Between silence and sound

Silence and sound: Rebecca Saunders’ music creates tension between these two poles. In 2023/24, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna will focus on the oeuvre of the Berlin-based British composer – from small-scale works to a commissioned composition for a large orchestra.

© Astrid Ackermann

She prefers to work at night. Then she sits at her simple, white table in her Berlin apartment, and two lamps illuminate the almost empty room. In front of her is the window that offers a view into the black night. Rebecca Saunders, 55, is a city kid who needs an urban environment for his work: Having grown up in London’s vibrant Brixton district, she now lives in Prenzlauer Berg. “The energy and sound of an urban ambience make me feel alive,” she says. She likes to focus her ears and realign them again and again. She likes to play with her perception of sound events: “With the surface of the sounds in the cacophony of an urban soundscape – to the point where it all seems like an almost numbing white noise.”

It is only out of the silence that the sound emerges. “Drawing music out of silence”, she explains her – dialectical – compositional principle. They are fascinated by the different facets of silence as much as the sound: “Even a fermate or a break can have very different effects – on what was before and what will happen afterwards. They can be expansion or stagnation, but also dead silence.” That she would one day become a composer was no surprise to anyone who knew her family better. Her grandfather was an organist, her grandmother played the piano, and her parents were pianists. “I remember painting pictures as a small child while sitting on the wall in my father’s study, and he was practising or teaching singers. And that I was lying under the piano, and the instrument’s resonance flooded me.”

She finds her way to composition through Wolfgang Rihm’s “cypher” cycle. In 1991 she moved to Karlsruhe and became his student. And even though she returned to Great Britain from 1994 to 1997 to write her doctoral thesis, Germany has been her second home ever since. Success came quickly: in 1996, she received the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation’s Advancement Award. Many other prizes were to follow, including the Royal Philharmonic Society Award. In 2019, the most significant award in the music world was the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize.

The fact that the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna is now intensively taking on its oeuvre aligns with this line. Wien Modern is an equally passionate partner – essential concerts of the Saunders series at the Musikverein take place as co-productions with Wien Modern. She often finds her inspiration in the films or books of Derek Jarman. “Chroma”, an expansive collage of chamber music composed for the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, is entitled to its “Book of Colours”. Or in the works of James Joyce. The monologue of Molly Bloom’s thoughts, for example, with which “Ulysses” ends, runs through her entire oeuvre. First as a poetic imagination for the instrumental work “Molly’s Song” and most recently several times as a text set to music. However, she also precedes some scores with individual quotations, especially by Samuel Beckett. “He weighs every single word very carefully,” she says. His lyrics are “mercilessly direct and extraordinarily fragile”. His language seems skeletonized and brings itself to the brink of being able to say anything. Beckett has spoken into silence, a bon mot of the philosopher Ulrich Pothast about the Irish writer. A sentence that may one day also be used to describe Saunders’ compositional path.

Text by Margot Weber.