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David Sawer, composer

June 11, 2010
by the gentle author

The composer in the rose garden is David Sawer, whose opera Rumpelstiltskin is performed at St Leonards Church in Shoreditch tonight as part of the Spitalfields Festival. He looks full of life in the bright morning sunshine, photographed before one of the final rehearsals. Though perhaps a second glance at the picture reveals a certain professional reserve too – because I have no doubt he has a few adjustments in mind that he requires, before everything is as it should be for the performances. Even this seventy minute opera took ten months to compose, so you will understand – with so much work involved – David has a right to be particular.

David Sawer’s music is distinguished by a bold vibrant emotionalism, persuasive in tone and dramatic in effect. Although aware of his antecedents in modern music, David writes compelling melodies which are engaging to the widest audience. To put it simply, anyone that has got ears can recognise David writes beautiful music. I cannot separate David from his music because, as a personality, he is blessed with a rare animated quality, which means that when you are with him you cannot fail to be aware he has so much going on inside. Sometimes I wonder if David has one layer of skin missing, because his mercurial internal currents of thought and feeling are almost legible upon his large oval face, changing like patterns of light on water, just as the layers of texture in his music constantly shimmer and transform. It makes for exciting conversations and gives him a bewitching charismatic intensity too.

Once upon a time I wrote the words for an opera of David Sawer’s produced by the Royal Opera, it was an unforgettable experience and it brought me face to face with the magic that a composer works. I spoke to Myfanwy Piper who had worked with Benjamin Britten and she gave me salient advice. She told me to create a dramatic story but avoid overtly emotional language, leaving that to the music. So, in my libretto, I restricted myself to lines like “Open the door.” and, once David was happy with what I had done, I absented myself only returning at the dress rehearsal, months later, to hear the music for the first time. Although we had constructed an emotional drama on paper, I was entirely unprepared for the musical realisation of this. In his music, David had manifested the emotions of the characters more vividly than I had ever dreamed. I thought I knew what was behind the words, but David found so much more. It was a revelation, and it remains an elusive mystery to me how a composer can conjure music of such potency out of air.

When I met with him this week, three more operas down the line, David was eager to talk about the nature and ambitions of his latest work, “Rumpelstiltskin”, a seventy minute piece which involves ten performers and thirteen instrumentalists, staged by his long-term collaborators, director Richard Jones and designer Stewart Laing. “I didn’t want it in a theatre where the detail gets lost, I wanted to create an intimate ballet that works like a silent film – where the audience are able to get more involved because they haven’t got people singing at them. Instead the story is told through people moving and articulating the music. If you look at Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores there are stage directions every five lines – so I just pulled the story apart, writing my own directions throughout the score.”

“It’s about the fact that someone puts a lie into the world because he can’t pay his rent,” David added with an enigmatic smile, setting up the premise of the story,” So he says his daughter can spin straw into gold and she’s put in a dungeon with straw and has to spin it – The idea of spinning straw is very enticing musically, music’s very good at expressing change and transformation over time. – Then Rumpelstiltskin offers to do it, but the pact is she agrees to give him her baby in a year’s time.”

Originally transcribed by the Brothers Grimm in the eighteen forties, the story of Rumpelstiltskin can be seen as reflecting the anxiety around the replacement of human skills, like spinning, through mechanisation. But David’s interest is in the ambivalence of the character of Rumpelstiltskin himself – the mysterious outsider who becomes the eventual scapegoat. In this production, his identity remains ambiguous, allowing the drama to retain its fullest resonance as a fable. “It is quite religious, a crucifixion story.” added David contemplatively.

It is clear that David loves the collaborative world of the theatre in contrast to the solitary months at his desk. A large-scale opera can entail years of labour, composing and transcribing all the parts for the orchestra and singers. “You’ve got to get the balance right,” said David, sketching out his relationship to his craft, “The problem is if someone wants an opera for 2018, how are you going to pace yourself? It can be hard, because you need to have adrenalin but not get hysterical either.” Then he rolled his eyes in self parody, but afterwards left the question hanging in the air, because he did not want to think about it too much today. Instead he had critical time with the musicians and performers, before everything came together, after ten months of composition and weeks of rehearsal, in the performances that are the culmination of his work.

As he spoke, David’s hands were in constant precise motion – tracing lines of thought in the air -occasionally tapping the table and once applying all his fingers, as if it were a piano. To David, music is a concrete thing that he can describe with his hands, and it is also something intangible, coursing through his mind and body as he speaks. It is inside him and outside him, like air, it is his element. David’s singular movement and nature are expressions of his remarkable musical talent. I cannot imagine David without music. It is what he does and who he is. More than anyone I have ever met, David Sawer incarnates his music.

Production photo of Rumpelstiltskin by Keith Pattison

One Response leave one →
  1. Stuey the time traveller permalink
    June 23, 2023

    As a musician myself, playing the French Horn in 2 chamber orchestras, I totally appreciate this post. I adore playing lyrical music just as much as listening to it played by professional musicians because I know how difficult it is to produce it to a high standard.

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