Questionnaire Rebecca Saunders


Please introduce yourself briefly. What is important for you, musically and otherwise?
I was born in London in 1967 and live at present in Berlin.

Can one make a living these days solely from composing?
I can just about at present.

How do you compose (approach, duration)?
The initial decision concerning instrumentation defines very much the overall compositional process.
Experimentation with individual musicians is invaluable.
More than two pieces in one year is absolutely impossible, as each work requires a thorough investigation of the palettes of sound available in each specific instrumentation and how they can be fused together and worked against each other, i.e. I find myself starting very much at "the beginning" each time, scraping together tiny moments of colour and gesture before the actual composing process can take place.

To what extent do you use traditional forms?
Essentially, I find structure is defined by the instrumentation itself. I do not consciously seek to "use" traditional form, I have though of course absorbed these forms and structures through the experience of listening to music and playing an instrument.

How often do you receive commissions, and how do these come about? Do you wait for a commission and then compose the work to fit the criteria, or do you submit a work you have already completed?
I write in response to a commission for an instrumentation that I find interesting. I find a deadline very useful to gage the overall process. I like to know for which performers I am writing - to imagine the physical performance of the sounds themselves, to have the musicians in mind, plays a positive role in the composing process.

In your opinion what is the lot of a composer today compared with that of one 50 or 150 years ago?

What music do you listen to in your free time?
There are certain musics that accompany me over very long periods of time and they can vary a lot - e.g. particular works of Bach, or a song from Portishead - there is always something that I become obsessed by and listen to at every opportunity.


What is important in a composer's formal training years?
Sufficient space and silence to explore the music one wants to write.
Learning to ask oneself the critical questions and stand on one's own two feet.
Frequent opportunity to explore instruments with performing musicians and to regularly hear the music one is producing. Access to recordings, scores and performances.
Colleagues that are also obsessed by what they are doing.

As a composer do you need to continue your education, if so, how?
The need to continually open ones ears to new ways of perceiving sound and music remains always important. You never stop learning and or listening.

What is your opinion of the training offered by the conservatoires or universities?

Which particular composers did you concentrate on during your study?
I came across a number of composers for the first time who had a particularly strong impact. I couldn't believe Galina Ustwolskaya's violin and piano duo. That opened up new horizons immediately.


Where do you think New Music stands today? What prospects does New Music have in the future?

In your opinion is New Music today defeated by the laws of the so-called Market?
"New Music" is not alone in this.
It is perhaps a particularly sensitive entity which does not adapt so well to market forces. This I see as a strength - maintaining it's autonomy -the necessary degree of abstraction, the sounding of the un-nameable...
Music will always be written. But in all probability it will continue to become increasingly difficult to pay the rent.
Unfortunately, to keep true to the music you feel you have to write necessarily means that your income will never be particularly overwhelming.

Many composers state that they do not write for the listening public. What is your view?
This can easily be misconstrued. In the actual moment of composing, any concept of a listening public is necessarily completely irrelevant. To disappear into the sounds, beneath the surface, means an actual "purpose" cannot come into question.
There are of course times when the listening public is relevant, certain decisions which necessitate taking other criteria into account.
But, one cannot write to please, just as it is somewhat superfluous to write to shock.
Important is to establish what one is capable of and write what one feels has to be written.

What role do the publishing houses and recording companies play in New Music today?
A very influential one.


What are your personal perspectives and projects for the future?
To write a good piece of music. To stay in the sound.
To explore the presence of that which is absent.


Please describe the piece which the City of Frankfurt and Ensemble Modern has commissioned from you, and your thoughts and reflections on the subject.
The piece is called: albescere
This Latin term it is defined in English as follows: albescent
ael'bes(e)nt/ adj. growing or shading into white. (L albescere albescent - f. albus white).

The work is for twelve solo instruments and five solo voices. There is no text. The voices are an integral part of the whole ensemble.
It seeks to work different textures, sound-surfaces, palettes of colour, groupings of instruments against each other in various forms of juxtaposition, as well as to fuse them into each other.
I sought also to investigate sounds which are on the border of what I define as a neutral "white-ness" or nothingness.

The following quotation also accompanies the composition. It does not appear in any form in the work itself, more it serves to crystalise certain preoccupations which accompanied the composing process:

"The odd sound. What a mercy to have that to turn to. Now and then. In dark and silence to close as if to light the eyes and hear a sound. Some object moving from its place to its last place. Some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more. To darkness visible to close the eyes and hear if only that. Some soft thing stirring soon to stir no more.
By the voice a faint light is shed. Dark lightens while it sounds. Deepens when it ebbs. Lightens with flow back to faint full. Is whole again when it ceases. You are on your back in the dark. Had your eyes been open then they would have marked a change." (Taken from "Company" by Samuel Beckett, 1979, John Calder Publisher, London.)