"Sawer’s music is often brilliantly inventive"
Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph
"Sawer uses tonality in a completely fresh way"
The Sunday Times
Gerard McBurney writes:
‘It is the purity and precision of David Sawer’s music that immediately capture the ear, the restlessly shifting, twinkling, swirling surfaces of his always glittering streams of sound. Yet, after only a moment or two, one realises that beneath the immediacy of the changing surfaces of this music, in the darker, colder, more slowly moving water down below, there are strange shadows, shapes that remind us of a different kind of meaning altogether.
The alluring purity of Sawer’s vision springs in the first place from the sharpness of his ear, and especially from the way in which he voices even the simplest ideas always in ways that make them speak. Listening to these pieces, one is sometimes brought startlingly close to the sources of the sound, the grainy feel of bow on strings, or the flutter of breath and reed. This composer never lets the listener forget how music is played.
There is a striking purity also in the material of his music, in the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic tesserae of which it is made. When critics speak about Sawer they sometimes invoke jazz and Stravinsky. But although it is easy to see how his music could not exist without these important inspirations, it really does not sound like them. If you cut open a single harmony in one of Sawer’s pieces with a knife, you would find a split second of cool transparency, much simpler than a chord by Ellington, Gil Evans or Stravinsky.
What shows us that Sawer’s apparent simplicity is less than simple is not the music’s vertical sound in any given moment but the mercurial and unpredictable ways that this composer finds to make his very different ideas tumble breathlessly after one another.
A large part of his art is located in his often exquisite sense of timing. Things seem to happen in Sawer’s music in real time, as we listen to them, and almost never – as in the music of so many other composers of our day – because of the operation of some metamusical calculation beyond what we can necessarily understand about his music.
And when one thing follows another, what comes next is frequently quite unexpected. So we end up listening as we listen to a story, straining our ears forwards, wondering what will happen in a bar or two.
Sawer himself has noted that his approach to composition is rooted in drama. ‘I am a theatre person’, he says. And naturally he has written a good deal of music really for the theatre. There is a full-length opera From Morning to Midnight, an operetta Skin Deep, music to accompany silent film, music to accompany silent theatre, music for actors and instrumentalists to play together. But there are also many of his compositions that take elements of theatricality and reimagine them in purely musical terms. In his early orchestral piece, Byrnan Wood, such musical theatricality explains itself by being linked to an exceedingly familiar story from the closing pages of ‘Macbeth’. In other later works, including the greatest happiness principle and the exuberantly laconic Piano Concerto for Rolf Hind we are left more mysteriously to our own imaginative devices as the music enacts dramatic happenings to which we are given no such explanatory key.It is a quality of drama that it resists confession. We do not go to ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Otello’ to hear about their authors’ private feelings, but to witness the clash and play of contradictory characters and forces.
This perhaps tells us something about the darker shapes and shadows below the surface of David Sawer’s music. When actors act, the meaning of what they do – the shapes and shadows, as it were – is found not in the person of each individual performer but in the ‘empty’ space between the performers and behind them.
The bright and playful musical ideas that dance across the entrancing surfaces of so many of Sawer’s scores are like actors. And when we start to listen to them attentively, we begin to sense the darker world that lies behind them and beneath them.’
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The Lighthouse Keepers
World Premiere – Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (July 2013)
Sawer’s music is often brilliantly inventive, evoking the gathering emotional and physical storm, and mingling live sounds with their distorted echoes.
Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph
Another offering was the premiere of David Sawer’s Rumpelstiltskin Suite. Like Antonioni, Sawer specialises in original textures and aural transparency; I have never heard a harp sound so cavernously metallic, nor would I have imagined that a group of assorted woodwind instruments could so vividly evoke a peal of bells.
Michael Church, The Independent ****
Rumpelstiltskin, on the evidence of this suite – about a third of the whole ballet – is a score like Benjamin’s that captures the essence of its narrative through instrumental sonorities: wonderful tone-images of the spinning of straw into gold, of wedding bells magically rung by high woodwind, of the grotesque Rumpelstiltskin himself on thudding tuba. Sawer is evidently a composer with a flair for pictures in sound, and though this is a long suite (most of 30 minutes) it never flagged for an instant.
Stephen Walsh, The Arts Desk
Flesh and Blood
World Premiere, BBCSO / Ilan Volkov
If David Sawer and Howard Barker’s new ‘dramatic scena’, Flesh and Blood, isn’t already an advert for a full-blown opera, then someone needs to tell them to start pitching it. Sawer’s last high-profile stage work was Skin Deep, an operetta about plastic surgery. Flesh and Blood, however, goes far beyond the cosmetic.
Around this spare and allusive text, Sawer let the BBC Symphony Orchestra, tightly controlled by Ilan Volkov, burst into an engrossing series of cold furies: twitching harp and guttural strings, distressed, fluttering woodwind and discordant brass fanfares almost Mahlerian in their weight. The baritone Marcus Farnsworth, in his fatigues, had a buttoned-up nobility, but the heartache came from Christine Rice as his dignified but shattered mother.
Neil Fisher, The Times
Sawer’s score is a rich broth of Petrushka-esque carnival music, Depression-era dance music and melancholy doynas, with 13 instruments providing the voices of the silent actors. It’s a work that is hard to categorise, neither dance nor opera, but storytelling through music and movement....From the ever-darkening timbre of the alchemy music to the expansive horn solo, the brittle, syncopated wedding music, mocking flute and stuttering speech-rhythms, Sawer tightens his score with unerring focus.
Anna Picard, The Independent
Sawer uses tonality in a completely fresh way, while drawing freely on more acerbic, modernist sounds native to him. An atonal operetta would be a strange beast indeed, but Sawer has found a plausible stylistic compromise. … There is a seductiveness, a glamour, to some passages; others are hard-hitting; and the general spareness of the approach (its resemblance to minimalism is skin deep) proves highly effective.
The Sunday Times