Monday, 10 June 2019

Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, 7 June 2019


Prinzregententheater

Images: Stefanie Loos

Annesley Black: Tolerance Stacks: excerpts (2016/19)
Ann Cleare: on magnetic fields (2011/12)
Mithatcan Öcal: Ein musikalischer Spaß (2017-19): ‘Birds with Beards’ (world premiere)
Rebecca Saunders: Skin (2016)

Juliet Fraser (soprano)
Ensemble Musikfabrik
Enno Poppe (conductor)


The first woman composer to receive the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize could not have been a worthier candidate. From the first time I heard Rebecca Saunders’s music, in a 2012 Arditti Quartet concert at the Wigmore Hall, I have been intrigued, fascinated, and thrilled by it. At this ceremony and concert in Munich’s Prinzregententheater, we heard not only Saunders’s Skin (given in London this January by the same soloist, Juliet Fraser, with the Ensemble Modern and Vimbayi Kaziboni), but also music by the three winners of Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation Composers’ Prizes: Annesley Black, Ann Cleare, and Mithatcan Öcal. When three out of four of the composers are women and the other a Turkish man, perhaps the tide is finally beginning to turn. In addition to prize money, the three recipients of composers’ prizes will also receive portrait CDs from the Kairos label, to be released at the end of this year – so helping others to discover their music for themselves.



First we heard excerpts from Black’s Tolerance Stacks, followed by a greeting from Peter Rusicka and a short film showing the composer at work. (Each composer received such a film, in other cases seen before her or his music was performed.) Fraser was the soprano soloist here too, excellent as ever. Piano, responded to by clarinet and percussion, in turn responded to by piano, set the scene, the pianist thereafter moving across to one of two electronic mixing desks in preparation for the vocal entry. Was it pain or pleasure being evoked? Why choose, amidst such a colourful, dramatic frenzy? Might one characterise what we heard as post-Stockhausen in a meaningful rather than merely chronological sense? I think so, but am not sure quite how much that would matter. The sense of electronic and vocal play was keen throughout. So too was an intriguing relationship – which I could not yet put my finger on to describe, let alone analyse, yet could certainly perceive – between sound and structure.


Cleare’s and Öcal’s works were both for ensemble without voice, all in the superlative care of Enno Poppe and Ensemble Musikfabrik, longstanding Saunders collaborators. Cleare’s on magnetic fields added to the ensemble what I presume was an instrument of her own, hybrid instrumental design being a particular musical interest of hers. (I do not even know what it was, or what it was called, but such is part of the fun!) At any rate, three chamber groups conversed, collaborated: made music, two violins from two separate groups coming across as first among equals in dialogue and competition. Sounds were often metallic, mechanical, industrial, creative, but they were no mere sounds: this was a true musical narrative, finely paced both in writing and performance. Likewise every note, attack, timbre, and duration seemed deeply considered and dramatically necessary.


Öcal’s ‘Birds without Beards’ was prefaced by a duly entertaining film, in which a member of his Istanbul Composer Collective remonstrated with him for having included a pitch, C-sharp, he had expressively ruled out, whether in itself or even as suggested by harmonic structure. Repeated pitches and their implications, perhaps rhythmic as well as harmonic, seemed to be one of the concerns from the outset here, wind notes jabbed and intoned, initially set against scurrying string figures. One was intended, I think, to notice just as keenly when those pitches were repeated and varied. Öcal offered on occasion an almost Mahlerian sense of echoed reminiscence of ‘found’ material, actually found or imagined. But those were just two aspects of an absorbing, colourful, witty showcase for the composer’s work, types of material coming into intriguing collaboration and conflict – just, perhaps, like the Collective itself.



‘It sounds how it’s played,’ as Robert Adlington once put it, cited in trumpeter Marco Blauuw’s oration, as intelligent as it was heartfelt, for Rebecca Saunders and her music ‘Stay stubborn, self-willed,’ Saunders advised her three predecessors on this evening, having dedicated receipt of her prize to her undoubtedly stubborn and self-willed predecessor as composer, Galina Ustolvskaya. Those and many other aperçus helped guide our appreciation of the performance of Skin; but mostly, like Samuel Beckett, another guiding spirit, this music spoke with a bleakness and humanity, the two quite indivisible, of its own. If the opening starkness, at least in the context of Saunders’s words, obliquely brought Ustolvskaya to mind, the poetry of music and silence, music as silence, distillation in instrumental combination, and that combination in distillation, bore Beckettian witness more strongly than ever. Breath and cries from voice and instruments alike, often in tandem, both formed and inhabited landscape and narrative. (Sometimes we need such metaphors to speak about music, but we should always be wary of ascribing them importance that is greater than whatever that music may be ‘itself’). As ever, properties of instruments, the voice included, indeed the voice foremost among them, were both respected and extended, testament to the composer’s searching, collaborative way with performing colleagues. No silence, though, was more pregnant, more magical than that following Fraser’s final, solo ‘skin’. It rightly proved a prelude resistant to, then part of, that warmest of applause that ensued.

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