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CD Feature/ Rebecca Saunders: "Stirrings Still"

img  Tobias

With this album, Rebecca Saunders may well have solved two of the major dilemmas of modern composition. Namely: How to stay emotive without falling back on tradition. And: How to focus on timbre while holding on to a narrative. For decades, composers have been searching for a language capable expressing something new, while trying to arouse  the listener in the same way as romantic harmonic schemes. It has sometimes seemed like an impossible task and often, a somewhat brutish approach has consisted of playing everything at ear-deafening volume: It might not have been pretty, but it sure left an impression.

“Stirrings Still”, released as a collaboration with prestigious ensemble Musikfabrik and on well-established German label Wergo, may be a quiet work, with lots of the action happening in between the chinks and cracks of what is actually played. But thanks to its intense morse code, which never sounds as though it could only be decoded by an intellectual elite, it is one of the records which deserve to be debated by anyone with an interest in contemporary composition.

Approximating the truth
Many have expected an intimate miracle like this from Saunders ever since she appeared on the scene shortly before the turn of the millenium tide. There were scholarships, there were prizes, there were revealing little sentences like: “I’m scraping together tiny moments of colour and gesture before the actual composing process can take place.” It all pointed firmly in the direction of something special waiting to define itself.

Prior to picking up a pen, she would talk to performers in a bid of establishing a trialogue between composer, instrumentalist and instrument, feeling her way forward towards what was possible and what was necessary. It is a time-consuming technique, which has meant that her career could never depend on the sheer volume of her oeuvre, but needed to focus on the impact of the few pieces she could finish. But it was her way of approximating the truth and there was no alternative.

As “Stirrings Still” proves, she has made all the right choices. Four of these five tracks are world premiere recordings and what's more, they  actually appear to have been selected for their mutual synergetic potential: All compositions are marked by various polarities, such as regular use of an instrument vs extended technique, silence vs sound, development vs remaining in the moment, solo-performances vs ensemble play and loud vs quiet. Importantly, however, Saunders does not confuse these factors with the score: The music does not deal with anything but itself and the process of listening is the real reward – rather than any kind of externally construed “message”

The arduous burden of pushing boundaries
You can therefore lean back and simply enjoy the sometimes forceful, then again tender exchanges between two contrabasses on “Blue and Gray” as well as the gradual rapprochement between a Piano and a Violin on “Duo”. You can marvel at the fountains of sound gushing forth from a trumpet in “Blaauw” and observe the relationships between changing constellations of interplay on “Vermillion”. Or you can lock yourself into the dreamscape that is the title piece, an eleven-minute fantasy of delicately stertorous drones caught in fibrosic cycles of soft progressions. Paradoxically, these pieces challenge your notion of what an instrument can do, but they also take sound to a state where the source is no longer of any specific interest.

Even though it is a finely constructed, almost fragile music at times,  Saunders enjoys the occasional rupture to break up her auto-constructed structures, striking the ear with violent bow attacks or hitting the innards of the Piano to create spectral reverb clusters like a Zen master would use his cane to focus the attention of his scholars. But as serious, serene or whatever-other-adjective-you-might-want-to-apply-to-it as it may be, “Stirring Still” is a record which has left the arduous burden of pushing boundaries at all costs and at the expense of its audience far behind. Maybe that is the very reason why it manages to open up new doors.

In Saunders' work, after all, the old terminologies are rendered useless. She includes the note “This is Melody!” in the score to “Blue and Gray” - but there is none in the traditional sense. She plays with colour references, but they are not to be understood as synaesthetical descriptions. Her music may still be tonal, but the word no longer serves to describe a model in opposition to the Avantgarde. She includes long stretches of non-playing, but silence is no longer a territory to be reconquered.

Moulding Sound and Colour
Instead, it represents the arena where these tonal duels and duets are carried out, a forum of stimulated and intense exchanges. Or, as she puts it: “What we call silence is for me comparable to a dense knot of noise, frequencies, and sounds. From this surface of apparent silence I try to draw out and mould sound and colour."

It seems to be a contradiction that “Stirring Still” could be of universal importance despite its idiosyncratic outlook. Rebecca Saunders, after all, has written an album's worth of material, which represent nothing but her most personal points of view. Maybe that is the solution to the dilemmas of contemporary composition, however: Following your instinct and listening closely may get you further than devising strategies on theoretical battlegrounds.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Wergo Records

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