Interview with Rebecca Saunders

The walls of Rebecca Saunders’ Berlin studio are papered with a collage of sketches, a series of compact symbolic drawings defining precise musical events to be placed in forthcoming pieces. This working environment is a representation of the pieces themselves, with their isolated moments of concentrated activity emerging from a latent silence in the same way that the written fragments emerge from the white wall. It is an immediately clear music, yet one whose layered subtleties require you to stand close to appreciate them.

Saunders’ starting point is to question the necessity of sound in a piece when its frame is already saturated with silence. Beginning with a reduced palette of possible sounds shaved carefully off the potential sound mass of the ensemble, each is carefully balanced with the surrounding silence. Whilst she is drawn instinctively to those sounds on the edge of silence, hers is not a quiet music: violent contrast often rends it apart. These are experienced sounds, honed through careful experimentation with the instruments or their players whilst composing. This is evidenced by the numerous detailed text annotations which adorn the scores, tuning performers’ actions with regards to subtle changes of bow speed, the balance between air and tone in a clarinet sound, or specifying the make of coffee can used in a percussion part. Such precision is often set against the coarser articulation of mechanically produced sounds, using objects such as the looping end-groove of a record player in the dying resonance of dichroic seventeen (1998), the phasing metronomes of CRIMSON – Molly’s Song 1 (1995), and the massed music boxes of chroma (2003). The link though is their positioning within a piece as ‘sound-surfaces’ as she terms them, panels of material that are juxtaposed as a composition is assembled.

The pieces themselves evolve from a hierarchical accruement of such material: as sounds are combined to form carefully weighted sound-surfaces, so these are balanced to create the mosaic structure of the complete piece. Time is therefore governed by the requirements of the sounds themselves. They are not abstract objects to be placed into an idealised structure, but consequent upon their resonant properties. Colour, not pitch, is the principal carrier of line: whilst nostalgic fragments of compressed melody and clearly defined pitch centres can be heard, they are not at the forefront of the music. The use of a single pitch for an extended period is as much about the changes of colour that embody it as its role as a harmonic focus.

In her recent work, the flexibility of this separately conceived material is readily apparent. Both the Tate Modern installation-performance chroma (2003) and the dance piece insideout (2003) are formally more open, necessitated by the change in performance context. The process of composition was the same however: finding and balancing sounds in a vitrine of silence. This is underlined by the further recontextualisation of this material in solo pieces for piano and trumpet that have a life separate from the original composition.

A concern with the intricacies of timbre is perhaps not a typically British preoccupation, at least for instrumental composers, and it is not surprising that Saunders has met with most success outside of the UK. Following her studies with Wolfgang Rihm from 1991-4 at the Musikhochschule Karlsruhe, she returned to the University of Edinburgh to complete a PhD with Nigel Osborne from 1994-7, before moving permanently to Berlin. Her ready acceptance by European audiences is underlined by the award of the Ernst von Siemens Förderpreis für Komposition and the ARD und BMW AG Musica Viva Prize as well as performances at all the major continental festivals.

Whilst Saunders’ music is clearly concerned with the immediacy of sound, the visual correlations, emphasised by her choice of titles many of which make reference to colour or colour processes, are striking. The tactility of her working process, from the manipulation of sound resources to the placement of material on her studio wall, also points to a world beyond the purely aural. It is music which breaks free of a constrained dimensionality.

James Saunders, June 2006

This interview was conducted by email over an extended period from 2004-6 as one of a series which ended up in the Ashgate book. The change of focus to experimental music led to the omission of the interview with Rebecca, and it’s been my intention to make it available, which I am pleased to do now.  Just to note, we are not related.


When beginning a composition, how much of an idea as to its final structure do you have? In these terms, how do you view the relationship between the creation of sound objects and their projected position in the final piece?


At the beginning there is an ‘idea’, but only in the sense that I know what I would like to achieve with a new project – an intention. For example in dichroic seventeen (1998) it was quite simple and straightforward: I wanted to write a two-part form of extreme contrasting sound worlds, where the second part acts as a form of resonance to that of the first. In other pieces I may have come across a sound or a quotation in a book, or a gesture in dance, which serves to crystallise what I wish to pursue in a composition. But how I go about realising this intention depends on what sounds I am drawn to and how I perceive the sounds need to be framed, i.e. in what context they should become audible.

The context is partly dependent upon the way I choose to make silence audible in a particular piece – the deliberate use of ‘silence’ as an active compositional tool – the placing of ‘silence’ being at least as important as the actual notes composed. But this is another issue…

I liked what Richard Ayres says concerning composition being essentially about thinking and listening. I am unable to lay down the structure of a piece from the outset. A number of years ago I tried to organise the structure of a piece before the notes came, but it felt terribly empty. I was unable to disappear beneath the surface of the sounds. There was a strange dialectic: willed processes became unconcrete, but the music that was allowed to unfold intuitively had an infinitely more concrete presence.

The relationship between the work which surfaces out of the long process of composition and the initial intention, can only really be traced by looking back after the composition has been completed. I find it difficult to ‘explain’ the content or intent of a composition, although there are clearly some aspects of the composing process that one can describe. Any attempt to pin down the essence of a piece (or kind of) music inevitably fails. It is this ‘unnameable’ in music that I find so fascinating.

To return to your question! It is primarily the actual instrumentation of a work which defines the way a piece will develop. In a chosen constellation of instruments lies a very reduced palette of sounds, which I am drawn to and try to push to the limits of their potential. I am interested in sounds that meet the borders of noise and of silence. Taking a sound to its edge has an extraordinary tension. A group of instruments can provide an infinite palette of sounds, so I initially seek to reduce or condense the material as far as possible, to find something like its ‘essence’. Also, where possible, I work closely with musicians (and/or try to borrow instruments) to keep close to the physical reality of the instruments’ core sounds. The clearly differentiated sound worlds that then develop define the direction the form will take. At a certain point I have to block out thinking about the ‘intention’ of the piece. I want to only hear what I can make of the very reduced selection of sounds, within each different palette I have found. This process of going into the chosen sounds (listening to them, pushing them to the edge) is often a long one.

Decisions involving large scale structure first take on significance when all material has been composed. In recent pieces, it has been the juxtaposition of separately written and strongly contrasting sound-surfaces (or a series of sound objects as referred to in your question) that creates the structure, the large-scale organisation, of a work. Very few combinations, or collages, of the composed material, are possible. In a sense, the music decides for me how they can best be juxtaposed without losing their strength and individuality. It is this juxtaposition of sound worlds that provides the basis of much of my music. It continues to fascinate me how differently a sound world can be perceived depending on its context in time and in musical space.


You mention framing sounds and making silence audible, and there seems to be a particular concern with space and resonance in your music. How do you see the role of silence in your work, both texturally and in time? What is its particular role for you as a compositional tool, and what is its function for the listener in your music?


Imagine that a seemingly empty page is already full, indeed saturated, with silence before starting to write. It is as if each single note or sound that is then imposed on that already full page must be absolutely necessary. It follows that with the writing down of each new sound it is necessary to adjust the delicate balance between sound and silence.

When composing, each note or gesture is sifted again and again, weighed against its surrounding framework of ‘silence’. It feels like a very physical process – sound as a material which one moulds in space and time.

Also, you can think of a sound as coming out of silence, being part of it and hidden beneath the surface of a stream of silence. The sounds composed or integrated into this backdrop of ‘silence’ are pulled out of this flow. In addition, the premise that a sound has a physical presence, a body, weight and density, seems to be relevant. Silence serves to hold and frame the sound body, giving it context, and defines how the sound is heard. In turn a sound itself makes silence audible, or what we at least perceive to be silence. You can compare it to how light makes darkness visible.

Also one can consider how an object is given body and context by shadow, and further, compare to how resonances, fields of sound or foreign sound worlds, which serve as an alternative backdrop to that of silence, can give the foreground context and substance. At present, thinking about certain aspects of photography sets off new ideas when considering these aspects of sound, silence, and resonance. Of course the ‘silence’ to which I refer is not absolute – it is always relative. Take away a surface of sound and leave a resonance to which the ear adjusts, take this away and hear the buzz of the PA system, turn this off, hear the snoring in the back row, wake him up and you hear the faint rumble of a trolley in the cafeteria, which when focused in on, can be astonishingly loud…

For the listener? This is difficult and touches on different issues. I don’t really have any intentions as to what the listener should experience. I write what I want to hear. It is possible though to attempt to define where the focus of a sound lies and from which perspective a sound will be perceived, how the sound is framed, which in turn partly controls what the listener hears. But clearly each listener has a different experience and absolute control isn’t possible anyway. A composer can focus in on a sound source, tune into its frequencies, unveil it, make it audible. What and how this is then heard is not only dependent on the context within which the sound is presented, but also on many uncontrollable factors. The sudden presence of silence, or any of it’s manifestations, which can abruptly interrupt the flow of a particular music, can force the listener to re-adjust their ears, to zoom in on a new perspective of the sound world(s) presented in a piece. The music itself can emphasise that the air is constantly vibrating with layers of sound, on audible and inaudible frequencies, that it is saturated with noise.


You mention an interest in sounds bordering on silence. Could you explain how you go about finding and developing sounds when working with an instrument or player, and what in particular you look for? Not all of your music is quiet of course.


I need to immerse myself in the sound of an instrument to be able to write for it. As well as establishing the elemental acoustical properties of an instrument, it is also important to learn about its physical characteristics, whether considering the functioning of the bellows of an accordion, the resonating and vibrating double-stops of the violin, the function of sustaining pedal or of layers of resonances achieved with help of the sostenuto pedal on the piano. Understanding how an instrument works, its peculiarities, its sonic characteristics and its mechanics, but also being aware of its tradition, including its function in an ensemble or a concert environment. Seeking a sonic essence of the instrument. Digging beneath the flesh to discover the bare bones beneath. Trying to trace an essence, the soul of an instrument. Seeking an essential character of an instrument, an identity, an unequivocal statement saying – this is what I am.

One possibility is to become accustomed with common practising techniques which focus in on essential elements of playing of a particular instrument. For example a simple violin exercise I played everyday for years serves to make absolute contact between the violin string and bow, making for hyper-awareness of the varying timber of a single tone: a single tone with different bow speeds, from half a second to 32 seconds, consequently varying bow pressure and speed, focusing in on varying overtone spectrums and subtle differentiation of timbre and expression.

It is therefore the physical contact with the instrument that is decisive. If I cannot play the instrument myself, it is nevertheless often useful to borrow one and learn how to make a simple sound on it. Also critical is time with a musician to witness the relationship between instrument and performer, see and hear sound being made, feeling the airwaves vibrate, following my ear in the search for an essential sound that holds me and pulls me into a strange and as yet for me unexplored sonic landscape.

Seeking the initial material for a new piece also means sketching the boundaries of an instrument, establishing what cannot be done, what has always been done and to move between these extremes.

Once the essential core of an instrument is established, then I can focus in on a reduced palette of sounds that move away from an established centre. Tracing the borders, working the thin line, walking the thin line, seeking the limits technically and sonically of a given instrument, seeking the maximum tension that therefore can emerge. Finding a means to get beneath the skin, to seek the skeleton, unleash the soul.

In the programme text from miniata (2004)) I say


Surface, weight and feel are part of the reality of musical performance: the weight of the bow on the string; the differentiation of touch of the finger on the piano key; the expansion of the muscles between the shoulder-blades drawing sound out of the accordion; the in-breath preceding the ‘heard’ tone … Feeling the weight of the sound is an integral part of the composing process. The essential materiality of sound is for me of primary importance. Being aware of the grit and noise of an instrument, or a voice, reminds us of the presence of a fallible physical body behind the sound. This physical presence of the musician and his acoustic instrument, and of sound itself, serves to inspire the material basis of a work.


These initial decisions are not met consciously. If a sound fascinates me, I have to take it. For example, working on the present composition for baroque orchestra,[1] having heard a chromatic cluster in the bottom octave on a baroque organ gradually surface out of silence, to air, and only gradually becoming a distinct and definable deep pulsing cloud of dark interference tones, was sufficient to form the basis of the timbral palette of the whole piece, this single sound defines alone the complete sound material to be investigated.

Answering questions such as these, outside of writing a piece, prompts research into the ‘why’, which for the actual composing work itself is not necessary to ask. Indeed, I have the feeling that whilst occupied with such verbal/written/linguistic attempts at explanation, the music hides, takes refuge in the abstract, is more difficult to seek, to find, to draw out, to compose. I could go so far as to saying that naming, underlining, intellectually understanding why, can often undermine the composing process. And that it is necessary for me to severely separate these two distinct areas of thought.


To what extent do you see a qualitative difference between these tactile, gestural sounds and the more concrete mechanical music boxes, radios, and record end-grooves of previous pieces? They suggest links with other contexts perhaps more so than the more abstract musical sounds, and I wondered whether you hear them in a different way because of their more explicit provenance. Perhaps the same goes for material such as the nostalgic piano part at the end of dichroic seventeen?


The inclusion of certain concrete sound sources, whether ‘found’ (music boxes, record players, radios etc.) or ‘pre-composed’ (piano chords), came about out of a certain musical necessity, and it all began quite unconsciously. Fragments of melody, the voice, whether spoken or sung, concrete sound sources of almost explicit provenance, were for me all normally ‘forbidden’ musical material, which were given expression within tightly controlled parameters. At some point it became clear to me that these isolated moments, not only had a clear formal purpose, providing strong contrast in terms of density, timbre and musical material, but also an almost theatrical quality.

Within the context of a predominantly intense physical musical phenomenology, these are momentary glimpses of a more concrete and overtly emotional agenda, although no clear ‘meaning’ can be deduced from this material. The associations of these sound objects remain indistinct, suggested but not explicit. At the same time, inserting these objects into a form demands a certain flexibility, requiring me to give up control of one or many parameters – something that I naturally tend to avoid and find necessary to confront.

Since 2003, I have been training myself to do without these ‘found objects’, seeking a purely composed equivalent, which remains distinct from the tactile and overtly sensual material that provides the basis of much of my music. I am intrigued by a certain static and removed quality of these sound objects, which creates a sense of distance between the listener and the music, in contrast to the effect of a more overtly expressive music, which seeks to draw in and absorb the listener. I also explore the thin line between these two distinct areas and the musical tension that can be created out of this. These two kinds of music mutually provide the framework or context within which they can both function and be heard.

This material all shares a certain mechanical quality, often of an intimate and melancholic nature, and I sometimes wonder whether this may be my ‘English’ self seeking a moment’s respite.


You have recently worked on some longer installation pieces, working with specific spaces and collaborating with dancers. To what extent has your approach changed when addressing these situations? I am particularly interested in how you have approached working with longer durations and the possibility of a more flexible structure that an installation might provide?


It felt like a natural development to move to these spatially orientated works. The use of collage, juxtaposing separately composed sound surfaces within a single form, experimenting with the limits of density in a collage etc., had increasingly dominated my structural thinking. chroma (2003-),[2] is a collage of six core chamber pieces set in several spaces, or sharing one single very large space. Additional composed sound surfaces or mechanical sound worlds, are, if necessary, added to the overall form. The last few versions have expanded chroma, so it is longer and there are more chamber groups although from the same core instrumentation. The structure has to be flexible, as each new space, new version, new collage, needs to be weighed up and re-calculated, responding to the architectural characteristics and limitations of the space or spaces. The order of the different chamber pieces, their duration, the density of the overall juxtaposition depends completely upon the performance space. Immersing myself in the character of a space, trying to get to its ‘essence’, allowing an environment to define the structure, was a completely new way of working, and very liberating.

The dance work, insideout (2003), went further in some respects, as this was a collaboration with dance, video and an unusual spatial environment. Rooms, houses, spaces, vitrines on different levels were spread around the auditorium. There was no seating. The 12 musicians, the 19 dancers, the video screens and the public co-existed in one complex collage structure. This was a big challenge, and required a new flexibility of thinking. I had prepared soli, duos and trios which were essentially finished and over three months or so, we, the choreographer Sasha Waltz, her dancers, myself, the musicians, the video artist, the set-designer, worked together to find an overall structural solution.

After these two works, I resumed working on a more conventional project, writing for solo piano, solo accordion, orchestra and choir. This work, miniata (2004), was large-scale and long. The structural flexibility with which I had experimented in the 2003 pieces enabled me to explore a much more complex form of collage in miniata. I also sensed a greater flexibility while composing, and was particularly preoccupied with the density of musical structures and the multi-faceted potential of silence – the depth, the sensuality of silence. Maybe this is because ‘silence’ as such was essentially missing in chroma and insideout, as a public in motion, as well as the nature of collage itself, negated a real ‘pause’ – the framing of gesture was always within a larger context and one’s aural perception was constantly refocusing. It was an enormous relief to write a real pause again. I felt even more acutely aware of the fragility and sensuality of ‘silence’, of resonance, of the canvas upon which sounds were written. Also following these two projects I was able to say farewell to my music boxes – long overdue – and began to attempt to craft, purely from my own musical material, an alternative to these strange static mechanical and removed sound worlds. The third movement of miniata was a conscious attempt to replace the music boxes with four separately composed sound surfaces juxtaposed in a single static form. Rather like a sculpture which is observed from different perspectives, this is a series of gestures, framed in silence, which are always different, yet in essence, always the same. By gently rotating the sound sculpture in space, varying the intensity of light shining upon this ‘object’, creating different shadows or resonances, I tried to constantly change the perspective from which this sound object could be observed.


To what extent are the chamber pieces you mention detachable from these performance contexts? Are they self-contained enough to act as distinct pieces, or do you see them, and compose them, as modules of these larger pieces: could they even appear in other collage pieces?


Some of these chamber pieces were shouting out to become separate works and taking them out of a collage and placing them in a framework of silence was not only an interesting process, but felt necessary, as if I was completing the composing process. Extracting soli or chamber works from the large-scale collages enabled me to approach the solo genre from a new direction. I was able to push a palette further, immersing myself for longer in a single reduced pallete of sounds. Reimmersing myself in these chamber pieces meant reassessing the musical material, and the weight and purpose of silence or resonance, in order to fix a new formal structure. Not all of the modules could be ‘freed’ from the large-scale collages, it depended very much on the particular instruments and the potential of the specific timbral palettes.

chroma and insideout share similar sound material. I think of them as sibling pieces. Other sound material explored at this time (2001-2004), which shared a similar ‘intention’, has since been added to chroma, which is still expanding. I wouldn’t be able to use new material in chroma or insideout, and I wouldn’t be able to place these modules in a different work. The modules making up a collage must all share a similar essence, seek a solution to the same problem. chroma, is for me, essentially a music theatre piece where each chamber group is a kind of sonic character study. I want to go one step further with a new spatial collage planned for 2008: the protagonists are soloists, not chamber groups, including a counter tenor. Possibly using text, (just possibly), I will try to edge a little closer to a more overtly theatrical work. That would be new territory.


One of the things I really like about your music is the weighting of sound surfaces against each other in ensemble pieces, often contrasting relatively diverse elements with each other. Over the last couple of years though you have completed some pieces for solo instruments, and I wanted to ask you how you dealt with the (potentially) reduced palette, particularly in blaauw (2004) for solo trumpet?


blauuw, written for double-bell trumpet, is played into a grand piano, sustaining pedal depressed throughout. Exactly how much resonance is heard varies completely from one performing space, and piano, to the next. I worked closely with Marco Blaauw on a number of versions for various performances, changing the order of the gestures, the length/weight of the silences, reducing/cutting further and further the melodic fragments. Eventually, two years later, Christmas 2006, we made a recording of the definitive version.


The pieces for solo instrument were at first derived from the large scale spatial works chroma and insideout. Following these projects, I felt it necessary to ‘release’ a number (at present, seven) of the soli, duos and trios from the large-scale collage structures, which contained, and as I felt at the time, almost imprisoned, them. All of these pieces are essentially elongated melodies. The fragmented melody guides the structure of the work. Most of these soli were refined a number of times, which is something I have rarely done with my other pieces.

These extracted works explore a series of gestures or musical statements, sometimes interchangeable, each of which changes minutely the perspective from which a small palette of sounds and their essence, their intention, can be heard or ‘viewed’. I enjoyed the challenge to further reduce my material and to concentrate on the formal coherence of a single surface of sound in a piece. The sound surfaces explore a constantly changing timbre, density and weight of sound, silence and shadow, made of a single palette of sounds or timbres, and are not juxtaposed within a larger formal structure. Each new perspective is different, yet reiterates the same intention, tries to approach the same essence, exploring changes of focus, and changes of light cast, and shadow, background or canvas, also ‘close-ups’ seeking the grain of the material.

Following the large-scale collage works, the need to frame the musical gesture again with silence, and readdress this aspect of my composing, was quite overwhelming. Sound disappears into silence or resonance, and is framed by these silent or resonating pauses, each gesture being a projection of sound into audible space, like a static object, a picture, or even more, like a sculpture or mobile.





[1] This was the piece rubricare (2005) for string orchestra and baroque organ, written for Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.

[2] Since this interview, Saunders has made 15 further versions of chroma for various ensembles and spaces.


  1. Wolfgang says:

    Rebecca Saunder music should be pushed more, and she should be commissioned more from major orchestras. She has amazing out put of compositions already, but has been harshly label from Boulez camp. Wolfgang Rihm was perfect teacher for her in my opinion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: