A Terrific Evening of Contemporary Music Shows the Worth of the Ernst von Siemens Musikpreis

GermanyGermany Ernst von Siemens Musikpreis 2019: Juliet Fraser (soprano), Ensemble Musikfabrik / Enno Poppe (conductor). Prinzregententheater, Munich, 7.6.2019. (CC)

l to r: Mithatcan Öcal, Annesley Black, Rebecca Saunders &Ann Cleare (c) Stefanie Loos

Annesley BlackTolerance Stacks (2016/19, excerpts)
Ann Cleare – on magnetic fields (2011/12)
Mithatcan ÖcalEin musikalischer Spaß (2017-19): ‘Birds with Beards
(2017-19, world premiere)
Rebecca Saunders – Skin (2016)

Munich’s lovely Prinzregententheater was the venue for one of the most high-profile events on the musical calendar: the presentation of the 2019 Siemens Prize to Rebecca Saunders. The long programme included works by the three winners of the Ernst von Siemens Composers’ Prizes (part of those prizes is a recording on the Kairos label each – these will be awaited with interest).

Rebecca Saunders’s Skin, which formed the major musical performance of the evening, is a masterpiece. The more one listens, the more one falls into a rabbit hole of seemingly unending connections; as the form of the piece reveals itself, with its plateaux of visceral outbreaks and stasis, so its vistas seem to stretch ever further. It’s more than the fact that the more one hears the piece, the more one hears from the score itself; it is that the piece itself seems to invite in that repeated listening experience. Prior to the performance, I had asked Saunders about Skin, and the following description is derived from a part of that conversation. Saunders collects sound fragments, the building blocks of the piece itself. For Skin, there are three basic elements which are then are composed into separate compounds: gestures, chains of gestures, sound surfaces. These are then interlocked according to a clear formal sudden chopping and changing, which builds the tension as they move from one to the other. The first material is a duet between soprano and trumpet (with a specific sound of a wha-wha mute, closed with your hand over the end of the bell, the hand then opening, with a flutter-tongue). Saunders discovered that Juliet Fraser has a wonderful way of creating the vocal equivalent of this, including the flutter-tongue, hence the duet was born between soprano and trumpet, which then blossoms out into the ensemble. The second group is a duet between the expressive low sounds where the text is much more audible. Expressive, very dense sonorities for full vertical ensemble but also very fragile. The third type is ‘text images’, different types of text recitation, six types spread out throughout the duration of the piece, framed by silence before and silence afterwards. Parts are slightly orchestrated, very quiet, the language itself completely suppressed, so there’s a sense of meaning, but in the way of a dream sequence.

The second main section of the piece is more pronouncedly melodic, what Saunders calls her ‘English melodic fragments’, and this is a collage, five layers of sound, also separately composed and juxtaposed. This ends with another text image. Skin plays with a ‘peeling back of the surface’, ‘pulling on a thread of sound out of silence and then letting it disappear again into silence’.  Implication is core here; meanings are implied. So, the work’s title operates in multiple ways: as a verb, to skin (that peeling back of the surface); and as a noun, a skin, a layer that can be juxtaposed, shifted, combined. The catalyst for the piece was actually from Samuel Beckett’s play The Ghost Trio (‘dust is the skin of a room/history is a skin/the older it gets the more impressions are left on its surface/look again …’); the main text is Saunders’s own, with, towards the end, a section from James Joyce’s Ulysses (extracted from Molly Bloom’s final monologue).

What is truly impressive is not only the consistency of Saunders’s language, but its individuality. She has forged a voice for herself that is unique and incredibly powerful on a core emotional level. Juliet Fraser is the perfect interpreter of Skin, her voice infinitely malleable, completely and utterly tireless. Fraser’s voice is beautifully free up top, while at other times the delivery of rapid consonants and sounds sets up a sort of semi-percussive voice continuum. That early duet between trumpet and voice was fearlessly managed; at the same time it sounded so natural, as if this were the musicians’ bread and butter. Musikfabrik’s name seemed particularly apt, as if a reflection of Saunders’ creation of a layered musical fabric had infiltrated even there. The technical expertise of the players was immense, the concentration from both performers and packed audience total. As Saunders herself, quoted in Marco Blaaue’s Oratio that preceded the performance of Skin, says: ‘ … and then someone hears it. And it’s not until this moment that the music actually breathes for a fleeting second.’ An extraordinary performance of extraordinary music.

The presentation of the 2019 Siemens Prize to Saunders by Peter Ruzicka preceding that performance while a Laudatio by Marco Blaauw formed the lead-up to the performance of Skin, as did a sensitive portrait film that offered us a window into Saunders’s world as a composer.  That stunning performance was the culmination of the long evening.

Annesley Black’s Tolerance Stacks is written for five musicians and live electronics. Born in Ottawa, Canada in 1978, Black is interested in the reframing of discarded physical musical sources, such as old radios and reel-to-reel tape machines. In doing so she moves away from the idea of the newest technology, finding beauty (and renewed use) in the old. Technology becomes dated so quickly these days, but each element will have its place in history – indeed, will have some emotional impact on specific groups of people who experience it for the first time. An analogue Moog synthesizer is part of this work’s armoury, as is a Morse key and a crackle box.  While the complete piece lasts some 50 minutes, we heard two parts in a version created for the soloist, Juliet Fraser, whose excellence was every inch that demonstrated in the Saunders. Those two movements are ‘Thomas Edison’ (who amongst other things developed the phonograph) and ‘Charles Cros’ (this latter the person who developed the paléophone but who appears in Black’s piece as a poet – he never had the funds to patent his device). Black’s voice is fascinatingly anarchic while exploring the link between live and mechanical/electronic components, the latter often fast and virtuosic, contrasted with a more lyric impulse. The interlude was a ‘no input mixer solo’ (using feedback loops within mixers themselves to create sounds by getting the mixer to amplify its own internal workings) A film showing the composer at work was also shown; excerpts of a live performance in Darmstadt’s Central Station in 2016 are available on YouTube.

Irish composer Ann Cleare contributed on magnetic fields (2011/12), a piece that divides the ensemble into three chamber groups. Two violin solos ‘ignite’ events, while in the centre of the stage lies harp, piano and percussion, what the composer refers to as a ‘box of light’.  Like Saunders, Cleare seems to think visually: the ensemble to the left is in a ‘silver haze’, that to the right in a state of ‘gray matter’. Multiphonics and breath noises are part of Cleare’s involving vocabulary. Sonically exploratory, there was something of the freshness of piece and performance that reminded me of the London Sinfonietta concerts of the 1980s. It is that freshness that seems to inform the very being of Ensemble Musicfabrik.

The third and final contributor in the first half of the concert was Turkish composer Mithatcan Öcal. This was actually the world premiere of ‘Birds with Beards’ from Ein musikalischer Spaß (the title obviously taken from Mozart’s famous musical joke). It was perfectly chosen as a lighthearted end to the first half; the accompanying film, a sort of spoof generic spy film (think a cross between James Bond and Inspector Clouseau) in which the composer gets into trouble with the Istanbul Composer Collective for using the pitch class of C sharp, which had been explicitly ruled out. I wrote the word ‘odd’ in my notes – neither criticism nor praise, just an impression Öcal’s piece, for large ensemble, was playful and, particularly, playful, occasionally moving into a hard-hitting modernist space but mostly inviting us to have fun, all of which was well scored and superbly executed.

A terrific, even somewhat awe-inspiring evening. The feeling that contemporary music is very much alive and vibrant was beautiful to experience – and along with it, the feeling that anything is possible. If the intent of the Siemens Prize is to inspire, it succeeds beyond all measure.

Colin Clarke

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