A Conversation with Rebecca Saunders and Frances Chiaverini

The Ensemble Modern looks back on many years of intensive collaboration with the outstanding composer Rebecca Saunders and has presented her works in various portrait concerts. In collaboration with the internationally renowned choreographer and dancer Frances Chiaverini, Rebecca Saunders will expand several of her solo works and a duo to include choreographic modules, for a joint collage entitled ›Hauch‹ that will be premiered on November 4, 2021 as part of ›Festival NOW!‹ at the Philharmonie Essen, involving members of Ensemble Modern and dancers. At the very beginning of their collaboration, dance and theatre scholar David Rittershaus met with the two artists to discuss their common ground and modular approach.

David Rittershaus: This is your first collaboration. How did the joint project come about, and what interests you in each other’s work?

Rebecca Saunders: I've worked with choreography a few times, and it's something I would like to develop significantly more in my work. I once said to Christian Fausch, Ensemble Modern’s artistic and managing director, with whom I’m in regular contact about various projects, what I would really like to do would be to take existing solo pieces and to combine them with choreographic modules, in a music and dance collage. This would build on my previous work with spatial polyphonic installation pieces. I wanted to invite a choreographer to bring their own modular choreographic elements into the collage and to combine all this music and dance. It's not a narrative, there is no story. It's a dialogue between protagonists, or bodies expressing themselves in two very different mediums, and it is also about searching for similarities in those mediums. Christian suggested Frances: an excellent idea. Frances immediately envisaged a distinct modular approach for the dance elements, independent of my ideas, which chimed perfectly with the ideas I had been developing. So I was really happy about that.

Frances Chiaverini: Our ideas existed very similarly in our heads before we expressed them to each other. And I think that's quite telling in itself. After all, collaborations can be very difficult. It's really great to meet on a common ground such as ours before even starting. Rebecca sent me these tracks and most of them were videos, and I immediately realized that Rebecca has a very strong vision of how the pieces are already living in space, embodied by the performers and the setup and the instrumentation. I'm really excited to see how we can fit the ideas together. Collage. I think »collage« is the perfect term for how we want to approach it and what we hope to achieve.

RS: We both envision something abstract. I chose solo pieces and one duo, and these works all have a very particular focused and reduced »palette of sounds«, or fragments of sounds and timbre. What interested me very much about Frances’ background and her work is the way in which she investigates a reduced physical vocabulary, finding the essence of a certain physical gesture, and allowing it to become a manifestation of a whole piece. Many of my solos and duos encircle the same thing again and again. There is something quite obsessive about them, even if they might be quiet fragile pieces, and especially if they are choleric.

DR: Rebecca, the starting point for the production are existing pieces, but you are also planning to build transitions in between?

RS: Some of the pieces will be juxtaposed, and some can be cut, or spliced, and then continued later in the evening.

FC: I was listening today to a bunch of the tracks, and I was doing something really crude, and I hope you're not offended, Rebecca. You were talking about juxtaposing the pieces. So I opened two YouTube videos and listened to them both simultaneously, which is not at all kosher, but pretty close to what it could be.

RS: Yes.

FC: And so, I was just imagining what it might be like together, because we have a big working session coming up, during which hopefully a lot of these things will become clearer, including how we want to proceed. But I was imagining it would be really nice to sit down together – which unfortunately we can't – and to get a big roll of paper and just draw, almost like if you're editing a video.

RS: Well, that is actually how I will define the form anyway. I will draw a collage, what I call a timeline, and each solo or duo is allocated a horizontal line. The collage isn´t a musical score, but instead shows the juxtaposition of the different musical modules, and of course eventually also the dance modules too. Some of the compositions can be spliced, divided into two or three parts and overlayed with other pieces. There is also a percussion solo, made up of eight different modules, which can be combined and placed in any order we want. That also gives us an enormous flexibility when defining the overall collage. And the dancers will also provide further lines within this collage.

FC: Exactly. This is how we would like to treat the dancing sections. I plan to work with four dancers, who are also choreographers. It was really important to me to select and work with dancers who have choreographic vision themselves, a strong view of how they would like to perform and a strong voice in the process. I would like them to treat it the same way that they make up solos. Let's call them modules, little pieces of choreography that we can then cut, duplicate, move or shift.

DR: In terms of the idea of the collage, is there already other material that will become part of it, or are there other modules that already exist? What is the starting point for the choreographic work with your co-choreographers?

FC: I certainly have my own ideas of how I'd like to start. I'm going to work with each dancer individually and with two of the dancers together, as a pair. But I'm not married to my ideas. If those dancers want to take these ideas and go off on a tangent, or take them, try them, throw them away, if they're not working, try something else, then we're open to all of that.

DR: You've mentioned that you noticed a kind of corporality in the pieces. You were paying attention to the bodies and movements of the musicians. Is that something you were also thinking about when you were watching videos of the pieces?

FC: It's very slippery. It depends on a lot of things. If I have just eaten, or not, when I'm watching it, different things stand out. And if I’ve just watched something on TV that still casts a shadow in my mind, that could be influencing it.

RS: But isn't that the case for any artistic experience? What each of us brings to the listening or the watching experience is always completely unique. It is still hard to define exactly what we're doing. There's something very fragile about the whole process. We're working with solos and duos, and you could say we're working with a collage of soliloquies, or we're working with a collage of individuals who are sharing the same common visual, acoustic and architectural space. This is a complex network of dialogues. And each solo is in a way almost singing its own song.

FC: I like the word soliloquy ...

RS: Finding ways in which these soliloquies can coexist and interact with each other, creating a dialogue between them and developing a structural format, is an exciting challenge. The music itself has a strong physicality. And what attracted me very much to working with Frances is the enormous physicality of her choreographic work. I hope the physicality, both in music and in dance, will be extremely present for the audience.

DR: I'm not sure if you agree, but to my mind the performance videos all had a certain intimacy or intimate quality. Perhaps because most of them are solos. Does that correspond with what you were just talking about? Is that maybe also a quality that you want to work with in the performance situation?

FC: It's tricky to say, because I immediately think about the first space that we're meant to produce this for, which is this Philharmonie in Essen. It is a beautiful, very impressive space, but there's such a distance between the viewer and the action. It will be a challenge to establish a physically intimate connection between the audience and the performer in any case.

RS: I know the space. It has an excellent acoustic. The hall is made of wood, and despite the fact that it is very large and has a certain nakedness in a formal classical concert environment, it is extremely warm. We have already discussed bringing our own lighting environment, so we can create a performance concept which adapts easily and quickly to different performance situations. This portable lighting system, which Lea Letzel will be designing, also enables us to create a more intimate environment.

DR: You mentioned earlier a long creative session coming up in a couple of weeks. How is the current coronavirus situation influencing your work and planning?

RS: I do find it frustrating. We aren´t able to meet to develop our ideas and define the collage together. It is undeniably a very different process not working in the same space, but we are adapting. It is important not to pin down too much before we all come together for the first time in August. I will design a preparatory musical timeline, a collage, mapping the juxtapositions of the different pieces. This must give Frances as much flexibility as possible, so that when we all come together, the collage has sufficient plasticity to allow unexpected things to happen, and the collage can develop with the collaborative process.

FC: I agree. I'm attempting to do online rehearsals with the dancers, which has its positives and its negatives. They are my way of maximizing time with the dancers, because dance needs time. I'd like to have developed each dance module prior to the first live meeting in August.

DR: The title of the production is ›Hauch‹, which is also the title of a piece of music which will be part of it. Is the title mainly linked to that piece, or does it also signify an overarching idea?

RS: I think »Hauch« is a beautiful word, one which has no exact translation into English. It's a very old German word. What's particularly interesting is how it has a myriad of slightly different meanings, depending on which sense it is referring to. In English it’s a trace of a thing, a touch or a hint of a thing, a tinge, a whisper or breath of something, a shadow, an aura, a glimmer of something hidden just beneath the surface, and it also implies a touch. The word is an »Andeutung«, it implies. It's about nuance and timbre. It's one of my few German titles. I like the fragility of this word, to be honest. Although I think much of the collage will possibly not be so fragile. We will see.

DR: Now that you mention all these connotations, I can clearly associate them with some of the other pieces and with a lot of what you have just shared. Thank you both very much for this conversation.