Spaces on the threshold of sound - Kaija Saariaho’s second opera 'Adriana Mater' to be premiered in March 2006
by Liisamaija Hautsalo :: 2006
Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) has always been uncompromising about her artistic choices in composition. As a result, her style of writing music has over the years evolved into an original, homogeneous and instantly recognizable idiom. Saariaho’s music conjures forth visions that are gossamer-thin, dream-like and crystalline on the one hand, and dark, jarring and uncanny on the other. Dream is a central element in her work, as are love and death, distance and celestial events, and also impulses stemming from experiences of nature or another branch of the arts such as literature.
Saariaho has always been profoundly interested in music. In her childhood and youth, she played the guitar, the violin, the piano and the organ, but before dedicating herself to music she also studied at the Helsinki University of Art and Design and the University of Helsinki. She abandoned all other studies when she entered the Sibelius Academy, where she studied composition from 1976 to 1981.
Her teacher there, Paavo Heininen, had a seminal influence on the shaping of her identity as an artist, principally because of her encounter with his Modernist world view. Another important point was that the composition class became an important peer network whose public manifestation was the Korvat auki! (Ears open!) society, an avant-gardist champion of contemporary music. Saariaho was a member along with composers such as Eero Hämeenniemi, Jouni Kaipainen, Magnus Lindberg, Tapani Länsiö and Esa-Pekka Salonen, who might be described as the third generation of Modernism in Finnish music. In 1981, Saariaho went on to study with Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber at the Freiburg Music Academy in Germany. Her interest in electronic music took her to the contemporary music research centre IRCAM in Paris in 1981, and in 1982 she settled permanently in Paris.
Timbres in transition
One of the hallmarks of Saariaho’s work is using the computer as a composition tool, extending from applications of spectral analysis (Lichtbogen, 1985-1986) and tape works (Vers le blanc, 1982; Stilleben, 1987-1988) to live electronics. She expands the sonorous properties of instruments with live electronics in the cello works Petals (1988) and Près (1992-1994), in the flute work NoaNoa (1992) and in the percussion works Six Japanese Gardens (1993/1995) and Trois rivières Delta (2000-2001). Her most recent work using this concept is written for viola and electronics and is dedicated to Garth Knox, who will premiere it at the Holland Festival in June 2006.
Another important element in Saariaho’s music is timbre, which links her to the French tradition of tonal colour whose roots go back through Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail to the Impressionism of the early 20th century. But Saariaho’s orchestral palette extends towards the fringes of musical sound, to musical entities that could be described as transitions from dark to light, from rough to smooth, from noise to sound or from nebulous to dense textures. The orchestral diptych formed by Du cristal (1989-1990) and ...à la fumee (1990) constitutes a musical transition on a truly grand scale, where timbre and harmony undergo a shift between the two works as indicated by their combined titles, drawing on terminology from physics depicting a change in the state of matter — from crystal to smoke. The compendium of transitions can further be understood to include sliding from instrumental sound or voice to synthetic sound, from voice to speech, or from sound to silence. These transitional processes permeate Saariaho’s entire output, so far so that the transition from sound to silence, or ‘fadeout’, is a highly typical way for her to conclude a work or a part thereof. The flute concerto Aile de sogne (2000-2001) is a case in point, as are Verblendungen (1982-1984) and the opera L’amour de loin (1999-2000).
Saariaho has worked in a number of genres, from solo pieces to large-scale orchestral works, concertos and works for multimedia and the stage, but she began her career as a vocal composer. Her first composition to be performed in public was Bruden (1977), a setting of Edith Södergran for soprano, two flutes and percussion. She has continued writing vocal music throughout her career, over 30 vocal works to date. Saariaho’s vocal music is characterized by a translucent texture, instrumental treatment of the voice and a chamber-music approach. It also demonstrates her penchant for the female voice: most of her songs are written for soprano.
Saariaho’s early vocal works in particular show a tendency to favour non-traditional voice production, lending the music a corporeal dimension through speech, whispers, shouts or audible breaths. This is the case in the song cycle From the grammar of dreams (1988), a setting of Sylvia Plath for two sopranos. From the mid-1990s onwards, Saariaho’s vocal music acquired a melodic property that gives it a new, modal touch, as in Château de l’âme (1995) for soprano, eight female voices and orchestra with settings of ancient Egyptian and Indian texts, followed by Lonh (1996) for soprano and electronics to a text by Jaufré Rudel and Oltra Mar ‘Seven preludes for the new millennium’ (1998-1999), commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its millennium celebrations and the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and completed one year before the premiere of L’amour de loin.
Saariaho the opera composer
In 1984, Kaija Saariaho surmised that she would never write an opera, let alone a classical symphony. Yet today she is an opera composer, even if she has still not written a symphony. Her first opera, L’amour de loin (1999-2000) was premiered at the Salzburg Music Festival in August 2000, and in the years that have elapsed since then it has been performed in a number of acclaimed productions. Her second opera, Adriana Mater, will be premiered at the Paris Opera on March 30, 2006.
L’amour de loin is an opera in five acts. Its libretto, by Amin Maalouf, tells the story of troubadour Jaufré Rudel. It is a tale of unrequited love: death separates the lovers. The very theme of the opera links it to the opera tradition, although there are many innovative features introducing Modernist elements to the world of opera, such as electronics and recorded sound. Whereas this opera showcases supra-sensual love and death through the dramaturgy of a 12th-century legend and in ethereal tones, Adriana Mater plunges directly into the horrible reality of war. Although war is also a theme much featured in opera throughout its history, Adriana is special in that its viewpoint is that of a woman. It also features the ultimate act of violence against a woman — rape. The ambivalent relationship between the mother and the child born as the result of the rape is also followed from the mother’s viewpoint.
If melody entered Saariaho’s music as a major new element in the 1990s, the same has been true of rhythm in the early 2000s. This could first be sensed in the last movement, ‘Hunter’, of the orchestral work Orion (2002). Recently, Saariaho has also been broadening her range of genres: her oratorio La passion de Simone, based on the writings and biography of Jewish dissident and philosopher Simone Weil, and drawing on the passion tradition, will be premiered in Vienna next autumn. The libretto for the oratorio is by Amin Maalouf, who also wrote the libretti for both her operas. The oratorio was commissioned by the New Crowned Hope festival, and the premiere will be a coproduction between the Lincoln Center, the Barbican Centre and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Saariaho’s music is frequently performed today, and entire events are dedicated to her works. For example, the Auftakt festival in Frankfurt in September 2006 will be presenting a broad cross-section of her output. This festival will also see the premiere of Adriana Songs for mezzosoprano and orchestra, derived from the material of Adriana Mater. The Boston Symphony Orchestra has commissioned a cello concerto from Saariaho to be performed by her favourite cellist, Anssi Karttunen, in 2007. For the Berlin Philharmonic she has written a minor orchestral work entitled Asteroid 4179: Toutatis, to be premiered in March 2006. She has also been commissioned by IRCAM, by many internationally distinguished orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic, by the BBC and by many Finnish orchestras and institutions. Saariaho has received several international decorations and awards such as the Nordic Music Prize in 2000. For L’amour de loin, she received the Grawemeyer Award in 2003, and in 2005 she received the Pro Finlandia decoration in recognition of her artistic merits. In that same year, she was also appointed Artist Professor. She is the holder of honorary doctorates from a number of universities.
Saariaho began her career in a post-serialist environment and has progressed from the Modernism of her early works towards an idiom centring on an original conception of timbre and vocal expression and on the fascinating, mystic atmospheres thereby generated. Her music is like an object from a different era that is highly pleasing to our sense of beauty even if it contains completely alien elements. We do not know what the object is, but we know that it is exquisite and priceless — a mysterious jewel that glows and glimmers like a prism, following the movement of the light.
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
© Maarit Kytöharju/Fimic