David Sawer studied music at the University of York and subsequently won a DAAD scholarship to study in Cologne with Mauricio Kagel. In 1992 he was awarded the Fulbright-Chester-Schirmer Fellowship in Composition. A Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award followed in 1993 and, in 1995, the Arts Foundation’s Composer Fellowship. In 1996 he was composer-in-association with the Bournemouth Orchestras; in 2006 he was awarded a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship.
The 1990s saw a succession of important commissions. Byrnan Wood, his first large-scale orchestral piece, was premiered at the Proms and recorded on the NMC label by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Andrew Davis. The Trumpet Concerto received its first performance from the same orchestra in 1995, and in 1997 the BBC National Orchestra of Wales gave the world and London premières of the greatest happiness principle at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, and the Proms respectively. Tiroirs, commissioned by the Michael Vyner Trust for the London Sinfonietta, has been performed throughout Europe, in the USA and at the 1998 ISCM World Music Days.
Drama, or a fascination with theatrical possibilities, is present in many of his works. His radio composition Swansong, a commentary in words and music on a short story by Hector Berlioz, won a Sony Award in 1990. In Byrnan Wood, the image from Macbeth of Malcolm’s disguised army advancing on Dunsinane provided an initial abstract idea – sound transforming itself as it moves through the orchestra. Cat’s-eye was choreographed by Richard Alston for Ballet Rambert and Hollywood Extra, written for the Matrix Ensemble to accompany an expressionist silent film, was taken on a Contemporary Music Network Tour by the Asko Ensemble. From Morning to Midnight, a full-length opera commissioned by English National Opera, premiered at the London Coliseum in 2001, and for which he received a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Opera.
Other works include a Piano Concerto for Rolf Hind, which won the British Academy British Composer Award 2003 in the orchestra category, Stramm Gedichte for the New London Chamber Choir and James Wood, and Rebus, commissioned by musikFabrik and given its world première in 2004, receiving its UK première in 2005 with the London Sinfonietta.
A CD of four orchestral works recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Martyn Brabbins and Susanna Mälkki was released in 2007 on the NMC label.
Sawer’s operetta Skin Deep, written to a libretto by comedian Armando Iannucci, was premièred in 2009 by Opera North, with performances in Leeds, London, Salford, Newcastle, Glasgow and Bregenz and by the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen. In the same year, Rumpelstiltskin, a ballet for dancers and ensemble, was premièred by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, touring to Glasgow and the Huddersfield and Spitalfields Festivals.
As part of the celebrations for Queen Elisabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, Sawer’s new choral work, Wonder, was performed in York Minster in June 2012. Flesh and Blood, for two voices and orchestra, received its world première by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in February 2013. The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group gave the world première of the Rumpelstiltskin Suite at the Wigmore Hall in April 2013. Sawer’s The Lighthouse Keepers for two actors, ensemble and tape was premièred by the BCMG under Martyn Brabbins on 4/7/2013 in Cheltenham.
From Morning to Midnight (NMC D116)
The first full-length disc from David Sawer, featuring the greatest happiness principle for orchestra, ensemble works Tiroirs and The Memory of Water, and a specially-arranged orchestral suite taken from Sawer’s opera From Morning to Midnight, heard here for the first time.
The disc features the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Martyn Brabbins and Susanna Malkki.
"Though the most substantial work in this collection is the 'symphonic' suite that the composer extracted from his opera, From Morning to Midnight, ... the other pieces, all from the late 1990s, show the unfailing originality and distinctiveness of everything David Sawer composes. The chamber orchestral Tiroirs is a sequence of razor-sharp images, each perfectly scored and imagined, and shuffled with a conjuror's virtuosity; The Memory of Water, for string orchestra and a pair of solo violins whose spatial relationship steadily shifts through the course of the piece, is a compelling musical flux that Sawer likens to a flowing river from which ideas emerge only to be submerged again."
The Guardian 2007
Drama in music
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.
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.