlsruhe on a scholarship. »I couldn’t speak a word of German and Rihm didn’t have much English. He asked simple questions, which I then spent days mulling over: ›What kind of face does your piece have?‹ ›Does it have eyes?‹ I thought, wow, it might not have eyes. ›Does it have a mouth?‹ No. ›What colour?‹ Red. ›Where is it then?‹ For me, that was a real gift. Being in the music instead of talking about it.«

First of all, listen

That’s how it all started. Since then, Saunders has reinvented the art of composition for herself, gradually opening everything up anew, the instruments, then the voice, even if that is still far from being a »melody«. And she has, in parallel, also become fluent in German and raised two children.

As is often the case for her, she embarked on »Skull« by listening. »I worked with the trumpeter Sava Stoianov, who comes from Bulgaria and has a completely unique sound. First, I asked him how he warms up – himself and his instrument. He played half-open notes with a very deep air sound,« which she demonstrates by singing, »and improvisations, melodic fragments. I found that incredibly sensual and poetic.« In her head, that then developed into a glissando around a semitone lower, the trumpet was joined by a viola, and then the saxophone, »and then everyone comes together. That was the nucleus«. A melodic nucleus that characterises an entire piece – that’s new for Rebecca Saunders, like so much in »Skull«.

Rebecca Saunders: »Skin«

In any case, she never repeats herself – each one of her stations has yielded something exciting. The composer’s earliest work is »Behind the Velvet Curtain« (1991), a frenzy of luminous colour for trumpet, harp, piano and cello. She has since written more than 85 compositions of great variety, in which her personal signature can always be recognised. The 2021 collage »Hauch – Music for Dance« for soloists and dancers, which is being newly choregraphed for the Elbphilharmonie, is an ideal introduction to Saunders’s world because it offers a prism of this diversity in a scenic framework, for listening and watching.

»Hauch« is a collage of six solo works and a duo spanning 16 years. »It’s not simply a matter of playing one work after the other,« she says, »there are also overlaps. The works are split, they come and go, and they move with the dancers. I also took sounds from each of the works and these act as shadows when it comes to a solo. And there are improvisations for all instruments, which play a limited palette of sounds according to specific impulses.« The earliest solo work included in »Hauch« as part of the meta-composition is »Blaauw« for trumpet (2004, but in a new version for the collage), and the most recent is »To an Utterance – Study« for piano, which was written in 2020; in addition there is a viola, percussion, cello, trumpet and a duo for violin and oboe. Was it difficult to bring the various tonal languages of these various works together? »It was interesting and necessary! With a collage it’s vital that the individual pieces and modules have qualities that are immediately recognisable and that set them apart from the others. That leads to the creation of a spatial polyphony with the dancers and musicians, who also move.« As she was composing, she was particularly fascinated by the transformation of time through the dancing. 

»Time flows differently compared to when a singer is performing. You can have a constant note that moves slightly, for five minutes, during which the dance is fully in the foreground.«

Rebecca Saunders

With unique precision, Rebecca Saunders has mapped out who does what when in this 80-minute work on graph paper. The line-up of instruments also includes a silent stopwatch. »But it’s not always running,« she says with a laugh.

Body, colour, space

As studied and sophisticated as it is, Saunders’s music never sounds like paper – it always has a body. It has a colourfulness and a plasticity that feed on a close proximity to the artists and on the finest structures. These are as immediate in their effect as the energies that make the filigree quality, punctuated by accents, in the string quartet »Fletch« (2012) almost a phenomenon of nature.

The result is always the creation of spaces and worlds into which we can see. The movements in the pieces can expand like the surface of an ocean (in »Scar« of 2019) or build up pressure as in »Skin« (2016), the first piece in which Saunders used the human voice, a soprano who doesn’t even sing initially, but rather whispers, stammers – as if there is so much to say that it is impossible to say it.

Expeditions into the unknown

The latest work »Skull« features the most unambiguous material yet: a short second downwards, expressed using the oldest polyphonic technique in the arsenal – imitation, the repetition of a motif in another voice, in this case always slightly modified. »I can’t quite believe that I’ve done it,« she says laughing. »Lifting a ban is a very liberating act.«

Had she really banned herself from using imitation? »No, but you sometimes just have to rule things out. When you’re composing, you can’t do everything in every piece. You have to eliminate some sounds, techniques and possibilities of expression in order to really get to the core sound of the work you’re writing. For a long time I didn’t want to do “melody” because there were so many other things I wanted to explore. When I started composing trills in 2011, that was also a liberation. Trills can, of course, be something quite superficial. I had promised myself that I would only write something like that once I understood how a trill can have meaning in and of itself, and how that can be anchored in my music.« She eventually found the perfect framework for that in the violin concerto »Still« for Carolin Widmann, which was inspired by Samuel Beckett.

Seen in this way, Saunders’s oeuvre is a perpetual expedition into the unknown – that unknown into which traditions, instruments, forms and techniques that were developed over centuries transform if you don’t simply take them up and continue them, but rather approach them as you would an unexplored continent, and that with the meticulousness of a scientist. With Saunders, one always wants to know what she’ll discover next and what she will do with it.

Elbphilharmonie Live Talk: Rebecca Saunders in conversation with YouTuber Nahre Sol

No arias, of course

When it comes to working with voices, a very exciting path is emerging: »Skin« was followed by »Yes« in 2017, another piece featuring a soprano – »the first time that I brought an actress to the world,« as Saunders said at the time. She got Molly Bloom to sing, she explored the protagonist’s final monologue in James Joyce’s »Ulysses« and the richness of endless sentences in which Molly speaks without shame of life and love right up to the final »yes I said yes I will Yes«.

That, of course, did not become an aria. Saunders distributed the words, or half the words to be precise, between one soprano and 19 instrumentalists. Syllables are whispered and screamed into the bass flute, the accordionist speaks while their instrument breathes in, and the singer does so even when she has run out of breath. She is also allowed to sing, of course!

In Saunders’s next work for a female singer, »Us Dead Talk Love« (2021) for alto and small ensemble, the soloist is given more space and becomes more unpredictable and personal. »With altos, the speaking and singing voice has the same timbre, speaking and singing can be woven together, unlike with sopranos... but look, there’s the Diva – hello!« Rebecca Saunders waves over a woman who has just entered the café – her soprano from the previous evening, Juliet Fraser, a miracle of precision and intensity. Fraser will also be performing the vocal part in »Yes« in the Elbphilharmonie. »Juliet isn’t a diva, but that’s what’s so great – I call her Diva, and she calls me Boss.« Saunders laughs cheerfully, indicating how unsuitable the two labels are.

Don’t wait too long

Saunders is delighted by what »Us Dead Talk Love« unleashed in her. »In Bern I arrived home after rehearsals for this piece and I knew I could now write an opera. Not could – had to! The following day, I received a call from Deutsche Oper Berlin – about an opera! And I agreed. Two days before that I would have turned down an opera commission.« Ed Atkins, a British artist, is now writing the libretto.

»It’s about questions and answers. Love, death, everything that makes opera opera, but no history. We work with repeated mechanisms, maybe a little like in Beckett’s television plays. An enormous challenge. I want the physicality of the music to completely fill people. We’ll see. With the orchestra... I would never have thought that I’d do something like this, I have to say. But life is too short, you shouldn’t wait too long.«

So she’s given herself permission to explore melody, to get involved with voices, and even to work on an opera. Is it possible that she will now also engage more with older music again? »I’m just getting back to Baroque and pre-Baroque music. I’m playing Couperin on the piano. I’ve just rediscovered him – amazing!« Alongside the violin, the piano was her instrument from an early age, quite simply because her childhood home was full of pianos. With »To an Utterance« – which was performed at the Elbphilharmonie’s »Visions« Festival in February 2023 – she has taken a new approach to the instrument using the framework of the piano concerto. She composed the work in 2020, »during the first lockdown – it was so great to have four months just for composing! It was a luxury in a way to have the world just stop. But the second lockdown was horrendous.«

Rebecca Saunders  »To an Utterance« in der Elbphilharmonie, Februar 2023
Rebecca Saunders »To an Utterance« in der Elbphilharmonie, Februar 2023 © Daniel Dittus

Love of polyphony

Much of what she does draws on impressions from her journey of self-discovery on the continent. »I still remember, when I was very young, this moment in a Mahler symphony in which very high sounds simply hang there while everything below them breaks away. I’ve always carried that with me, certain moments, a certain type of sound. And the polyphony that is in the foreground in ›Skull‹ – where the instrumental soloists really sing together – that goes back to my studies in Edinburgh, where polyphony was my favourite subject. All my works are in several voices, are polyphonic in a way. But it’s very new for that to be as clear as it is now.«

How is her music received in her home country? »My profile is lower there than it is here in Germany,« says Saunders, »but almost all my works are performed in Huddersfield. The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival is simply amazing. But they’re facing enormous financial difficulties and a populist headwind. Many organisers are scared, everything has to be justified. Every piece has to bear reference to something, be relevant, address certain themes. There is a lack of understanding that art must be autonomous.« That this has been the case throughout the history of music is no reassurance for Saunders. »As soon as rules are passed down from the top regarding what is allowed and what isn’t, you find yourself in an extremely difficult situation. And that situation is well advanced in the UK. But we’ve been seeing the same tendency in Germany too recently. It’s very dangerous when an art that has no direct social relevance is seen as problematic. We mustn't take this discourse lightly. We have to be on our guard.«

Rebecca Saunders Rebecca Saunders © Astrid Ackermann

»It’s very dangerous when an art that has no direct social relevance is seen as problematic.«

Ein Angebot, sich zu öffnen

It is, however, a good sign that a composer such as Rebecca Saunders is put in the spotlight in major venues like the Elbphilharmonie and at a festival like »Acht Brücken« in Cologne – and is filling those venues to boot. »People come up to me saying it’s not their kind of thing usually, but they want to hear more. Ordinary people come, they listen to New Music and they have no idea what’s going on, but they’re interested!«

Indeed, what is going on in New Music? In a way, precisely that which we often fear: you never know what’s going to happen next. But you needn’t fear the unknown in a piece of music you’ve never heard before. »That’s the amazing thing about New Music,« says Saunders. »When you hear a piece for the first time, it’s an opportunity to open yourself up and really surrender to something. You’re encountering something unfamiliar – that’s exciting and beautiful. And you can’t experience that alone with your headphones. That’s something we do together.«


Text: Volker Hagedorn, last updated: August 2023
English Translation: Seiriol Dafydd
This article appeared in the Elbphilharmonie Magazin (3/23)

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