‘Find the thing and it disappears’, warns the composer Rebecca Saunders. ‘Name the thing and it loses shape.’ In Saunders’ piece a visible trace we hear a piano keyboard squashed hard, before its sound backs away, as though embarrassed; a double bass glissandos downwards, as if being swallowed up; violin and flute essay a note, an idea, but seem to think better of it. Sub-groups of instruments step forward and draw back. We hear sounds brought tentatively into being, attempting to stand on stick-like legs, bearing weight for the first time. A lyrical line, already stretched thin, is coaxed a little further, slowly building in strength.
At the start of her score, Ró, Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir writes to her players:
When you see a long sustained pitch, think of it as a fragile flower that you need to carry in your hands and walk the distance on a thin rope without dropping it or falling.
Her words recall a line at the start of Saunders’ score by the Italian novelist Italo Calvino, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium:
The word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.
Saunders’ sounds, like Calvino’s bridge, are fragile, thrown almost in desperation to reach something before it fades. Yet Thorvaldsdóttir’s thin rope, sustained by bass flute, bass clarinet and strings, spun out into tight melodic tendrils, and pierced by thunderous interruptions from the piano, conveys an inner assurance. Her title draws on the Icelandic word for serenity, as well as its Chinese equivalent, 安, which may also be rendered as Ann: the composer herself. Traces – in this case of self – can create a sense of tranquility, a safe harbour.
But what of the abyss itself? What empty space do these bridges cross?
We might see an answer in buildings by the Japanese architect Junya Ishigami. Almost invisible boxes of glass, they are held up by forests of thin white supports that give these otherwise empty spaces mass and drama. ‘Transparency is some kind of feeling of freedom, it’s not a physical thing’, Ishigami says of his buildings.
Inspired by them, Edmund Finnis in his Frame/Refrain surrounds a bustling, percussive piano, prepared with strips of blu-tack across its strings, with softly chugging string chords, a trumpet and clarinet duo of short, sliding glissandi, and a slowly warping background of brass and metallic percussion. As the individual parts repeat they circle around each other and the space between them, creating illusions of density and form out of components that seem hardly to be there.
Amidst these worlds of sonic fragility and uncertainty, the blast of brass and gongs at the start of Liza Lim’s Speak, Be Silent seem to sound with a potency from an entirely different place. Yet this is another illusion. Her work also describes a sort of bridge, between one thing and another, one person and the next: what Walt Whitman called ‘a vast similitude [that] interlocks all’. This is a concerto, but Lim’s solo violin frequently melts into or is smelted out of the ensemble surrounding it; the scale of Lim’s commitment to her vision is reflected in how un-violin-like the rest of that ensemble is, dominated by brass, piano and abrasive percussion.
All four pieces in tonight’s concert consider the delicate trick of connecting ourselves to things without them disappearing. Lim prefaces hers with one more trace, one more piece of advice; lines by the 13th-century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi:
Just remember when you’re in union,
you don’t have to fear
that you’ll be drained.
The command comes to speak,
and you feel the ocean
moving through you.
Then comes, Be silent,
as when the rain stops,
and the trees in the orchard
begin to draw moisture
up into themselves.