Is this the echo of the Big Bang? A train rumbling down a tunnel? A not-too-well oiled machine? No, it’s not. It is… Rebecca Saunders. The UK composer is exploring unfamiliar realms of sound and she walks here at least partly in the footsteps of her teacher Wolfgang Rihm. Now, I am aware that the Neue Musik puts off some of you, the readers of this blog. However I listened to a few compositions of Mrs. Saunders and one struck me as a box of multiple surprises, a kind of benign Pandora’s Box. It merits a little attention, and be reassured, we will return to the more familiar classical music in no time at all. This is just a lovely escape into modernity!
An unusual quartet
The piece is called “Quartet” and Mrs. Saunders wrote it for accordion, clarinet, double bass and piano. Not the usual quartet, but then again you would not expect anything usual from the 49-year-old composer. “Quartet” is an earlier work, it was written in 1998, and this date coincides with the year she moved to Berlin. In 2009 she became a member of the Berlin Academy of Arts and since 2011 she teaches composition at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien in Hanover. “Quartet” has been recorded by the German ensemble musikFabrik, very much focused on contemporary classical music, and the conductor Stefan Asbury.
The piece opens with a kind of flash-boom-bang, then the composer builds up tension by contrasting dark and light, dull and clear, coarse and frail elements. Over time rhythmic structures become perceptible, characteristic sound bites begin to give the piece a certain structure. But if you look for a message – there is none, at least none that the composer had in mind. In a recent interview she said: “There is nothing to understand.” She wants the audience to be open-minded in the sense that it allows itself to become impressed by certain (or all aspects) of the music. She wants her music to have an individual effect on the listener and expects the listener to permit the music to have that specific effect.
Collage technique – new and old
Mrs. Saunders follows here the logic of the newer generations of composers (post World War II) that makes the audience part of the artistic performance. By being performed the music is being offered by the musicians to the listener, the listener has the freedom to associate with it whatever crosses his mind or whatever feelings the music may trigger. For every listener the performance can be an individual piece of art with its meaning tied to each single listener.
Her composition technique has been characterized by herself with these words: “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.”
Collage technique applied to music – if you think this is revolutionary, you are wrong. It has been done in the Baroque era by Heinrich Ignaz von Biber, later by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or in the 20th century by Charles Ives. Electronic music sampling has evolved from this precursors. It is less the technique than the sounds bites used that may seem new to the untrained ear. And there can be no doubt, this is the way classical music is heading. In 2098 this will no longer be Neue Musik but have an equal rank with Dmitry Shostakovich’s, Bela Bartok’s or György Ligeti’s works.
© Charles Thibo