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Sawer was born in Stockport, England. After attending Ipswich School, he studied music at the University of York where he began composing for contemporary music-theatre pieces. He directed the UK premieres of Kagel's Kantrimiusik and Mare Nostrum at the ICA, appeared as soloist in Phonophonie, and conducted the UK premiere of Kagel's Szenario at the South Bank Centre, London.
In 1984 he won a DAAD scholarship to study with Mauricio Kagel in Cologne. Even from this point his career, Sawer's music tends to define each piece within theatrical terms. Indeed, Sawer has described himself as a "theatre person". His works often reference the visual arts, and in particular surrealist imagery. For example, his piano piece, The Melancholy of Departure was inspired by the shadowy and irrational perspectives of a De Chirico painting.
In 1992 Sawer was awarded the Fulbright-Chester-Schirmer-Scholarship and lived in the USA for a year. His compositional career was supported by further awards and fellowships, including a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award in 1993, and a residence with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 1996. He is a Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, London.
Sawer has received numerous commissions that have resulted in impressive works for the concert hall, dance, film, theatre and radio. His 50-minute radio composition Swansong (1989), a collage of orchestral, choral and electronic sounds, conjuring the musical utopia envisioned by the dying Berlioz, won a Sony Radio Award and a Prix Italia Special Mention.
If Sawer's early work reflected a variety of influences – from Igor Stravinsky to György Ligeti and Luciano Berio – these have been shed, gradually, as he matured. Certain characteristics remain from his early music: for instance the blurring of background and foreground in his first orchestral work, Trompe l'oeil (1982; since withdrawn).
Ensembles who have performed his work include the Asko/Schoenberg Ensemble, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Klangforum Wien, London Sinfonietta and musikFabrik. In the theatre, he has worked with playwrights Howard Barker, Edward Bond, Nick Dear, Paul Godfrey and David Harrower.
- The Panic, a chamber opera, premiered in 1991
- From Morning to Midnight, an opera in seven scenes, based on Georg Kaiser's play, premiered in 2001 by English National Opera, for which he a received Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Opera.
- Skin Deep, an operetta on the theme of plastic surgery, to a libretto by Armando Iannucci, and co-commissioned by Opera North, Bregenz Festival, Royal Danish Opera Copenhagen and Komische Oper Berlin, premiered on 16 January 2009.
- Rumpelstiltskin, a ballet in eight scenes, for six dancers and thirteen players, commissioned by BCMG, premiered on 14 November 2009 at the CBSO Centre, Birmingham, and toured to Tramway, Glasgow the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and the Spitalfields Music Festival.
Recent works include Flesh and Blood, a dramatic scene for two voices and orchestra, premiered at the Barbican by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov, with soloists Christine Rice and Marcus Farnsworth, Wonder, for SATB choir, included in the Choirbook for the Queen, a concert suite of Rumpelstiltskin , premiered by BCMG at the Wigmore Hall, conducted by George Benjamin, and The Lighthouse Keepers, a radio play based on a Grand Guignol play, adapted by David Harrower, for the 2013 Cheltenham Festival. Future works include commissions for Onyx Brass/2014 New Music Biennial and the Aurora Orchestra. mad boy clever girl, a double bill consisting of new productions of The Lighthouse Keepers and Rumpelstiltskin, will appear at the Royal Opera House Linbury Studio Theatre in 2015 as part of a touring production by BCMG.
- Byrnan Wood (1992)
- Trumpet Concerto (1994)
- Tiroirs, for chamber ensemble (1996)
- the greatest happiness principle (1997)
- Piano Concerto (2002) winner of British Academy British Composer Award in the orchestra category.
- Rebus, for chamber ensemble (2004)
- Songs of Love and War (1990)
- Sounds: Three Kandinsky Poems (1996-9)
- Stramm Gedichte (2002)
- Cat's-eye for 2 clarinets, trumpet, trombone, harp, piano, viola and violoncello (1986)- choreographed by Richard Alston for Ballet Rambert
- Take Off for flute, 2 clarinets, piano, violin, viola and violoncello (1987)
- Between for harp; first performed by Osian Ellis in 1989
- Good Night for alto flute/piccolo, harp, violin, viola and violoncello (1989)
- Satz for violin, violoncello and piano (2007)
- Public Enemy, Government Inspector, The Good Soul of Szechuan (Young Vic); Hamlet (RSC); The Blue Ball (National Theatre); Jackets (Bush).
- "Sawer, David in Oxford Music Online". www.oxfordmusiconline.com. Retrieved 2010-03-04. (Requires login or UK library card)