Rebecca Saunders: Skin

Rebecca Saunders: Skin

NMC Recordings
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Release date: 18 November 2022

Rebecca Saunders
is one of the leading international composers of her generation. Skin, a new album from the Berlin-based British composer, comes after she has been masterfully sculpting sound for more than three decades, and incredibly, is Saunders' first ever release with NMC.

Having pursued a keen interest in the concertante form, Saunders' fascination with the sonic essence of an instrument necessitates that she work very closely with the performers of her music. This new album features three significant works for different ensembles composed between 2013 and 2017, which are all products of close artistic collaboration.

The focus of much of Saunders' music is on the delicate balance between sound and silence, and none of her works explore this more vividly than void (2013-14) for percussion duo and orchestra. Composed for Christian Dierstein and Dirk Rothbrust after a number of "exploratory sound sessions" together, the two percussionists are positioned in front of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB) conducted by Enno Poppe, playing aluminium flower pots and rin (Japanese singing bowls) into the 'void' created by the orchestra. Saunders repeatedly returned to the final short prose of Samuel Beckett's thirteen Texts For Nothing (1947-52) when completing void, inspired by how the text's "intensely fragile fleeting moments, describing a mouthless murmuring ceasless voice, are juxtaposed with violent outburts of anger."

Beckettian expression was also part of the pool of influences behind Unbreathed, a string quartet written for Quatuor Diotima in 2017. Premiered at the Wigmore Hall in 2018, not long after the composer's fiftieth birthday, Unbreathed is only the second string quartet written by Saunders after 2012's Fletch. The work plays with ideas of remoteness and negation, exploring the materiality of sound in a way only Saunders' music can.

But the collection of precise sonic events that comprise Saunders' composition is anything but sterile; she is fascinated with the grit and noise involved in producing sound, those extramusical elements that remind us of music's humanity. The title of the third work on the album – and also the title of the album itself – invokes this tactility, describing "the delicate membrane seperating the body and its environment" (Saunders). Composed in 2015-16 for Juliet Fraser and Klangforum Wien, Skin is the first of Saunders' works with a sung text, her previous vocal works having explored the voice purely timbrally. The text is Saunders' own, materialising gradually throughout the compositional process, partly inspired by collaborative sessions with solo soprano Juliet Fraser, and partly by literary references such as the close of Molly Bloom’s monologue from James Joyce’s Ulysses, and once again, prose by Beckett. The solo part is hugely virtuosic – in the liner notes Paul Griffiths describes how "the work stretches its soprano protagonist across the feverishly alive body of instrumentalists. She is this music’s skin. Voice is this music’s skin."

Christian Dierstein percussion
Dirk Rothbrust percussion
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB)
Enno Poppe conductor
Quatuor Diotima
Juliet Fraser soprano
Klangforum Wien
Bas Wiegers conductor






"Brilliantly sculpted textures, sometimes intensely fragile, sometimes furiously wrought, show Rebecca Saunders to be one of the leading figures of European music today. Important music, superbly delivered." (★★★★★) The Guardian

"...this performance is a triumph – as both composition and recording." Gramophone

"Juliet Fraser is the spiralling soloist in Skin; swaggering between feverish virtuosity, muttered musings and penetrating trills, the soprano works wonderfully with 13 members of Klangforum Wien, led by Bas Wiegers." (Performance ★★★★★, Recording ★★★★) BBC Music Magazine

"Three baffling, brilliant, beautiful compositions by one of the UK’s most fearlessly, effortlessly radical composers. Few albums can be described as essential, but this is absolutely one of them." 5against4

"[Saunders is] a wizard in conjuring amazing sounds from any instrument or vocal force." (★★★★) The Times

"The works on this excellent album are vividly performed, with all those involved clearly fully alert to the excitement, strength and beauty of this bold, adventurous music." The Week

"Captivating" Sonograma

"It is remarkable that Rebecca Saunders – by any measure one of the UK’s leading and most admired composers – has not yet been recorded by this country’s primary new music label, NMC... So the announcement of a first release is extremely welcome. Even more so is that it will feature one of Saunders’ finest recent works, the blistering Skin (2016), performed by its dedicatee, Juliet Fraser, with Klangforum Wien." The Rambler

"A viscerally thrilling performance...Skin is 27 minutes in which everything is sensation. In which these explosions of Rebecca Saunders' own texts, written in collaboration with Juliet Fraser, and Molly Bloom's monologue from James Joyce's Ulysses is at the centre of music which is an exploration of sound as touch, as caress, as friction, as violence, as sensuality, as skin." Tom Service, BBC Radio 3 New Music Show

"...a record that delves into the best creation of our time, with Rebecca Saunders as one of its most powerful artistic and musical figures." El Compositor Habla

"Saunders has written a number of compelling pieces, but the selections on Skin are some of her very best. The disc serves as an excellent introduction to her music. Recommended." Sequenza 21

"This NMC disc offers three vividly imagined and precisely structured utterances, presented in performances of an extremely high standard, which confirm Rebecca Saunders as an individual creative voice, always keen to explore and to question. The works benefit enormously from the familiarity which repeated listening can bring to works of this scale and complexity and on that basis alone, this album is indispensable." ★★★★★  Musical Opinion


void was recorded by Deutschlandfunk Kultur at Ultraschall Berlin, Deutschlandfunk Kultur’s festival for new music, on 21 January 2018. A co-production with Deutschlandfunk Kultur.
CHRISTIAN FISCHER Recording Engineer
FLORIAN B. SCHMIDT Recording Supervisor
RAINER PÖLLMANN Executive Producer

Unbreathed was recorded at the Hans-Rosbaud-Studio SWR, Baden-Baden, on 23 September 2019. Licensed by WDR mediagroup GmbH.
HARRY VOGT Executive Producer
GÜNTHER WOLLERSHEIM Recording Producer & Editing
NORBERT VOSSEN Recording Engineer

Skin was recorded by the BBC at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 20 November 2016.
TIM ARCHER Balance Engineer
MARK WARD Sound Engineer
JOHN BENTON Sound Engineer
CHRIS HARDMAN Sound Engineer


Release date: 18 November 2022
Catalogue number: NMC D263