A quick review of Kaija Saariaho’s listings on Amazon.com will show that one of the best sources for recordings of her music has been the Helsinki-based Ondine label. In 2009 Ondine joined the Naxos group. This has greatly facilitated the distribution of all of their releases and also led to the reissue of items that had gone out of print. In addition, Naxos has migrated most of the Saariaho recordings to their ClassicsOnline download site, providing a great advantage to those wishing to get to know the music of this highly innovative Finnish composer.
In this article I would like to sample two of the selections from that download site, the 1991 ballet score “Maa,” originally released on Ondine the year after its premiere, and a collection of orchestral and chamber music released in 2004. When I have written about Saariaho in the past, I have emphasized how much of her attention is devoted to sonority. The result is that, where many (but not all) other composers tend to work with sonority in terms of the rhetorical impact of instrumentation (which may also involve electronic synthesis), Saariaho has tried (successfully, in my opinion) to establish a foundation for composition whose logic and grammar are organized around sonority.
This, in itself, is no great innovation. With the rise of more reliable electronic equipment in the years following the Second World War, a variety of “centers” were established at which composers could explore the use of technology to work more directly with sound. Some of them even tried to rethink the foundations of music theory, the most ambitious of them probably being Pierre Schaeffer, whose Traité des objets musicaux (treatise on musical object) runs to about 650 pages.
However, Schaeffer was indicative of a trend that chose to invent a theory based on discipline objective reasoning and then put it into the practice of making music, either by synthesizing recordings from scratch or writing scores that were frequently very demanding on the performers. As a student at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (institute for acoustical-musical research and coordination, best known by the acronym IRCAM). Saariaho was heavily influenced by this objectivity, particularly in the domain of the spectral music theory behind the music of Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail.
In spite of “peer pressure,” Saariaho chose an alternative path. One might say that she preferred to think in terms of the phenomenology of listening, rather than the logic of synthesis. Thus, she preferred to think in terms of expanding the “sonorous potential” of instruments through unconventional performance techniques and then exploring the relationship between such “hype-natural” sounds and the sonorities of electronic synthesis. “Maa” is an example of how she pursued that thinking in a modest chamber setting. This is scored for violin, viola, cello, flute, harp, and two percussionists. There is also a harpsichordist who doubles on synthesizer and a performer of additional electronic equipment.
“Maa” was composed on a commission from the Finnish National Opera with choreography by Carolyn Carlson. The title is a Finnish word that can mean “earth,” “land,” or “country.” Each of the seven scenes involves a different evocation of a sense of place, and each of those scenes explores its own unique sonorous landscape. As a result, the performers come together in different groups for each of the movements of the score, performing as a full ensemble only in the conclusion. Without the visual influence of Carlson’s choreography, one can still listen to this music as a journey through a landscape of sonorities; so the Ondine recording provides an excellent introduction to how those thoughts that Saariaho first cultivated at IRCAM have matured into a disciplined approach to composition.
The later Ondine CD presents works composed on either side of the score for “Maa.” The chamber setting is most evident in “Nymphéa” (water lily) composed in 1987 for string quartet (the Kronos Quartet on this recording) with live electronic accompaniment. This may be one of the clearest embodiments of her IRCAM background, since the score is based on a detailed computer analysis of cello sonorities; and the electronics serve to expand that “landscape of sonorities” defined by the string quartet. What is most impressive is the seamless conjunction of instrumental and synthesized sounds. One can barely detect the distinction on a recording and would probably have to rely on visual stimuli to identify when the synthesized takes over from the physical.
There are two selections for full orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen on this recording), both of which were composed between “Nymphéa” and “Maa.” Their titles are almost complementary, “Du cristal” (from the crystal) and “…à la fumée” (to smoke). Neither is enhanced with electronics. In both cases Saariaho approaches “synthesis” strictly through the instrumental resources of the full ensemble; and, as one listens to “Du cristal,” one can almost think that she was using her score pages to represent what otherwise might be achieved through an elaborate mixing board. “…à la fumée” extends this technique by adding two solo instruments, alto flute (Petri Alanko) and cello (Anssi Karttunen), leading one to wonder whether her earlier deep analysis of cello sonorities may still be a major source of inspiration. If that is the case, than those studies were still influencing her in 2000 when she composed seven short pieces for solo cello, each with the title “Papillon” (butterfly). These are performed, again, by Karttunen; each one is a unique study in sonority based on a particular performance technique, almost as if Saariaho had returned to the “raw data” from her IRCAM research.
There is far more to Saariaho’s catalog than the works selected for these two recordings. Since 2000 she has composed four full operas. Nevertheless, these recordings provide a valuable profile of her approach to thinking about instruments on both chamber and orchestral scales. Taken together, they provide an excellent approach to Saariaho’s unique techniques for working with sonorities.