Q&A with Rebecca Saunders

British composer Rebecca Saunders has just been announced as winner of the €250,000 Ernst von Siemens Music Prize – astoundingly, she’s the first female composer to bag the award. What does she make of it all? Interview by Maria Roberts

IAM: Congratulations on becoming the first female composer to win this incredible prize, how do you feel about the award?
Rebecca Saunders:
I am very happy and feel greatly honoured to receive the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize. Today there is a wealth of very talented and special female composers out there who are at last being publicly recognised. With each generation, more and more individual and outspoken female artists are becoming visible in the public domain. [The landscape for female composers] has changed significantly since I was young, in this respect receiving the prize is very important: I have extraordinary colleagues who have fought hard to break through the glass ceiling. But it is also shocking that in 2019 my gender precedes my work and defines your first question. Music is our common voice, a song of the moment. It can reach to the stars, bore under the earth, tap at the doors of our souls, get under the skin and break into the very heart of the thing, it is great privilege to be able to work in this field.

IAM: You’ve achieved a lifetime achievement award at the relatively young age of 51. What is your message to those considering life as a composer as a career path?
RS: Yes, I just turned 51. I sense acutely my own mortality, there seems to be so little time and so much to write. Being a composer is something you have to want to do with an uncompromising passion and a sense of necessity: to think, ask questions and seek solutions, absorb and listen and create. In this respect it isn’t a career choice, there is no “reason” to be a composer, other than you simply are one.

IAM: How do you see your work?
RS: I think my music divides itself pretty clearly into two kinds of states: the one preoccupied with a certain “stillness”, drawing music out of silence, creating a static reduced skeletal almost mobilé-like music, exploring those moments of “waiting”, as if suspended in time – breathing in, holding still; and then there is the abrupt, direct, gestural, indeed choleric music, that is driven and at times overtly aggressive. Although seemingly contradictory, both kinds of music are concerned with creating stasis-like sonic structures, something that particularly intrigues me at present.

I believe in working closely with musicians, these long-term collaborative working relationships are inspirational and involve experimenting, making music, exploring sound fragments and gestures that fascinate me, it’s an important basis of my work.

IAM: You have won three awards in recent months including the Roche Commission and a fourth BASCA British Composer Award. Do you have a specific creative plan afoot?
RS: Future projects include an experimental spatialised installation for numerous trumpets and 2,500 music boxes in a museum in Cologne, a piano concerto (a Roche Prize Commission for Lucerne Festival to be performed by pianist Nicolas Hodges) and an evening-long vocal piece for large choir, alto, actor and solo bass clarinet exploring further the extraordinary monologue of Molly Bloom. I will be writing more vocal works and collaborating again with Juliet Fraser, exploring electronics for the first time.

Following my choreographic projects in 2016 with Antonio Ruz, and more recently with Emanuel Gat, I’d love to work closely with dance and to explore more intimate choreographic constellations. I would also like to work with contemporary film, that would be fascinating.

Rebecca Saunders © EVSMP
Rebecca Saunders © EVSMP

IAM: Where do you draw your inspiration from and what / who are your biggest influences?
RS: The intimate, reduced and fragile language of Samuel Beckett inspires me again and again, I have been intensely studying his work since about 1997. The skeletal fragility of his writing, coupled with an almost terrifying directness and openness, is very powerful. Likewise, discovering the music of Galina Ustvolskaya made a profound impression on me because of its stringencies and its extraordinary courage. Her ability to reduce music to its essence is incredible. I play and listen to an enormous amount of Bach and his compositions have had a strong influence on my music.

Hearing Morton Feldman’s music live in New York in the early ’90s introduced me to another sense of time and musical space. I’m also inspired by the abstraction of the late Beethoven string quartets, the power and uncompromising nature of the orchestral music of Xenakis, and the acoustic city landscapes of Varèse. Helmut Lachenmann’s precision and extraordinary differentiation of colour, and the sensuality of his musical landscape, made me aware of the creative potential of the smallest fragment of sound.

After my undergraduate studies, the University of Edinburgh awarded me a scholarship to study with Wolfgang Rihm in Germany, I still feel very fortunate to have had this experience. During my time in Germany, I heard something in Rihm’s music that deeply struck me: I was impressed by its sensuality and its physicality, the silences and moments of prolonged resonance, and the eruption of sound.

Studying abroad was a wonderful opportunity: as an artist to get outside of one’s culture, to be removed from the known, is very liberating. It enabled me to see everything from a radically new perspective, to reassess and question every aspect of my thinking.

IAM: What kind of encouragement did you receive when you were younger to reach your full potential?
I was raised in Brixton, London, living in a city environment is something I feed on. When I walk through a city, I focus in on a dialogue of seemingly estranged sounds around me: I love the noise, the cacophony of sounds.

Ours was a musical family: my parents and grandmother are/were pianists and my grandfather was an organist. My father composed and arranged choral music. There is a strong vocal tradition in my family, my sister is a jazz singer and composer. I took ballet classes for 10 years as a child, so movement to music was an integral part of my life. I studied the violin and played in orchestras for many years. As a teenager, and in my 20s, I went clubbing and dancing a lot – being enveloped in sound was always important to me, just like playing the violin in an orchestra.

As a child I went to Pimlico comprehensive in the 1980s, and was placed on a special music course, and benefitted enormously from the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) music programmes, taking part in orchestras, holiday courses and an amazing array of opportunities and experiences.

I played an enormous amount of orchestra music when I was younger. I think that I am still hearing those resonances and working through those listening and performance experiences when I write.

IAM: How important are wins such as this to composers at any stage of their careers?
Composing is a slow and complex process, and one spends long periods of time in solitude writing a new score. Awards and scholarships enable one to concentrate purely on the composition work at hand and at developing a body of work. This is invaluable throughout a composer’s career, giving the individual freedom and stability. When I was younger, such awards helped see me through difficult times and made a critical difference.