Speak, Be Silent – Programme Note

‘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, , 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, , 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.

Ishigami

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.

Programme

A few moments with Rebecca Saunders

We’re actually quite amazed that we’re going to be giving the London premiere of Rebecca Saunder’s A Visible Trace on 3 March at The Warehouse.  We know we’re not alone in being deep admirers of Rebecca’s music, and we’re excited to be hatching plans to bring a lot more of her music to her homeland’s concert halls over the coming years.  We’re also grateful Rebecca took the time to answer a few of our questions about her and her music.  Read on, below!

Rebecca_Saunders_grande

 

Hello Rebecca and thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us. Your piece A Visible Trace seems to be part of a clutch of “trace” works. Can you explain what you mean by traces in music?

It´s hard to explain, but that´s why I wrote the piece, to try to explore this idea. Composing is like another form of thinking.  Here are 4 partial answers:

1. This quotation from Calvino was intended as the program text. It´s a beautiful visual image:

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. 
– Exactitude, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino.

Sound/silence – presence/absence. Tracing the sound, the timbre. Hunting down a trace of colour and pursuing it. Find the thing and it disappears; name the thing and it loses shape and meaning. That is the ‘trace’ – unattainable, elusive, slips through your fingers, the moment you touch it, it is gone.

2. This piece had no prepared formal structure or pre-conceived goal. In the moment of composing investigating the chosen palette of sounds, exploring their potential, and then gradually as the piece progresses sketching a formal design.

3. The unveiling of the ‘thing’, the drawing out of silence of a sound and giving it context and shape – moulding, caressing, projecting, catapaulting sound or timbres into audible space.

4. The work is rather like a single long lyrical line, albeit elongated and stretched to breaking point. This line pursues the fragments of timbre, the ‘traces’.

This piece is scored for ‘eleven conducted soloists’. Can you give us an idea of how the musicians will interact with one another?

The individual parts can be quite virtuosic and demanding. Also there are a number of small chamber groups which explore a shared timbral palette of sounds. These were separately composed and then juxtaposed within the large-scale work, forcing separate threads of music to co-exist. The last section has for example a trio of e-guitar, violin and piccolo which is fused into the overall texture, but which also lends line and form to this part of the piece. I liked at this time to explore the potential formal tensions inherent in juxtaposing different musics in this way. It can create an unusual tension and disjointed formal cohesion.

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On the other hand I also explored creating a single shared palette of sounds which fused the whole ensemble together to try to create one single instrument where the sound is in a constant state of transformation from one timbre to the next.

Your music seems to frequently (although not always) draw upon slow tempi and silence. Are you giving your audience freedom within their listening experience? Or are you simply using silence as an important musical tool within different performance environments?

I don´t think I can deem to give or take away freedom … Certainly a slow tempo can allow a listener to contemplate a sound and a colour in a different way. But even in a highly tense fast dense music the play of timbre can lead the ear to follow the line, gesture and contour of the music. Silence is particularly important in this respect. It can frame and give context and depth to a musical gesture. It highlights the contours and characteristics of a sound. It enables us to focus intensely on a moment of sound that follows or indeed precedes the silence. Silence can be active, inactive, full of expectation, dead or incredibly exciting – that moment of waiting, even the moment of dread – it has many functions. It can be seen as the antithesis of sound, but also it is a full vibrating explosive potential of anything sonic. Drawing sound out from under the surface of silence, which is like a knot of infinite frequencies and cacophony waiting to be revealed, or allowing it for a moment to explode into the listening space. A composition can frame a sound which we may never have noticed or bothered to give our attention to before. One possible act of composition is to create a listening space, an acoustic landscape into which the listener may enter. I wouldn’t define silence as a tool, as it is as important as sound itself, is part of the fabric of sound.

We see you are hard at work on a large-scale music theatre piece. Can you tell us more?

It is a large-scale spatial project for dancers, voices and large ensemble based on a late Beckett text entitled Still. But it one of those projects that keeps starting and stopping and right now I am not sure when the premier is, somewhere between 2019 and 2021.

Finally, warm greetings from London to Berlin. How is life as an English person in the heart of European culture?

Berlin is a very diverse and international vibrant city, which I love and does remind me of London at times. It has a rich and exciting cultural life. It is a tricky question right now, post-Brexit. Brexit hangs heavily over us. Disappointed and angry like all Brits living in Europe – one feels rejected by one’s own country.

I feel part of a rich European culture. I have lived here for many years now but of course, since I came here as an adult, I retain my essential ‘Englishness’. I still eat Marmite and watch Sherlock. But Brexit and its unimaginable aftermath have shocked me profoundly. It was awful not to be able to vote – not a clever move, and rather undemocratic, to not let so-called ex-pats have their say – that could well have made all the difference. It’s going to be incredibly important for cultural institutions, ensembles and artists to work even harder to maintain and promote exchanges and collaborations between the UK and Europe.

Many thanks, Rebecca!

Speak, Be Silent

Date: Friday 3rd March, 7.30pm
Venue: The Warehouse, Theed Street (SE1 8ST)

We are thrilled to be bringing Liza Lim’s Violin Concerto Speak, Be Silent to the Warehouse for its UK Premiere with soloist Sarah Saviet.  Alongside Lim’s concerto, this concert includes an array of atmospheric, colourful and virtuosic music including the UK Premiere of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Ró, Edmund Finnis’ Frame/Refrain, and Rebecca Saunders’ A Visible Trace for 11 conducted soloists. A cash bar will be available at the concert.

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