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Kaija Saariaho central composer at November Music: subtle timbres paint inky black scenario

In a Umwertung aller Werte presents the modern music festival November Music more music by female than male composers this year. Hooray! Korean-Dutch Seung-Won Oh kicks off on 6 November with a brand new Bosch Requiem. Finnish-French Kaija Saariaho will take centre stage on the closing weekend of 13-15 November. She too wrote a new composition: Reconnaissance (Rusty Mirror Madrigal) for choir, percussion and double bass. This will experience its world premiere at the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center. Portrait of a composer with a sophisticated sense of timbre.

Although I had known the music of Kaija Saariaho (1952) for years, I first heard it live in 2005. At the not even officially opened Muziekgebouw aan het IJ, the Holland Festival presented the Dutch premiere of her opera L'amour de loin. It describes a young troubadour singing to a never-seen lover. At the first actual meeting, he dies in her arms. - Whereupon she decides to become a nun.


Saariaho managed to capture this unlikely story in brilliant sounds. 'The music is ethereal in the best sense of the word and pregnant with unfulfilled desires,' I wrote. 'It is as if it lovingly surrounds you. The soundscape resembles an abstract tapestry composed of countless pastel-coloured threads, or a water surface moved by the wind, constantly changing colour as the light changes.' I was not the only one who had enjoyed it, judging by the worldwide success of L'Amour de loin. Since its premiere in 2000, the opera has been performed many times and become a modern classic.

After this, Saariaho composed three more operas, including Émilie (2008) and Only the Sound Remains (2015) could be seen in our country. The premiere of her fifth opera, scheduled for last summer, Innoncence, fell prey to corona. The Dutch premiere in October at De Nationale Opera was also cancelled. Fortunately, November Music a cross-section of almost 20 works from her versatile oeuvre. The selection includes classics such as the string quartet Nymphéa, the violin concerto Graal Théâtre and the cello concerto Notes on Light. In addition, more recent works can be heard. Such as Light & Matter for piano trio and Light Still & Moving for flute and kantele (a Finnish chopping board).

Pièce de résistance will be the brand new Reconnaissance (Rusty Mirror Madrigal) for choir, percussion and double bass. Saariaho composed it commissioned by November Music and the Donaueschinger Musiktage. The first performance was scheduled in the German festival, which, however, was also cancelled. - A stroke of luck for November Music, as a world premiere by one of the world's most important living composers lends extra prestige. Corona permitting, Saariaho will personally come over from Paris for a free interview on 13 November.

No cultural background

Although Saariaho received numerous international awards and is now rock solid in the repertoire of famous orchestras, ensembles and soloists, a career as a composer was by no means a foregone conclusion. She was born Kaija Laakkonen in Helsinki in 1952 (she would later take the name of her first husband). By her own admission, she grew up "in a family without any cultural background". Her father was a metal worker, her mother looked after the three children. They did have an old-fashioned radio in the house, which young Kaija listened to a lot. This is how she became interested in classical music.

Some music frightened her, while others appealed to her greatly. Sensitive and imaginative as she was, she 'heard' music even when the radio was off. At night, she sometimes could not sleep because of the many sounds that haunted her head. Then she would ask her mother to 'turn off the pillow'. Her parents sent her to a Rudolf Steiner school. There, for 13 years, her artistic and musical talents were further encouraged and developed. This may explain her later focus on interdisciplinarity: she often kneads visual, literary and musical elements into one coherent whole.

'Pretty girl'

A second hurdle was her womanhood. As a baby boomer, Saariaho experienced that the phenomenon of a female composer was still relatively unknown in the early 1970s. When she applied for Paavo Heininen's composition class, he swore to her that it was full. However, she did not let him put her off. 'I had decided I would not leave the room until he had accepted me,' she commented. 'I was mad, but I knew I couldn't leave the room. [...] In the end, he had no choice. I became his pupil.'

She turned out to be the only female composition student. Some teachers actually thought it was a waste of time teaching her. "You're a pretty girl, what are you doing here?" they asked rhetorically. Shameless, certainly. But even anno 2020 female composers still underrepresented on concert stages.

No second Sibelius or Ferneyhough

Be that as it may, Saariaho studied at the same time as people like Esa-Pekka Salonen, Magnus Lindberg and Jouni Kaipainen. They were annoyed by the conservative climate at the conservatory. In a way, they were trained to become a second Sibelius, namesake of the Helsinki conservatory. Dissatisfied, they founded 'Korvat Auki' (open ears) in 1977. Instead of staring at the past, they looked at the latest developments in Germany and France. They organised concerts and seminars to draw attention to them in Finland.

After visits to the renowned summer courses in Darmstadt, Saariaho moved to Freiburg to study composition with Brian Ferneyhough. The Briton was the figurehead of the "new complexity", a kind of maddening form of atonality. Just about anything even remotely recognisable to the human ear was forbidden. This, too, revolted Saariaho. She had not refused to become a second Sibelius in order to abandon ál achievements of the past. Annoyed, she observed: 'You were not allowed to create pulses, nor tonal harmonies, nor melodies. But I don't want to write music based on negations. Anything goes as long as it is done with taste.'

Unheard timbres

When she hears music by the so-called 'spectralists' Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey, it is an eye-opener. Their orientation to the inner life of sound appeals to her and in 1982 she left for Paris, where she enrolled at the IRCAM. At this Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, she researches the possibilities of electronics in relation to music. Using computers, she analyses the spectrum of sounds. Based on her findings, she develops the unprecedented sensitivity to unheard sound colours that has now become her trademark.

Often, electronics play an important role in this. As early as 1984, she broke through with Verblendungen, in which she builds an entire 'string orchestra' out of two electronically manipulated violin sounds. This was followed two years later by the equally successful Light arcs, in which she manipulates the sound of seven instruments with live electronics. This creates an iridescent soundscape inspired by the Northern Lights. Anyway, Saariaho is fascinated by light, as evidenced by the many titles in which this word appears. And for good reason. Just as light can constantly change colour and atmosphere, she intoxicates our ears with ever-changing timbres. She is therefore sometimes compared - to her slight displeasure - to Debussy.

Man and creation

These two breakthrough pieces are not on the programme, but there is much other beauty to be heard. Besides the classics already mentioned, less frequently performed pieces will be heard. For instance, the student ensemble fc Jongbloed, led by guitarist Aart Strootman, performs two works for soprano and ensemble. The view (1996) is based on Friedrich Hölderlin's text of the same name, the 2002 composed Changing Light is set to a poem by American rabbi Jules Harlow. Both describe man's futility in the face of creation. The two miniatures are a good illustration of how subtly Saariaho knows how to translate philosophical insights into atmospherically languorous music.

Also tasty is Dominique Vleeshouwers' concert on 13 November, with Six Japanese Gardens. Saariaho wrote this piece for percussion and electronics in 1994 after a visit to the gardens of Kyoto. Besides the sounds played live, the performer triggers recordings of nature sounds, ritual chants and Japanese percussion instruments via a computer. The 20-minute piece offers a sampling of different rhythms and timbres.

For the electronic part, she collaborated with French composer and multimedia specialist Jean-Baptiste Barrière. They met at IRCAM and married in 1984. From 2007, she also worked regularly with their son Aleksi, born in 1989.

An artist's impression of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter above the Red Planet (c) NASA/JPL

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Aleksi Barrière wrote the lyrics for several choral works. He also signed the libretto of Reconnaissance (Rusty Mirror Madrigal) which will have its world premiere on 14 November. Saariaho composed it for the French chamber choir Accentus, which has a reputation to lose in both early and modern music.

The title seems to refer to this background, but Saariaho says this is not the case: 'I did not have this kind of reference in my mind. Rather, I understood the chorus as people telling the story of their history. Aleksi came up with the title. It refers to several things, but mostly to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.' This NASA spacecraft has been circling Mars for 15 years, sending detailed pictures to Earth.

Earth and Mars: rusty mirrors

Barrier zooms in on the relationship between the two planets. In five parts, he outlines how man suffocates in his own waste gases and seeks refuge on Mars. In the concluding 'Requiem', both Mars and Earth appear to have been destroyed. 'Both worlds have returned to wilderness/ Two rusty mirrors face to face,' reads the closing line.

Saariaho does not want to say much about how she translated such an inky, sci-fi-like libretto into music. 'I worked closely with Aleksi, who knows my music well. We discuss our ideas, loosely define form and content, and he offers me new perspectives.' She does send me a sketch of the piece. On this, the five movements seem to mirror each other in an A-B-C-B-A form, which fits nicely with the text. Part I and V, for instance, are at a slow pace. Parts II and IV are almost twice as fast and feature cues like 'energico' and 'ostinato'. The metronome figure is even higher again in III, 'Green House', which also features the indication 'espressivo'.

But, Saariaho stresses, "Don't take those sketches too seriously, because while composing, things are still constantly changing.

Postscript 4 November. Due to the new corona measures on 3 November, November Music has cancelled the entire festival. So it will not be experienced via livestreams either. An incredible bummer!

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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