Women composers invisible? Yes, they are still very much underrepresented in most concert series, though not in this season’s NTRZaterdagMatinee. Of the five compositions the German Ensemble Musikfabrik presents on 18 May, four were written by a woman. Among them the British-German Rebecca Saunders, who was recently awarded the Ernst von Siemens Prize 2019. Helen Bledsoe will play Bite for bass flute solo.
Saunders, born in London in 1967, studied violin and composition at the University of Edinburgh. In 1991 she received the German DAAD stipend, with which she studied composition with Wolfgang Rihm at the Hochschule für Musik in Karlsruhe. After three years she returned to Edinburgh, where she obtained her doctorate with Nigel Osborne in 1998. A year earlied she had moved to Berlin.
Saunders has won many prizes, was a visiting professor at the renowned Ferienkurse für neue Musik in Darmstadt and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate at Huddersfield University in 2018.
She is particularly interested in timbre and likes to explore the possibilities of instruments by means of playing techniques of her own designing. ‘For me what’s really important is enabling the listener to feel the magical physicality of sound: the timbre, the colour, the mass and the weight of sound,’ she once said. She compares herself to a sculptor working with different materials.
Her scores are teeming with detailed instructions, sometimes she also employs objects such as metronomes, radios, record players and mechanical music boxes. In her music she regularly refers to artists and writers, such as James Joyce and Derek Jarman. In her recent work, she often leans towards Samuel Beckett and his fascination with shadow and silence.
This also applies to Bite for bass flute solo, which she composed in 2015 for Helen Bledsoe, Musikfabrik’s solo flute player. It is part of a series of solo pieces she has written in recent years for performers with whom she has worked together closely; in her score she explicitly thanks Bledsoe for their pleasant ‘sound sessions’.
The score is quite daunting. The flutist produces quarter tones and multiphonics, plays with Flatterzunge and has to constantly – and – quickly switch between (extremely) fast and (very) slow tempi. The dynamics vary from the softest pianissimo to the loudest fortissimo. Meanwhile, Bledsoe whispers, sings or shouts texts by Beckett in her instrument, giving the physical sound a different colour and intention.
On her website Helen Bledsoe describes Bite as ‘a massive, expressive, sighing and ranting piece for bass flute with low B’. She premiered it in 2016, one critic praising it for being was ‘quite athletic’. Yet two years later Saunders made a revision in which she deleted several parts. This version will be performed for the first time in the concert on 18 May, after which Bledsoe hopes to record it for CD.