Swirling Episodes Of Sound Probing New Sonics? ‘Yes’!

Ensemble Musikfabrik performing Rebecca Saunders’ ‘Yes’ at the Philharmonie in Berlin.
(Photos by Kai Bienert)
By Rebecca Schmid

BERLIN – The Musikfest is underway here with an ambitious program juxtaposing Renaissance music with contemporary works. And it wouldn’t be complete without a world premiere. An epic chamber concert at the Philharmonie on Sept. 9 featured Yes, a new “spatial performance” for soprano, 19 soloists, and conductor by the Berlin-based British composer Rebecca Saunders.  Yes was inspired by the monologue of Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Soprano Donatienne Michel-Dansac was soloist in ‘Yes.’

In creating her first full-scale work for a singer, Saunders treats the text as one of many “sound layers” to become part of a “polyphony in time and space.” The members of the Ensemble Musikfabrik wander from the stage to the upper balconies and back, occasionally joining soprano Donatienne Michel-Dansac to percussively stammer fragments of text or dramatically inhale and exhale.

If sonic and semantic meaning ultimately become interchangeable to the point that one loses connection with the original text, the work nonetheless succeeds at immersing the listener in swirling episodes of sound. Shortly after conductor Enno Poppe arrived to coordinate a particularly complex stretch, a percussion station on an upper balcony across from the stage created palpable vibrations while Michel-Dansac phonated hysterically, only to cede the spotlight to two trumpets (Marco Blaauw and Nathan Plante) – one squawking, the other letting out pseudo-jazz riffs.

Another interesting moment emerges when a piano onstage elicits a percussive response from another piano hidden on an upper balcony (Ulrich Löffler and Benjamin Kobler, respectively), playing with the listener’s sense of sonic space. Saunders also brings an innovative touch to the accordion (Krassimir Sterev), which at first adds an ethereal sheen to the ensemble, then becomes a character in its own right as the soloist gasps text while stretching the instrument’s bellows nearly half-way around his body.

Not unlike her teacher, Wolfgang Rihm, Saunders exploits the extremes of chaos and stasis, her instrumental textures hovering in the air before exploding and ricocheting around the hall. Yes also takes cues from the absurdist instrumental theater of Mauricio Kagel or Georges Aperghis, while the spluttering vocal writing at times recalls that of the vocalist-composer Agata Zubel in a work such as Not I, based on a Samuel Beckett monologue.

Ensemble Musikfabrik members in Saunders’ new work.

Much more than Zubel, however, Saunders is interested in blurring the boundaries between instrumental and vocal performance. It may be a conservative viewpoint, but I would have preferred to hear more intelligible text and melodic lines from Michel-Dansac, a gifted performer. In the absence of a dramatic arc beyond the score’s scrupulous probing into new sonic frontiers, Yes also did not manage to justify its 75-minute length.

The second half of the program was devoted to Harrison Birtwistle, who himself came to conduct the 26 Orpheus Elegies, interspersed at his suggestion with arrangements of John Dowland’s Lachrimae, Or Seven Tears Figured in Seven Passionate Pavans. The addition of the 17th-century nonets created a kind of time warp with Birstwistle’s stark settings of poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke, which are scored for oboe, harp, and countertenor.

The work was originally performed by oboist and composer Heinz Holliger and his late wife, Ursula, a duo who inspired everyone from Witold Lutosławski to Isang Yun. Birtwistle assigns the oboe (Peter Veale) bucolic, at times frantic melodies, while the harp (Mirjam Schröder) is plucked vigorously to create a sound at once modern and archaic. But the textures, as idiomatic as they are, eventually grow static.

Harrison Birtwistle conducting his 26 ‘Orpheus Elegies.’

The vocal lines for countertenor (Andrew Watts) remain mostly confined to a small tessitura, as if reflecting in awe upon some of the greatest poetry ever written, but hardly reveal the depth of the existential questions raised by Rilke. Of all the settings, the Fifth Sonnet about a “lost god” and a single “mouth of nature” achieves the most compelling synthesis of text and music as the countertenor peters out on a middle C above the sustained, dissonant chord of harp and oboe. Watts struck a fine balance between theatricality and subtle dynamic nuance.

Cortege, a “ceremony for 14 musicians” written as a eulogy to the conductor Michael Vyner, is structured around a series of solos performed downstage where a conductor would normally stand. One by one, the players have a moment in the spotlight before rejoining a semi-circle, as if moving in and out of different worlds. A thumping bass drum creates a sense of order within the chaotic, dissonant counterpoint, eventually summoning the soloists to unite with a mourning flute (Helen Bledsoe). In a program in which experimental dramaturgy reigned, the theatrically transparent procession turned out to have the most powerful impact.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional reception of Kurt Weill.