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The physicality of sound

INTERVIEW: Rebecca Saunders. One of the composers to watch in Berlin's vibrant contemporary music scene, Saunders blends dense clusters of sound for her musical and architectural collage, chroma.

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Photo by Katrin Shander

Five dense clusters of sound spread about the the interiors of an old circular cafe, creating an aural bubble that encompasses the entire space. Blending the sound like colors, composer Rebecca Saunders will present the 15th version of her musical and architectural collage chroma as part of this year’s MärzMusik festival for new music. Based in the Spree capital since the 1990s, London-born Saunders is one of the composers to watch in Berlin’s vibrant contemporary music scene.

Have you noticed a specific pattern to the changes in the work depending on the space in which it’s performed?

Absolutely, and based on the first few versions, I’ve decided to expand on the dramatic form. The audience have their own perspective of the piece. They can be very near to the performers or very far away. They can hear the music out of the distance and they can walk through the music, so it can be a very physical experience. It’s a composition with a clear dramatic form, so you still have an impression of the whole. The skeleton of it, so to speak, is still apparent, even if you miss some bits of the flesh.

Have people come back and noticed changes to the piece?

They do see it as being different. I’ve even done it with the same ensemble and a very similar version and they didn’t notice. That was quite interesting because the architecture of the space distorted the image of the piece so much that they didn’t recognize it.

What’s your advice for listeners who don’t have a background in classical music and feel that this music is inaccessible?

Not having a background in classical music does of course make some things different. It’s not like going to a museum where you can just walk through the rooms quickly and see some pictures on the periphery of your eyes; you have to actually sit and listen. There are all kinds of ways of experiencing music, and one of the things is, you have to really want to open your ears and let it in. You have to actually be ready to receive it and see what it’s going to do to you. Sometimes people are scared, but I think the more you get used to listening to sounds which are unusual and the more you are willing to open your ears, the faster you begin to appreciate it.

Why do you think that people are sometimes afraid of this kind of contemporary music?

I think sometimes people become scared because they think they have to understand something and that’s the bottom line really, that there’s nothing to understand – it’s about experiencing something physical. Sound is physical, it’s beautiful, and even if it’s ugly, there’s a beauty in that, you know? So it’s about opening yourself up to the phenomena of sound itself, allowing the physical beauty to touch you and that’s really just about accepting something, being flexible enough to let something strange and unknown in. I think it’s kind of hard with music because you can’t just buy it and put it in a nice box or something. It’s there and you have to focus on it just in that fleeting moment.

How does MärzMusik fit into this?

It’s a wonderful festival which is exploring all different spaces throughout Berlin. To go back to this issue of ‘accessibility’, it’s a means by which people who have less familiarity with contemporary music can actually experience music in different kinds of architectural environments. MärzMusik has been doing that over the years and continues to do that, continues to explore the city and its wonderful places.

Mar 18, 20:00, chroma XV | Cafe Moskau