An Interview with Rebecca Saunders

By · Date 06/16/2016

I met the composer Rebecca Saunders in her Berlin studio on a bright afternoon last week. Her new score was taped up around the wall; a page detached itself and floated to the ground. We started by talking about how we were not going to talk about her experiences as a women composer. “It’s an irritating and more than often a pretty stupidly phrased question,” she said. “As if gender defines me and my music. Sexuality perhaps could be a far more exciting theme.”Still, she added, “This is pretty much a patriarchal art formconservative. We’re talking whisky, cigars, bald patches, beards.” I have both, I said. “Maybe you’ll be OK,” she answered.

Photo © Musica Viva/ Bayerischer Rundfunk
Photo © Musica Viva/ Bayerischer Rundfunk

VAN: Do you come from a musical family?

Rebecca Saunders: Yes. My parents both play the piano. My father’s a pianist—actually, since he turned 70 and retired, he’s now an organist and has a church choir. His father was also an organist; my grandmother a pianist. My sister’s a jazz singer.

What are some of your early musical—or sonic—memories?

It was always there. There was always this piano going on somewhere. We had four pianos when I was growing up. My parents both had a grand, and we had one upright, which we kids used, and another one which was in a cupboard, which we didn’t use.

I remember music from the very beginning. In fact, I don’t remember anything else, really. I remember going to sleep with music, waking up with music, all these singers coming on Saturdays, my mother teaching all day Saturdays, in the evening after school she would always be teaching piano. I remember learning, before I could read, learning the notes—learning to read music—with colors, when my mother taught me to play the recorder.

And a math game, that my mother gave me, to think about rhythmic proportion—called Cuisenaire. Which was a French block system, and you make different patterns and observe proportions. She gave that to me when I was tiny.

It wasn’t like she pushed me or anything, but I was always interested. I used to make up little songs on the guitar and on the piano. I remember my father would be coaching, and my mother would be out or something, and I remember sitting drawing pictures while he was coaching some singer. Lying under the piano when he was playing something that wasn’t too loud. I remember polishing his grand on Saturdays. I liked to. I was a good girl…until I hit 14 [laughs].

Rebecca Saunders, “Vermillion”; Ensemble musikFabrik

And then what happened?

And then I was pretty damn wild [laughs].

A lot of people would put you among the leading members of the German avant-garde, rather than the British.

Probably. I don’t know. There are an enormous amount of very interesting British composers who live abroad. There are some who manage to stay at home and pursue really interesting things; but it’s a stifling climate. And financially very difficult—in the arts there is a climate of constant self-justification. And that’s depressing.

Is that why you came to Germany to study with Wolfgang Rihm?

I think a lot of people who do study any kind of art form have this kind of yearning to get outside of their culture. Which also enables you to see yourself from a new perspective. If you’re young, that’s what one has to do. It’s incredibly liberating to remove yourself from the known. And then to put yourself—not necessarily outside the box—but you just don’t know where the hell you are. You can question every aspect of your thinking.

When I was finishing my undergraduate studies in Edinburgh, I listened to a lot of contemporary composers who were teaching in Europe. And I just heard something in the music of Rihm at the end of the ‘80s—the “Chiffre” pieces—that deeply struck me. Because of its sensuality; because of its physicality; and I think a certain overt emotionality. The silences; moments of prolonged resonance; the eruption of sound out of it. A strong static quality, devoid of any kind of melodic implication. And I just literally followed that thread of sound: where’s Germany—Oh, it’s right of France—and I went down there.

Do you need a studio to work in?

Yeah, I need a space which is mine, which is empty. As soon as I had my first child, it was immediately clear that I had to have a completely separate space, so I could balance the two things. And I like working at night; I’m a night person.

Do you like going out at night?

I used to, I used go clubbing and dancing. I got involved with techno at the beginning [in Berlin]. It was really great here. It was all year round kind of one long, empty summer feeling. And in the summer, on the weekend, you get up, everyone has driven out in their cars, the few tourists are in another part of town, the streets are empty, and you’re just wandering around, and there’s some courtyard, some square, and there was art and music all over the place.

There were just so many empty spaces, empty places. There’s something special about being in a city where there’s so much potential. Buildings, spaces, old swimming pools, yards, miles and miles of square meters where there’s just nothing happening. Having that void—you can fill a void. Nowadays artists have to fight to find somewhere where they can paint their pictures—find those places in between. Ensembles have to be bloody clever to find somewhere where they can rehearse and make a lot of music. Not to mention the cost of it all.

I remember one club, you would look out for the chalk or stickers on the pavement, or you’d hear about clues where it would be on the weekend. People built things out of old doors and stuff, and you’d go and there’d be lights hanging around, and the wonderful thing was, next weekend you’d go past it and it would be gone.

Saunders, “Void”; Christian Dierstein and Dirk Rothbrust (Percussion), Peter Rundel (Conductor), WDR Symphony Orchestra

You recompose your piece “Chroma” each time it’s played in a new location. What places stand out?

In Stockholm there was a really nice one where we used the concert hall, but all the doors were open, to the rehearsal spaces at the back, the front and all the concrete stairways. We just had one or two of the modules in the concert hall itself. The rehearsal room was actually at the top of the stairs, and there was the royal box, and the exits to the green rooms. They had a lovely acoustic connection. You force a new and surprising dialogue with the architecture.

We’ve done it in very large churches. A church in Innsbruck—the Schwarzmander-Kirche—that was an extraordinarily beautiful place to work in. During one rehearsal there, though, a group of pilgrims arrived from Western Austria, and they said we were from the devil.

Perhaps my favorite was in an old electricity building in La-Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland. Huge windows,and a glass roof, an enormous turbine sculpture, balconies, stairs, terraces. A few lights shining from outside in the snow into the massive space. It felt pretty magical.

You’re known for trying out things on a variety of instruments. What do you play?

I played the violin, I played the piano anyway because it was there. But I studied the violin. Basically I played the flute a bit, the guitar a bit as a child. But I was very, very active as a violinist. Until I came to Germany, where I more or less just stopped performing immediately. I did lots of improvisations for a while with some artists: we were all incredibly bad and had a great time—it was really, really fun. With a composition colleague of mine in Karlsruhe, we explored really weird things, like playing Bach 100 times too slow in big, resonant spaces.

Do you ever play the violin now?

It’s really painful. I do experiment, though, and use it for some things. I have a very close relationship to string instruments. When I write for strings, I do explore, for me, new things myself, to the point where I can really absorb that new fragment and begin to imagine all of its potential.

How do you go about finding the other instruments in your studio—do you go to stores with a particular one in mind?

No, each instrument here has a bit of a different story. I did want this BX3 Korg organ, with the double keyboard, because they’re very rare. When they do come up on eBay, they’re incredibly expensive. And I’ve written some pieces where they’re being used, and I just needed to have one. But I’ve come around to the idea that when I have some money I need to buy a digital one, because they’re getting closer and closer to the analogue sound.

In general, do you work with digital instruments as well as acoustic ones?

At present I only work with acoustic instruments. I kind of said I have to get through the orchestra before I die. And life is short. There are a number I still have to focus on: tuba, harp…Sometimes it takes three or four years to really absorb the essential characteristics of an instrument and develop my own palette of sounds for it. And then I get obsessed with certain instruments, like the double bass or the trumpet, and can’t leave them alone, which really wastes a lot of time. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.