Saturday, 10 March 2012

Into the Fairly New

The tide began going out on the post-war avant-garde two or three decades ago and, though many composers still sail its waters, they seem increasing marooned in a shrinking space - or, more precisely, in Germany (or American universities). It is odd how Germany seems to be the last bastion for this kind of fiercely experimental, avowedly modernist music. Many a complexity-loving British composer has even gone so far as to move there, whether to teach or simply to ply their trade where they are most likely to get a sympathetic hearing.  

One such is Rebecca Saunders (b.1967). Born in London she now lives as a freelance composer in Berlin, remaining loyal to the modernist ethic. As a point of reference, she seems to me to come closest to the language of one of Germany's best-known living composers, Helmut Lachenmann, sharing his interest in making music from unusual sounds. (For the sake of comparison, please try Lachenmann's Gran Torso).

Into the Blue (1996) is an approachable example of Rebecca Saunders's art and will give newcomers to this strand of contemporary music a characteristic entry point. Whether they (you?) like it or not is an entirely different question. 

The piece explores the sounds a mixed ensemble can make - an ensemble containing both familiar and unfamiliar instruments (the latter including a sickle and a carving knife), each making familiar and unfamiliar noises, all shaped into events and gestures - some as sharp as the blades on that knife, others blurred by imprecisions of pitch, frequently both co-existing.  The forces listed are 'clarinet in B-flat, bassoon, percussion, piano, cello & double bass.' 

Does that sound gimmicky? Well, the results don't sound remotely gimmicky to me. Despite its radical (well, formerly radical) means, the piece has a ritualistic character perhaps akin to Chinese opera and despite the shrill edges of some of its 'moments' it can often be beautiful - when you've got yourself onto its wavelength (which may take at least a couple of listens). Occasionally it strikes an inward-looking note - "innig", as Schumann would say - and the relative simplicity of its closing minutes, where the piano takes more of the limelight, are quite poetic.

What do you make of it?

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