Fragments for listening to the music of Rebecca Saunders

Ensemble Dal Niente presents a concert of the music of British-born, Berlin-based composer Rebecca Saunders at 8:30 PM at Constellation Chicago on Thursday, April 23, 2015.

I have a very distinct recollection from when I was about 12 years old of hearing Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela for the first time in performance.  It was an emotion, or rather a corporeal response, I had never had before, and one that is still hard to describe.  I am not even remotely a synesthete, and temperamentally I tend to look down upon that sort of thing... but something about the muddiness gradually becoming the shimmeriness of all those A minor chords gave me a sensation that I can only analogize to the experience of an intense color.  I certainly didn’t see a color or anything like that.  I experienced maybe a nostalgia or a longing or something, but not for a particular object… it was a physical sensation I wasn’t used to experiencing with a piece of music.

Rebecca Saunders: miniata, for accordion, piano, orchestra, and choir (youtube).

“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 … Feeling the weight of the sound is an integral part of the composing process. The essential materiality of sound is for me of primary importance. Being aware of the grit and noise of an instrument, or a voice, reminds us of the presence of a fallible physical body behind the sound. This physical presence of the musician and his acoustic instrument, and of sound itself, serves to inspire the material basis of a work."
-- Rebecca Saunders, on miniata

My maternal grandfather died when I was probably 20 years old, and I recall staying in a room in someone’s house -- I wish I could remember whose -- on a beach in south Georgia the night before the funeral.  It was windy and the late summer air was very warm, and the sound the sea made mixed with exhaustion and grief prompted in me, despite all of my undergrad intellectual pompousness (which I immediately regained), serious momentary consideration that the ocean was a living entity -- not in the concrete, collective way in which it is an eco-system, or in a vague spiritual way, but rather as if it were a single huge sentient creature.

“I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however . . . is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!”
-- Mark Rothko

I used to keep a diary, but even when I did it I thought it was dumb and didn’t believe I really thought any of the stuff I wrote in it.  Nevertheless, for reasons I don’t know to this day, I kept writing in it for a while; and I’d collect a bunch of random, scraps of paper, photos, etc., in the folder pockets.  I lived in Chicago for a summer and used write while taking the El, and everything I wrote was totally stupid and so purposeless and contrived; embarrassing, really.  Well, I guess it was somewhat like the act of taking public transit around a big city for long stretches of time on a Saturday with no particular purpose or destination in mind.  Eventually I realized I was persisting with it because the act of utterance itself was somehow comforting.

Rebecca Saunders: dichroic seventeen (youtube).

"The big moment came when it was decided to paint 'just to paint'. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation from value — political, aesthetic, moral."
-- Harold Rosenberg on Abstract Expressionism in The Tradition of the New

“My music in meaningless.  There is no meaning, no message...  that’s a wonderful contradiction -- I don’t have anything to say but I can talk for hours.”
-- Rebecca Saunders, interview

The last time I donated blood I fainted.  The only thing I really remember is blackness at the corners of my vision rapidly closing in on me, and an emotional experience that was... sort of initially terrifying but inexorable and obvious.  It didn't really last long enough for me to think anything else about it.  Then a doctor and a nurse were standing over me.

Secretly I enjoy noticing my own physical reactions when I almost get into a car accident...  heart-rate rises, cortisol/adrenaline levels go up.  [Don’t worry, though, it’s not a thing I do intentionally.  I’m a nice guy.]

“[Painter Barnett] Newman describes how, in August of 1949, he visited the mounds built by the Miami Indians in southwest Ohio.  ‘Standing before the Miamisburg mound -- surrounded by these simple walls of mud -- I was confounded by the absoluteness of the sensation, by their self-evident simplicity.’  In a subsequent conversation with [critic Thomas B.] Hess, he comments on the event of the sacred site.  ‘Looking at the site you feel, Here I am here… and out beyond there (beyond the limits of the site) there is chaos, nature rivers, landscapes… but here you get a sense of your own presence… I became involved with the idea of making the viewer present: the idea that “Man is present.”’”
-- Jean-Francois Lyotard, “Newman: The Instant”

I remember exactly where I was when I saw the first girl I ever really loved for the first time.  And I remember exactly what she looked like.  I also remember the last thing she said to me.

“At first form was much less important to me because I wanted to be inside the sound.”
-- Rebecca Saunders

“I know it when I see it.”
-- Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964)

Rebecca Saunders: Vermillion (youtube).