Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, 2019

From the first time I heard Rebecca Saunders’s music, in a

2012 Arditti Quartet concert at the Wigmore Hall

, I have been intrigued, fascinated, and thrilled by it. At this ceremony
and concert in Munich’s Prinzregententheater, we heard not only Saunders’s Skin (

given in London this January

by the same soloist, Juliet Fraser, with the Ensemble Modern and Vimbayi
Kaziboni), but also music by the three winners of Ernst von Siemens Music
Foundation Composers’ Prizes: Annesley Black, Ann Cleare, and Mithatcan
÷cal. When three out of four of the composers are women and the other a
Turkish man, perhaps the tide is finally beginning to turn. In addition to
prize money, the three recipients of composers’ prizes will also receive
portrait CDs from the Kairos label, to be released at the end of this year
– so helping others to discover their music for themselves.

First we heard excerpts from Black’s Tolerance Stacks, followed by
a greeting from Peter Rusicka and a short film showing the composer at
work. (Each composer received such a film, in other cases seen before her
or his music was performed.) Fraser was the soprano soloist here too,
excellent as ever. Piano, responded to by clarinet and percussion, in turn
responded to by piano, set the scene, the pianist thereafter moving across
to one of two electronic mixing desks in preparation for the vocal entry.
Was it pain or pleasure being evoked? Why choose, amidst such a colourful,
dramatic frenzy? Might one characterise what we heard as post-Stockhausen
in a meaningful rather than merely chronological sense? I think so, but am
not sure quite how much that would matter. The sense of electronic and
vocal play was keen throughout. So too was an intriguing relationship –
which I could not yet put my finger on to describe, let alone analyse, yet
could certainly perceive – between sound and structure.

Cleare’s and ÷cal’s works were both for ensemble without voice, all in the
superlative care of Enno Poppe and Ensemble Musikfabrik, longstanding
Saunders collaborators. Cleare’s on magnetic fields added to the
ensemble what I presume was an instrument of her own, hybrid instrumental
design being a particular musical interest of hers. (I do not even know
what it was, or what it was called, but such is part of the fun!) At any
rate, three chamber groups conversed, collaborated: made music, two violins
from two separate groups coming across as first among equals in dialogue
and competition. Sounds were often metallic, mechanical, industrial,
creative, but they were no mere sounds: this was a true musical narrative,
finely paced both in writing and performance. Likewise every note, attack,
timbre, and duration seemed deeply considered and dramatically necessary.

÷cal’s ‘Birds without Beards’ was prefaced by a duly entertaining film, in
which a member of his Istanbul Composer Collective remonstrated with him
for having included a pitch, C-sharp, he had expressively ruled out,
whether in itself or even as suggested by harmonic structure. Repeated
pitches and their implications, perhaps rhythmic as well as harmonic,
seemed to be one of the concerns from the outset here, wind notes jabbed
and intoned, initially set against scurrying string figures. One was
intended, I think, to notice just as keenly when those pitches were
repeated and varied. ÷cal offered on occasion an almost Mahlerian sense of
echoed reminiscence of ‘found’ material, actually found or imagined. But
those were just two aspects of an absorbing, colourful, witty showcase for
the composer’s work, types of material coming into intriguing collaboration
and conflict – just, perhaps, like the Collective itself.

‘It sounds how it’s played,’ as Robert Adlington once put it, cited in
trumpeter Marco Blauuw’s oration for Rebecca Saunders, an oration as
intelligent and insightful as it was heartfelt. ‘Stay stubborn,
self-willed,’ Saunders advised her three predecessors on this evening,
having dedicated receipt of her prize to her undoubtedly stubborn and
self-willed predecessor as composer, Galina Ustolvskaya. Those and many
other aperÁus helped guide our appreciation of the performance of Skin; but mostly, like Samuel Beckett, another guiding spirit,
this music spoke with a bleakness and humanity, the two quite indivisible,
of its own. If the opening starkness, at least in the context of Saunders’s
words, obliquely brought Ustolvskaya to mind, the poetry of music and
silence, music as silence, distillation in instrumental combination, and
that combination in distillation, bore Beckettian witness more strongly
than ever. Breath and cries from voice and instruments alike, often in
tandem, both formed and inhabited landscape and narrative. (Sometimes we
need such metaphors to speak about music, but we should always be wary of
ascribing them importance that is greater than whatever that music may be
‘itself’). As ever, properties of instruments, the voice included, indeed
the voice foremost among them, were both respected and extended, testament
to the composer’s searching, collaborative way with performing colleagues.
No silence, though, was more pregnant, more magical than that following
Fraser’s final, solo ‘skin’. It rightly proved a prelude resistant to, then
part of, that warmest of applause that ensued.

Mark Berry

Annesley Black: excerpts from Tolerance Stacks (2016/19) ; Ann Cleare: on magnetic fields
(2011/12); Mithatcan ÷cal: Ein musikalischer Spafl
(2017-19): ‘Birds with Beards’ (world premiere); Rebecca Saunders: Skin (2016). Juliet Fraser (soprano)/Ensemble
Musikfabrik/Enno Poppe (conductor). Prinzregententheater, Munich, Friday 7
July 2019

product_title=Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, Munich
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Rebecca Saunders

Photo credit: Stefanie Loos