David Sawer


"Sawer’s music is often brilliantly inventive"

Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph

"Sawer uses tonality in a completely fresh way"

The Sunday Times

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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.’

David Sawer is published by Edition Peters and Universal Edition (prior to 2015)

This biography is for information only and should not be reproduced.

Recording: Rumpelstiltskin, April\March, Cat's-Eye with BCMG and Martyn Brabbins

NMC Records, September 2019

These three dance-related scores embody a deep compositional deftness

The Sunday Times

This performance by BCMG under Martyn Brabbins - recorded with pin-sharp clarity in Birmingham's CBSO Centre - could hardly be more vivid... This disc is a splendid addition to his recorded repertory.


This commercial release has long been awaited... Martyn Brabbins and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group perform it with the precision and idiomatic panache it deserves

Classical Iconoclast

He develops such a pictorial tone language... this disc is truly attractive


Unusual and creative... the music is striking

The Art Music Lounge

Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B

BBC Proms commission, premiered 13 August 2019

David Sawer contributed a neat and characterful equivalent to variation two

Andrew Clements, The Guardian

David Sawer’s playfully brief contribution is nimble and transparent, transplanting the harmonies of the new Theme onto the rhythms of the equivalent Elgar

David Gutman, Classical Source

The Skating Rink

Garsington Opera commission, world premiere 5 July 2018

Sawer’s score is shamelessly and spectacularly eclectic…. it deserves many more outings.

Richard Morrison, The Times ****

It’s certainly a taut and coherent plot… Sawer’s orchestral music gets the chance to drive the drama forward. With orchestration that’s carefully varied from act to act… there are some striking effects, lingering textures and telling solo lines, in a score that increasingly confounds expectations.

Andrew Clements, The Guardian

Sawer’s setting of Rory Mullarkey’s libretto maintains clarity and his score combines immediacy with pace: there’s a particularly magical sequence when skater Alice Poggio takes to the ice as Nuria and Sawer’s music soars in lyrical flight.

George Hall, The Stage

One of the season’s most surprising triumphs… the music fizzes with complexity, realizing its potential in a dizzying palette of styles but uniting in carefully structured rhythmic devices which seem to drive the action forward at break-neck speed.

Guy Dammann, Times Literary Supplement

A fascinating and lively score…. Sawer is an imaginative orchestrator and an accomplished contrapuntalist

Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph ****

An utterly compelling experience... Sawer's score is challenging, but as one Garsington punter remarked, the more dramatic narrative gripped, the more engaging the music became.

Andrew Green, Opera Now

The music engages fully as it steps on to the skating rink.

Richard Fairman, The Financial Times

David Sawer's record as a composer of opera, ballet and theatre scores suggested a safe pair of hands with which to entrust this venture. ... Sawer's score entices rich and varied sounds from a relatively small orchestra, employing an eclectic palette of colours and styles. The charango lends a vaguely Hispanic hue to proceedings, while Sawer's experience in film and theatre enables him to deploy striking effects at key moments... The musical language is eclectic.

Jonathan Cross, Opera Magazine

Sawer’s score is gripping…his vocal writing clear and emotionally direct.

Charlotte Valori, Bachtrack *****

Sawer and Mullarkey have created a new opera with a striking voice, one which managed to draw an enthusiastic response from a very engaged audience.

Robert Hugill ****

the greatest happiness principle

BBC Proms, 29th July 2017

A foot-tapping, texturally-rich fiesta of a piece, opening in Reich/Adams-like territory (repetitions, piquant contrapuntal weaving of voices) before retreating into darker realms and then breaking forth again with an intentionally chaotic final section where the conductor stopped “working”, his arms held out, and the players played by themselves.

Frances Wilson, Bachtrack ****

David Sawer’s lithe, witty musical engagement with Enlightenment ideals… certainly has a driving energy, the vivacity of which is enhanced by imaginative, varied orchestration. Wigglesworth and the BBCPO had a real spring in their step and wound up the tension, until the music literally imploded in the final bars, the conductor ‘giving up’ and leaving the orchestra to play themselves into ‘extinction’!

Claire Seymour, Seen and Heard International

This week's best UK classical concerts [...] David Sawer’s athletic orchestral piece from 1997, inspired by the ideas of philosopher Jeremy Bentham [...] a welcome beneficiary of the [PRS Foundation Resonate] initiative.

Andrew Clements, The Guardian


BBC Proms at…Roundhouse Camden, 2016 / Royal Ballet 'New Work New Music' at the Linbury Theatre, February 2019

David Sawer's April/March was a breath of fresh air. The orchestra perfectly captured Sawer's intentions to look at the present from the perspective of the past, blending wistful nostaligia with off-kilter sensations... Forest projections midway through gave Valerie Hartmann-Claverie and Bruno Perrault's duetting ondes martenot the quality of birds calling to each other. Before this the sliding microtones howled at each other wonderfully; afterwards it opened up to end in more Romantic territory.

Penny Homer, Bachtrack (2016)

... with its detailed narrative and intricate counterpoint, April\March felt freshly old-fashioned. Commissioned as a ballet, it dances nimbly through a tightly organised structure where silence is as vital as sound, and virtuosity called upon from every instrument in a kaleidoscopic scoring.

Helen Wallace, The Arts Desk (2016)

David Sawer’s ... April\March alternates between Stravinsky-like astringency and positively lyrical passages suggesting a burgeoning life force.

Barry Millington, Evening Standard (2016)

The evening’s musical highlight was supplied by the unfailingly theatrical David Sawer, [with his] dazzling, Stravinskyan April\March (from 2016).

Louise Levene, Financial Times (2019)

The programme ends with Aletta Collins’s Blue Moon, a sisterhood ballet for seven Royal Ballet women on pointe. David Sawer’s dramatic score is the most accomplished and sophisticated of the evening, while Collins’s snazzy choreography has fun undercutting female ballet stereotypes.

Debra Craine, The Times (2019)

Aletta Collins’ Blue Moon, set to composer David Sawer’s April\March, has the closest relationship to the score. The seven women match the careful propositions of the music with careful poses or take light flight across a flute motif.

Lyndsey Winship, The Guardian (2019)

The evening’s musical highlight was supplied by the unfailingly theatrical David Sawer

Louise Levene, Financial Times (2019)

Coachman Chronos

Live performance and recording, 2016

The premise of the Aurora's Orchestra's Objects at an Exhibition - to let a gaggle of composers loose in London's Science Museum - has resulted in subtly unpredictable chamber works. No explosions here, but then the composer choice was judicious [...] David Sawer's plain choice of a mail coach (Coachman Chronos) yields one tour de force of undeniable mastery: I hope it races on to the concert stage.

BBC Music Magazine, January 2016 ****

David Sawer’s Coachman Chronos, played in front of the York to London mailcoach of 1820, weaves allusions to Thomas de Quincey and Goethe into his wonderfully concise ride towards the abyss […] the performances were typically excellent.

Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 5 October 2015

David Sawer also found some rhythmic energy in Coachman Chronos, inspired by the York-London Mail Coach, with lively parts for French horn and cornet.

Neil Fisher, The Times

David Sawer’s exciting Coachman Chronos, flies along with the energy of the historic York Mail Coach ... a very satisfying programme – the works are wonderfully varied and one can easily imagine how effective they would be in situ.


Fascinating ideas ... Intriguing contrast between the composers ... Exhilarating performances from Aurora Orchestra.

BBC Radio 3

... the enthusiasm each composer had for the project actually jumps off the page when described by them...the pieces are marvellous and varied.

American Record Guide *****

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

Rumpelstiltskin Suite

Wigmore Hall

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

David Sawer List of Compositions

List of Compositions

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