Universal Edition - David Sawer – The Lighthouse Keepers

David Sawer


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David Sawer
The Lighthouse Keepers

Work Details

Year of composition: 2013
Scored for: for two actors, ensemble and tape
Composer: David Sawer
Text Source: "Gardiens de phare" from Paul Autier and Paul Cloquemin
English adaptation by David Harrower
Text Author: Paul Autier; Paul Cloquemin
Text Editor: David Harrower
Parts: Bryand (Vater), Sprechstimme
Yvan (Sohn), Sprechstimme
Instrumentation details: flute; oboe; clarinet in Bb; horn in F; trumpet in C; percussion; violin; viola; violoncello
Commissioned by: Commissioned by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Cheltenham Music Festivals, with the following individuals through BCMG's Sound Investment scheme:

Catherine and Derrick Archer
Kiaran Asthana
Viv and Hazel Astling
John Barnden
Paul Bond
Avis and Peter Burton
Alan S Carr
Christopher Carrier
Tony Collier, presented by Groundwork West Midlands
Simon Collings
Alan Cook
Kath England
Peter Fell
Anne P Fletcher
Anna Fulljames
Nigel Goulty
Richard Hartree
Jim Hawkins
Fern H
Duration: 30′
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Audio Excerpt

The Lighthouse Keepers

World Première

Location: Cheltenham / Great Britain
Date: 04.07.2013
Orchestra: Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Conductor: Martyn Brabbins

Work Introduction

Interview from Musikblätter 5

Your third premiere is going to be a work for music theatre called The Lighthouse Keepers, which will be performed in July again by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. In this you also have two main figures. This time it’s a father and a son, in Flesh and Blood it was a mother and a son. But in The Lighthouse Keepers it’s two actors, not two singers.

Sawer: Yes, that’s right, there’s no singing in it. I wanted to write a piece where the rhythms of speech are notated in the score. The Lighthouse Keepers is based on a French play written by Paul Autier and Paul Cloquemin for the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, a tiny little theatre which presented shows which were basically designed to shock and terrify the audience. The original play was translated and I asked the playwright David Harrower to make an adaptation. There is an ensemble of nine, the same instruments as in Rumpelstiltskin apart from the three bass instruments, because the two male characters will occupy the bass register of the sound. The actors will read the play as though they are recording it for radio. The theatre will be in the audience’s imagination – hopefully.

What’s the story about?

Sawer: Going back to the original it’s quite poetic: father and son are trapped in this lighthouse. It’s not the age of mobile phones, they can’t get any outside help. The son has been bitten by a dog and is not able to turn on the light of the lighthouse. There is a ship approaching the rocks which is in danger of crashing – and then this all cumulates into a moment at the end.

Why didn’t you want singing in The Lighthouse Keepers?

Sawer: That’s a good question. I think that just technically I wanted to write something which was spoken. I suppose it’s closest to Sprechstimme, but it’s not performed by singers, it’s performed by actors speaking.

You probably know that there is a silent film based on this very story by Jean Grémillon called “Gardiens de phares” from 1929. As soon as I read about that film, I immediately thought of your work Hollywood Extra, which you composed to accompany a silent film. Does your work The Lighthouse Keepers have anything to do with the silent film by Grémillon?

Sawer: No. I found out that there was this silent film made in the late 1920s which is set in the original lighthouse. It’s a famous lighthouse on the north coast of the Bretagne, very far out to sea and very isolated. I contacted the Cinémathèque Française and they sent me a copy of the film. I don’t think silent films were ever meant to be silent, they were just waiting for sound to catch up with film. That period of French film is very Impressionistic, it seems to be the equivalent of Debussy in music, there are a lot of elements of the sea and weather in this film. “The Life and Death of 9413 – a Hollywood Extra” was a short avant-garde film, made in America in 1928, directed and designed by French and Hungarian emigrants. It was an attempt at making a Hollywood film in the expressionist style, and it was a complete failure. It doesn’t have a happy ending. I was asked by the British Film Institute to write a score to go with the film, and that was a technical challenge, to try and hit visual cues spot on with the music. It’s exciting when the music is live, because you bring the film to life, the audience can see the connection between something that’s fixed – the film – and something that is being created live – the music.


It is a superbly atmospheric piece with sympathetic portrayals of father and son by William Oxborrow and Thomas Howes. The 11-strong ensemble under Martyn Brabbins’ fine direction demonstrated that you don’t need a huge symphony orchestra to conjure up a storm.

Roger Jones, Seen and Heard International, 5 July 2013

Sawer’s music is often brilliantly inventive, evoking the gathering emotional and physical storm, and mingling live sounds with their distorted echoes. The two actors Thomas Howes and William Oxborrow did all they could to loosen the work’s joints and make it speak.

Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph, 5 July 2013

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