An English transplant to Berlin, Rebecca Saunders is a former pupil of Nigel Osborne, a composer with ties to Germany, and Wolfgang Rihm, one of the leading lights of German Modernism in the last few decades. As such, listeners approach her music with the expectation that it will operate outside of many heartfelt assumptions.
Not for her the fought-over terrains of minimalism, serialism, neoromanticism, stochasticism, or music “based on” philosophy, or the psychology of sound or whatever Karlheinz Stockhausen was about. Of the latter, I’ve often wondered if he were really Frank Zappa in disguise, but that’s a topic for another time.
In short, Saunders’ music strikes out into a sound world less connected to even the recent past than that of Un Suk Kim. What the two have in common, is an ear for the uncommon sonority. But Saunders is much farther afield from the quasi- (and I mean quasi-) symphonic diction of Kim, both on a moment-to-moment basis, and in regard to the gestalt.
This is music for, by and of sound and sound complexes to an extent I haven’t heard before. While it may owe something to the experience of purely electronic music, Saunders’ “Void” is something else and, I believe, something more.
Whereas, from my limited perspective, the average piece of electronic music is much more involved with experimentation for its own sake — aside from its tendency toward techno-fetishism — Saunders, to my ear, seems more concerned with developing a novel sonic diction. What sets “Void” apart is the existence of a vocabulary, a grammar and a syntax for her highly original compositions.
And that’s saying something. Listen with ears open and you’ll discover that, like the best 18th century music, it teaches you how to listen, how to grasp the structural signposts. That is, despite the fact that the latter remain nameless, elusive and hard to categorize. This is due in large part to the fact that Saunders has actually managed to create a feeling of progression. Who knows? After so much time in Germany, Saunders, who is in her 50s, may even have a theory about it.
Fortunately, any such considerations seem to be decidedly in the background. Her ideas unfold unfettered and her imagination as both a “sound-colorist” and a “sound-structuralist” is rich, variegated and blessedly surprising. Missing from “Void” (for percussion duo and orchestra) are the obsessive, eat-your-spinach, obligatory transformations that many forward-looking composers believe are their obligation to present, out of some sort of moral responsibility. Saunders’ mentor Rihm, I believe, falls into that category and it’s a relief to see that she has sidestepped that nonsense.
Many have noted that great artists make great choices. They select well from the infinite array of the possible. That’s what makes art in any medium, in my opinion, a human endeavor, if not necessarily a humanistic one. Its inherent subject matter is human thought processes. And that’s the opposite of any mechanistic approach. Why? Because as Oliver Sacks has shown, music isn’t an external, objective function It‘s hard-wired into the human mind.
Granted, there are historical works, like Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations,” Schumann’s “Symphonic Etudes,” JS Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue” — or for that matter, Mahler’s Eighth — that jam an entire kitchen sink into the spaces between F and A on the treble clef. But they are all, believe it or not, carefully selected excerpts from their composers’ imaginations.
Do you really think that Bach couldn’t have written twice as many fugues on his theme? There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. In the case of the Schumann, there are even surviving sketches of the variations he discarded, in order to present only the “A material.” Sure, these pieces are encyclopedic, but they’re thumb-indexed, cross-referenced and tightly conceived. They are not the logorrheic bucket lists of our latter-day saints.
In any case, Saunders vocabulary in “Void” consists of bell chimes, flute warbles, brass growls, metallic clangs, string slides, percussive beats — including prepared piano — as well as any number of ingenious combinations of these resources.
At a superficial level, I suppose, the piece might remind you of the sounds “after dark” in an urban setting but in a way that gives the lie to John Cage’s idea of ambient noise as music. Seriously, there’s no more reason to sit in a concert hall and watch a pianist do nothing, when one could sit at home with the windows open and achieve the same thing.
I don’t think any one with two ears and an imagination ever needed that dose of medicine, but Cage delivered it, mostly to give his career a shot in the arm. By contrast, “Void” illustrates the difference between a generalized appreciation for intimate, passing flecks of noise and actual music very clearly. While Cage’s philosophical, and ultimately, political statement is not music, “Void” definitely is. To me, it’s the difference between whining about the limitations of “the musical establishment” and doing something about it.
Repeated hearing of “Void” will allow all but the most resistant to hear a progression emerge. In simplest terms, its a movement from quiet musings to a more frenetic level of activity. Some of the latter is either violently comic or comically violent, in a way that reminds me of those old-fashioned Weimar cabaret lyrics. Did someone get kissed or killed? It’s sometimes hard to tell.
The last few minutes take on a slightly more ominous tone. Or is it more ritualistic? My point is that the nature of the work’s sound world, the extent to which it mimics that odd mix of natural and machine-made sounds familiar to urban denizens, plays on the imagination in a highly effective, subliminal way. At times, it’s as if you were listening to the soundtrack of a film filled with intrigue. And yet, as intriguing as these mental meanderings can be while listening, to get lost in them is to miss the value of the piece. Aside from all else, “Void” will also remind you, perhaps, of certain schools of abstract painting that evoke so much more of the real world than they let on. Whatever inspired Saunders to move in this direction, whether over a period of years or from the start, her novel musical diction is the work of a gifted musical mind and a composer with an unusually clear artistic vision.
Mark Laporta is a musician, composer and novelist. His science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, is published by Chickadee Prince Books, and is available in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you. Or listen to his musical compositions here.