For Rebecca Saunders, space is just another tool in her compositional armoury. The British composer, based in Berlin, has written several pieces for specific places, and others that explore the aural impact of the positioning of musicians and audience. In chroma, first performed in 2003, Saunders precisely places soloists and ensembles in space as part of a musical installation. In insideout, she collaborated with choreographer Sasha Waltz to create a vast music and dance work, spread across different rooms and houses placed within an auditorium.

Rebecca Saunders at rehearsals of <i>Stasis</i> © Torsten Flüh
Rebecca Saunders at rehearsals of Stasis
© Torsten Flüh

Stasis, originally written for Ensemble musikFabrik, is another work in this vein, first performed in Donaueschingen in 2011, but since re-worked for different ensembles and spaces. Inspired by the Samuel Beckett short story Still (“try listening to the sounds all quite still head in hand listening for a sound”), it explores the boundary between sound and silence through a kind of symphony in space. Last weekend, the Ensemblekollektiv performed a new tailor-made version for the Akademie der Künste building in Berlin.

Günter Behnisch’s modernist glass façade, overlooking the Brandenburger Tor, creates an extraordinary cavernous foyer within which floors and stairways hang suspended. The 23 musicians of the Ensemblekollektiv were spread across these levels in flexible small groups, with the audience seated in the middle, giving true surround-sound. This architectural set-up exploded the structure of the work in three-dimensional space, like a sonic mobile.

This ‘spatial collage’ consists of solo and ensemble groups, working independently and with their own character, colliding to create an extraordinary multi-faceted beast. Amplified bass flutes bookend the work, breathing – or should that be hyperventilating – life into it, and sputtering with it to its close. An intricate, crawling string quartet, sonorous clarinet and juddering percussion face up against the white heat of a brass quintet, all underpinned by accordion and double bass, throbbing below our feet. 

<i>Stasis</i> rehearsals © Torsten Flüh
Stasis rehearsals
© Torsten Flüh

Like a mobile, the music reconfigures around the listener, with players changing positions and reformulating throughout the piece. The sonic structure shifts accordingly, as if we are examining the same piece from a different perspective. Its initial warm, sinewy beauty evolves and becomes percussive, brittle and sharp, before quieting into an eerie stillness, shattered by the clarion call of the trumpet.

This is an extraordinary work, immaculately realised on a macro- and micro- level. Simultaneous instrumental groups intersect in myriad ways, a Rubik’s Cube of endless fascinating patterns. When the ensembles converge, it utterly engulfs the listener. It has become cliché to call something immersive, but Stasis really does place the audience in the centre of the composition, rather than on the outside looking in.

Like Helmut Lachenmann or Beat Furrer, Saunders’ music probes into the nature of ‘klang’, or pure sound. The acoustic possibilities of instruments and the sonic qualities of intervals are starting points for a journey into the very heart of noise. But, what is utterly thrilling about Saunders’ music is the way that it goes beyond pure abstraction. Wheezing, hulking, squealing, her pieces take on a life of their own, hinting at meanings beyond just sound and silence.