Saunders studied violin and composition at the University of Edinburgh, earning a PhD in Composition in 1997. As a DAAD scholar, she studied with Wolfgang Rihm from 1991 to 1994 at the Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe; Nigel Osborne supervised her doctoral thesis.
Her awards include the Busoni Prize of the Berlin Academy of the Arts, Sponsorship award (1994), the Ernst von Siemens Composers' Prize (1996), the Hindemith Prize of the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival (2003), the composition prize of the ARD, and the Mauricio Kagel Music Prize (2015). In 2019 she won the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (main prize), the second woman, and first female composer to be awarded.
In 2010 and 2012, she taught at the Darmstadt International Summer Courses and was composer-in-residence at the Konzerthaus Dortmund from 2005–2006, Staatskapelle Dresden from 2009–2010, and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2010.
Her music has been performed by notable ensembles worldwide, including Ensemble Musikfabrik, Klangforum Wien, Ensemble Modern, Quatuor Diotima, Ensemble Dal Niente, the Arditti Quartet, Ensemble Resonanz, Ensemble Recherche, ICE, the Neue Vocalsolisten, Ensemble Remix, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Saunders’s music is characterized by limited pitch material and a wide breadth of timbral complexity. She is fascinated with resonance and extraneous noise created by instrumentalists, such as the scratch of a bow change, the thud of the pedals of a piano or harp, and the taps and slides of the left hand on a string instrument’s fingerboard. Due to the subtleties and specificity of the sounds she creates, Saunders includes lengthy textual explanations in many of her scores to describe each effect that she wishes the performer to produce.
Much of Saunders’s music is based upon a single pitch, or sometimes a small collection of pitches which govern large sections of music. Therefore, development and elaboration are determined more by sonority and texture rather than traditional voice leading. However, she does sometimes include “quasi-diatonic” pitch collections, which suggest a more traditional context than that of her music based on single notes.
Rebecca Saunders has also explored physical space in her music. In an interview for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, she described her music thusly:
For me, what’s really important is enabling the listener to feel the magical physicality of sound, the timbre, the colour, the mass, the weight, of sound. That’s what I feel I’m working with, almost like a sculptor works with different materials.
By describing the “mass and weight” of her music, and comparing her art to that of a sculpture, she is attempting to bring sound into a physical plane. Additionally, in works like chroma, she invites the listener to wander around and explore the influence of physical space on the audience’s experience.
- Behind the Velvet Curtain (1991–92), for trumpet, harp, piano and cello
- Trio (1992), for clarinet, violoncello and piano
- Mirror, mirror on the wall (1993–94), for piano
- The Under Side of Green (1994), for clarinet, violin and piano
- Molly's Song 1—crimson (1995), for twelve soloists, metronome, whistle, music box and conductor
- Molly's Song 2—a shade of crimson (1995), for voice, viola, flute, steel string guitar and shortwave radios
- Molly's Song 3—shades of crimson (1995), for alto flute, viola, steel-stringed guitar, four radios and music box
- Duo (1996), for violin and piano
- Into the Blue (1996), for clarinet, bassoon, cello, double bass, piano and percussion
- dichroic seventeen (1996), for piano, two percussionists, two double basses, accordion and electric guitar
- G and E on A (1996–97), for orchestra and 27 music boxes
- String Quartet (1997)
- QUARTET (1998), for piano, B-flat clarinet/bass clarinet, double bass and accordion
- cinnabar (1999), for violin, trumpet and ensemble
- duo four – two exposures (2000–01), for solo trumpet, solo percussion and orchestra
- albescere (2001), for twelve instruments and five voices
- Chroma (I–XIX) (2003–13), for twelve to sixteen performers
- vermilion (2003), for clarinet, electric guitar and cello
- insideout (2003), for woodwinds, brass, timpani, percussion, piano, strings, accordion, electric guitar — music for the choreographic installation by Sasha Waltz
- blaauw (2004), for double-bell trumpet
- Choler (2004), for piano duo
- Miniata (2004), for accordion, piano, choir and orchestra
- Crimson (2004–05), for piano
- Fury I (2005), für Kontrabass
- Blue and Gray (2005), for two double basses
- rubricare (2005), for strings and organ
- rubricare (2005), for baroque string orchestra
- A Visible Trace (2006), for seven soloists and conductor
- Traces (2006–09), for orchestra
- Soliloquy (2007), for six voices a cappella
- Stirrings Still I (2007), for alto flute, oboe, clarinet, piano and bowed crotales
- Stirrings Still II (2008), for six players: alto flute, oboe, clarinet in A, crotales, piano and double bass
- Company (2008), for counter tenor, trumpet, violoncello, accordion and electric guitar
- Disclosure (2008), for five players: bass clarinet (doubling clarinet), trumpet, trombone, piano and violin
- murmurs (2009), Collage for ten players
- Fury II (2010), Concert for double bass and ensemble
- To and fro (2010), for violin and oboe
- Stratum (2010), for orchestra
- Stasis I (2011), a special collage for 16 soloists
- Stasis collective (2011–16), a special collage for 23 musicians
- Stasis II (2011–14), quartet for trumpet, oboe, percussion and piano
- Caerulean (2011), for bass clarinet
- Dialogue (2011), for viola and percussion
- Neither (2011), for 2 double bell trumpets
- Stirrings (2011), for nine players: alto flute, clarinet in A (boehm system), oboe, crotales (top octave with 2 violoncello bows), piano (grand), harp, violin, violoncello (IV scordatura), double bass (with five strings, V scordatura)
- Still (2011), for violin solo und orchestra
- Ire (2012), Concerto for violoncello, strings and percussion
- Fletch (2012), for string quartet
- Shadow (2013), for piano
- ...of waters making moan (2013), for accordion
- Solitude (2013), for violoncello
- Stasis II (2013), quartet for trumpet, oboe, percussion and piano
- Void (2013–14), for two percussionists and chamber orchestra
- Alba (2014), for trumpet und orchestra
- Six for AK (2015), for 2 percussionists, piano (2 players), guitar (steel strings) and harp
- White (2015, revised 2016), for double bell trumpet solo
- Skin (2016), for soprano and ensemble
- Myriad (2015–2016) sound installation of 2.464 identical musical box mechanisms
- "Rebecca Saunders biography (in English)". Edition Peters. Retrieved 13 July 2011.
- Amling, Ulrich (17 January 2019). "Berliner Komponistin erhält Ernst-von-Siemens-Musikpreis". Der Tagesspiegel (in German). Berlin. Retrieved 17 January 2019.
- Brown, Mark (17 January 2019). "British composer Rebecca Saunders wins Ernst von Siemens Music prize". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 18 January 2019.
- "Erstes Konzert Rebecca Saunders—Composer in Residence (in German)". Konzerthaus Dortmund. Retrieved 23 January 2010.
- "Capell-Compositeur 2009/10 (in German)". Staatskapelle Dresden (in German). Archived from the original on 7 March 2009. Retrieved 23 January 2010.
- "Pulling Threads of Sound: Rebecca Saunders interviewed". Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Archived from the original on 22 September 2010. Retrieved 10 July 2010.
- "Prom 56: Staatskapelle Dresden". BBC Proms 2009. Archived from the original on 20 April 2009. Retrieved 23 January 2010.
- "Composer | Edition Peters UK". www.editionpeters.com. Retrieved 18 November 2018.
- Adlington, Robert (Fall 1999). "The Music of Rebecca Saunders: Into the Sensuous World". The Musical Times. 140: 48 – via JSTOR.
- Official website
- Rebecca Saunders interviewed at the time of the premiere of albescere, Ensemble Modern (in English)