Physics and Quietude from Rebecca Saunders

United StatesUnited States Composer Portraits: Rebecca Saunders: Either/Or, Richard Carrick (conductor), Miller Theatre, New York City. 4.4.2013 (BH)


Esther Noh, violin
Erin Wight, viola
Alex Waterman, cello
John Popham, cello
Aaron Baird, double bass
Doug Balliett, double bass
Anthony Burr, clarinet and bass clarinet
Margaret Lancaster, bass flute
Michelle Farah, oboe
William Schimmel, accordion
Kobe Van Cauwenberghe, electric guitar
Taka Kigawa, piano
Matthew Gold, percussion
David Shively, percussion
Richard Carrick, conductor and piano

Rebecca Saunders: vermilion (2003, New York premiere)
dichroic seventeen (1998, New York premiere)
murmurs (2009, U.S. premiere)

“Surface, weight and feel are part of the reality of musical performance: the weight of the bow on the string; the differentiation of touch of the finger on the piano key; the expansion of the muscles between the shoulder-blades drawing sound out of the accordion; the in-breath preceding the ‘heard’ tone…”

From the comments above, it is clear that the physical process of creating music is one of Rebecca Saunders’s primary esthetic concerns—an observation borne out by the intensely detailed performances by Either/Or, led by Richard Carrick at Miller Theatre. Speaking with Carrick at intermission, Saunders explained her interest in “tiny fragments of sound,” and the “body language of a performer at that moment right before the sound is created.”

In the fragile vermilion (2003), silence is crucial. The three players—Anthony Burr on clarinet, Kobe Van Cauwenberghe on electric guitar and Alex Waterman on cello—gently nudge some of these “tiny fragments” into being, as if the sounds are somehow quietly collecting themselves off the floor and hovering in air. All three musicians played with extraordinary delicacy, and here (and later in the program), I have never heard an electric guitar coveted for its ability to be mumbling, just shy of mute.

Even more striking was dichroic seventeen (1998), for an odd assortment of eight instruments: accordion, electric guitar, cello, two double basses, piano and two percussionists. Amid tiny, bobbing gestures came forceful lunges from the double basses, reminiscent of the raw power of Galina Ustvolskaya. Here the accordion was also deployed with extraordinary delicacy; sometimes the only sounds audible from the great William Schimmel were the clicking of the keyboard or air alone, passing through the bellows. The ultra-quiet ending was riveting: Carrick conducted one of the percussionists playing a record on an analogue turntable, but with the needle stuck in the inner groove, softly scratching into infinity.

For murmurs (2009), Saunders challenged herself to write a piece that is “pianissimo all the way through.” If the performance didn’t quite bear that out (I heard a few mezzo-forte’s) just call me obsessive. The title is an allusion to a quote from Beckett’s Company, “Light infinitely faint it is true since now no more than a mere murmur.” The softly dappled soundscape—about a half-hour long—placed some of the nine musicians in Miller’s balcony to help fill the room with constantly shifting timbres, slowly appearing and receding from view, sort of like a Webern/Sciarrino mash-up, but flattened even further. I was particularly struck by percussionist David Shively, the group’s co-founder, whose faint bass drum strokes were as quiet as listening to your own heart beating.

Bruce Hodges