SoundState: Rebecca Saunders - behind the music

Thursday, December 20, 2018 - 09:30

Though born and raised in London, composer Rebecca Saunders – having studied under Wolfgang Rihm in Karlsruhe in the early 1990s – is often associated with the German avant-garde more readily than the British.

Saunders is a composer who has developed her own distinctive sound; fascinated with the often subtle extraneous noise created by instrumentalists, and characterised by limited chromatic range. She has also explored physical space in her music, with pieces such as chroma (2003-2013) which is recomposed to each new venue in which it is performed.

When composing, I imagine holding the sounds and noises in my hands, feeling their potential between my palms, weighing them. Skeletal textures and musical gestures develop out of this. Then, like pictures placed in a large white room, I set them in silence, next to, above, beneath and against each other.
Rebecca Saunders

As part of January 2019’s SoundState festival, we welcome Ensemble Modern to Southbank Centre for a special concert of Saunders’ compositions Skin, Fury II, and a visible trace. In a look ahead to that performance, we take a closer look at five of Saunders other works.


dichroic seventeen

Rather than commencing with the clear structure of the final piece in mind, Saunders compositions often evolve from an ‘intention’; a goal of what it is she would like the piece achieve. Her 1998 work dichroic seventeen offers a rather straightforward example of this, as she explained in a 2006 interview with composer James Saunders; “In dichroic seventeen I wanted to write a two-part form of extreme contrasting sound worlds, where the second part acts as a form of resonance to that of the first”.



The route to Saunders’ 2004 composition miniata was opened up by her work on 2003 pieces chroma and insideout, as she explained to composer James Saunders in 2006. “The structural flexibility with which I had experimented in the 2003 pieces enabled me to explore a much more complex form of collage in miniata. I also sensed a greater flexibility while composing, and was particularly preoccupied with the density of musical structures and the multi-faceted potential of silence – the depth, the sensuality of silence.”


Molly's Song 3 "shades of crimson"

Among Saunders many inspirations is literature and Molly’s Song 3 “shades of crimson” is one of several compositions created in response to the monologue of Molly Bloom at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Examining the piece for Sound and Music, British composer Laurence Osborn explained that as in Ulysses “certain sonic ideas recur throughout the piece - glissandi and pizzicato from the viola, breath noises and flutter-tonguing from the alto flute, barre chords, percussive sounds, and sustained E-Bow tones from the guitar…. they are simultaneously alien and familiar, like the faces of long-dead relatives”.


To and Fro

Joyce isn’t Saunders’ sole literature inspiration, she has also drawn on the work of Samuel Beckett for pieces such as Skin, and her 2010 composition for violin and oboe, To and Fro. The latter of which takes its name and inspiration from a line in Samuel Beckett’s short story Neither;

to and fro in shadow from inner to outershadow
from impenetrable to impenetrable unself by way of neither.


Fury for Double Bass Solo

Saunders has expressed a want to work closely with each instrument of the orchestra before she dies. In an interview with Jeffrey Arlo Brown for VAN magazine Saunders explained how that’s not always as straight-forward as it sounds. “Sometimes it takes three or four years to really absorb the essential characteristics of an instrument and develop my own palette of sounds for it. And then I get obsessed with certain instruments, like the double bass or the trumpet, and can’t leave them alone, which really wastes a lot of time”. It may seem a waste of time to the composer, but such obsessions to bring great rewards, as Fury for Double Bass Solo exemplifies.


Southbank Centre’s SoundState took place from Wednesday 16 – Sunday 20 January 2019.

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