26 October 2017

Rebecca Saunders and Harrison Birtwistle

As with last year, I attended a concert at the Musikfest Berlin this year. In fact, I am attending two concerts, and this is the first one. This concert is by the Ensemble Musikfabrik, a group of musicians that specialize in contemporary music. This year, the focus of the festival is on Claudio Monteverdi, given that it is his 450th birthday. However, even though plenty of his Renaissance and Baroque music (i.e., not my type) are being performed, there are nevertheless several concerts where contemporary music is being performed. This concert is one such event, where they performed Yes by Rebecca Saunders, as well as Cortege and 26 Orpheus Elegies by Harrison Birtwistle (interspersed with Lachrimae by John Dowland). The Saunders piece was actually a premiere, which was quite exciting I must say.

It was a long concert, starting at 19:00, and ending at around 22:15. The first piece was Yes, which is a piece that makes use of spatial settings. This piece was commissioned by the Berliner Festspiele, and from what I understand, it was composed specifically to be performed at the Kammermusiksaal of the Berliner Philharmonie. The thing is, this piece is for a soprano and 19 soloists. The performers move all over the place, climbing staircases and switching places. Even the conductor does that. And it creates a very surreal soundscape, something that was definitely exciting to listen to.

There was a piano on the stage, and there was another piano on the roof. There was a drum behind me. The sounds just came from all over the place, not just from the stage. It definitely was a different listening experience. This wasn't the first time I encountered spatial music. I once heard a performance of Iannis Xenakis' Persephassa, for 6 percussionists. This piece positions the performers around the audience, and the music travels through the space in ways I haven't thought of before. This is of a similar vein.

I also liked the inspiration of the piece: Yes takes texts from James Joyce's Ulysses, from the final chapter, which is the soliloquy of Molly Bloom. I remember being amazed at that novel when I read it years ago. I was glad that I got to hear avant-garde music which is inspired by that avant-garde book.

After the break, there were two pieces (or was it three?) by Harrison Birtwistle. I have to say that I wasn't too impressed by this one. The first piece they performed was Cortege for 14 musicians. It was interesting, but not impressive enough to make me remember it. After that, they performed 26 Orpheus Elegies and interspersed with Lachrimae of John Dowland. I later learned that cutting up music is Birtwistle's style, but to be honest, I was more annoyed than impressed.

The thing is, I was listening to contemporary music, but every now and then there would be Renaissance music interrupting me. Lachrimae was published in 1604, while 26 Orpheus Elegies was completed in 2004. So four hundred years of musical history would be going back and forth in the span of an hour. Instead of amazed, I was just irritated. To be honest, I didn't see the point. And perhaps I would even go as far as saying that this is the first piece of contemporary classical music that I detest.

Quite a few people walked out that night. I didn't, as I didn't want to be impolite, but I am not sure I would want to attend another concert with Birtwistle's music again. From what I have heard, his music isn't for me.

Saunders' music on the other hand is breath-taking. I would even go as far as contemplating whether she is my new favorite composer (currently it's Georg Friedrich Haas). I need to investigate this.


  1. Did you consider walking out? I don't think I ever did, not even in movie theatres... it just feels weird! Plus, I'm an optimistic, I always think it's going to get better!

    1. Zhu,

      I am with you on this one. I always think that maybe it would be better later. So I don't typically walk out, even with other art forms, like books. I always finish a book even though I don't like it.