Music & clubs

The polyphonic threats of Ulysses: Rebecca Saunders

INTERVIEW! At Musikfest (on through Sep 18), Rebecca Saunders translates Ulysses’ last chapter for soprano and stereophonic chamber ensemble. "Yes" premieres at the Philharmonie on Sep 9, followed the next day by a free talk with Ed Atkins.

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Photo by Camille Blake

At Musikfest, Rebecca Saunders translates Ulysses’ last chapter for soprano and stereophonic chamber ensemble.

The countryside’s tranquility is not Rebecca Saunders’ cup of tea. In her sheet music-cluttered studio in Prenzlauer Berg, she joyfully welcomes Berlin soundscapes of trams, drills and trolleys with open ears. No wonder the London-born contemporary music composer and professor has been drawn to Molly Bloom’s infamous stream-of-consciousness monologue in James Joyce’s Ulysses again and again. Ensemble Musikfabrik premieres Yes, her latest go at the literary masterpiece, at the Philharmonie on Sep 9, followed the next day by a free (English-language) talk with artist Ed Atkins.

How did you end up in Berlin?

I felt that musically I belonged, I was taken for what I was. As an artist, it’s incredibly important to be in a foreign environment to reassess who you are. And back then in Britain, it was a strong surge of having to justify yourself in terms of your music’s direct benefits to society, which is extremely superficial and has very little to do with the meaning of art in culture. I was extremely relieved not to be in that environment anymore. I’ve been here now for 20 years.

Does the contemporary music scene keep you here?

I think it’s a positive, creative, dynamic environment where you’re always meeting different people. But that’s not the reason for me to be here. A lot of my work is outside of Berlin. Although the scene is incredibly active, there’s very little money around, so one shouldn’t really set all one’s cards on one thing.

Do you have any favourite venues here, though?

No, I don’t. Ausland has, of course, been one of the places to go for the improvising scene for 30 years. But one of the really exciting things about Berlin is the way in which venues are shared by different scenes. You can go to Radialsystem and see dance, baroque performances or cutting-edge installations; a new music concert in Berghain; a club situation in Haus der Berliner Festspiele; concerts in the art gallery or in the hair salon.

You’ve been returning to Molly Bloom’s chapter in Ulysses since 1995. What draws you to her monologue?

I was inspired by the extraordinary energy that was flowing through the whole piece, in which certain themes, aspects, characteristics and single words surface and then disappear – a complex texture, always in movement. It’s not a cacophony, it’s real dense polyphonic threats. She’s half-naked, she’s shitting, pissing, having an orgasm, her husband’s lying on the floor upside down. It’s all very strange, and it’s all happening in one room on the edge of falling asleep and waking up again. It’s quite a radical situation.

How do you tackle her stream of consciousness musically?

I’m working on the architectural plans of the space. I’ve defined all the positions from which 25 different pieces, which are all overlapping in a large-scale collage, will be played. So it’s polyphonic in spatial terms, not just musically. Every chamber music module has its own clear, immediately recognisable sound palette. Many performers in the ensemble also speak or whisper, using fragments of the text. It’s not always audible, it surfaces and then disappears. It’s important that it isn’t about the soprano being Molly Bloom.

You have been experimenting with architectural spaces for years.

I got two offers in 2003 to write for the Tate Modern in London. I had this wonderful experience of actually setting up a table to work in the Turbine Hall. I began to engage with architecture in a different way, to study the plans, how the characteristics of a space have a massive impact on how we perceive, listen and experience the musical situation. One of the exciting things about living in Berlin, really, when I came here, was all the empty spaces. A space isn’t empty – it’s a void, it has potential.

What about the soundscape of Berlin itself?

I love the sounds of the city, the collage of the noise, using my ears to make some kind of sense out of it. It’s the resonance of mortality. I even like the construction work on the building opposite mine, the bang on the stones with their metal hammer, and the Rauschen of the cars as they go past. And when it’s really quiet on a Sunday, you hear the trams going up and down Greifswalder Straße. You can walk through the city just constantly framing and reframing, contextualising and decontextualising all the sounds around you. As an architect looks at the physical landscape, I will listen to the city in a more focussed way than somebody else.

Ensemble Musikfabrik: Orpheus & Odysseus & Molly Bloom Sat, Sep 9, 19:00 Kammermusiksaal der Philharmonie, Tiergarten