Timbre, Space, Movement

Sunday night’s Composer Portrait of Kaija Saariaho was not just a concert, but an event. The line for tickets snaked out the door, the hall was packed, and among the audience were City Opera director George Steel, members of Alarm Will Sound, and John Zorn. The composer was there as well, adding to the excitement. She offered a few words from the stage in conversation with musician, composer and Columbia faculty member George Lewis, but was clearly content to let her music speak for her.

Words themselves fail to adequately describe her music, and her music is an eloquent example of how everyday written and spoken language must be replaced by a symbolic and abstract one to truly express certain ideas and experiences. Experiences of the stream and stillness of time, sensations of multiple and simultaneous distances and directions, the tantalizing feeling at the base of the skull that rises when staring at a particular point without focus while trying to form an image in the minds eye, these are things for music to express. These are also ways to describe the experience of hearing Saariaho’s pieces, works which are startling in their mystery but also somehow intimately familiar.

The International Contemporary Ensemble, conducted by Brad Lubman and joined by soloist Jennifer Koh in the Graal théatre violin concerto, with the type of skill, focus and intellectual and emotional understanding that convinces the listener that this is exactly how the works where meant to be heard. This is music that is being made in contemporary times, and hearing much of it means hearing something new and unfamiliar, something that musicians and audiences are learning to experience on the job. It’s also music with a very modern tradition in that it comes out of the context of works by composers who are still carving out space in listeners’ imaginations, including Messiaen, Ligeti and Berio, with deeper connections to Debussy and Stravinsky.

The concert began with just such a fairly new work, one yet to be recorded: Terrestre, a chamber version of half of her flute concerto, L’Aile du songe. This is music in a dynamic, expressive style. Lines begin with forcefully accented attacks and then rip downward with vehemence, there is a sense of constant activity in the accompanying harp, violin, cello and percussion, but the music is never cluttered or complicated. Saariaho favors lines over chords, and her textures are transparent and conversational, with the flute leading the way. Her writing for the instrument is exceptional, with an appreciation for the quality of sound it produces, including notes that can be played with great power, and its strength at playing complex chromatic lines. The part is virtuosically expressive, the ideas pushing the possibilities of musical language to such a limit that the flutist begins lines playing the instrument and ends them in vocalizations, as if controlled pitch is no longer adequate. The reduction itself is divided into two parts, the first generally fast and loud, the second generally quiet and mysterious. The chattering music gives way to a more lyrical quality, the flute gradually rising into the atmosphere over an eerie, oscillating four note scale in the strings. It’s tremendously exciting overall, and Claire Chase gave a fantastic performance, completely involved in the music, her big, clear sound with its precise edge adding to the power of the music.

Sound is the most important thing in Saariaho’s music, and it’s more than the idea of what a piece sounds like. She spent time at IRCAM researching the properties of sound and working in the Spectral style, which uses the fundamental nature of sound as a way to produce particular instrumental timbres and harmonies based on tuning instruments within and beyond normal temperament. The approach is academic, but Saariaho is not an academic composer. The Spectral method is a tool for her intuitive exploration of sound which is highly sensuous. She gives the impression that the basic decision is whether a sound gives her pleasure or not, and if it does she trusts that it will gives us pleasure as well. The music frequently seems to have a greater connection to Scelsi and the electronic scores of Vladimir Ussachevsky in its ability to connect with instinctual responses. This style was represented by two pieces from the prior two decades, Solar and Lichtbogen, beautiful works of stillness, texture, color and space. In an age where we hear a great deal of ambient music which fulfills the same goals but is generally made with sounds that fill up the spectrum of hearing, her style entices the ear with sharply etched qualities and the space of silence that allows the ear to react and anticipate more; this is music as much for mind’s pleasure as for the ear’s. Groups of sounds and timbres, appear, disappear and re-appear, often colored with some amplification and sound processing. Towards the end of the former piece, a brief, expressive violin line emerges, the trumpet calls, conscious voices declaring their existence and then fading into the ether. The enthrallingly beautiful latter piece was given a spellbinding performance by ICE, the players, notably flutist Eric Lamb, producing exquisitely shaped tones which were then processed to the point of shattering via electronic means. The dazzling, unearthly colors are balanced by enough silence to make the anticipation of each succeeding event both suspenseful and soothing. This method and aesthetic is completely contemporary, it belies centuries of ideas of style and structure in Western Classical music, making it extremely avant-garde, but the sound is so provocative and attractive to the ear that anyone who is willing to experience aural beauty, without prejudice, would find the music satisfying.

The program closed with the violin concerto, and Koh gave a masterful and intense performance, right at the edge of aggression and control. This is a large-scale piece and has some features which are more conventional, especially the role of the violin and ensemble, which are at times in conflict and others in accord, but always mutually responding. There is more harmonic material for the violin to work with and against, and the soloist is on a long journey, although there is no going home; this is an internal journey from one abstract point to another, conveyed in extroverted, highly physical music. Beginning with the violin, the ensemble members add their voices, each dropping away and then passing off accompanying chords and rhythmic figures. We seem to be looking in on a window of time and space which exists independent of us, a very different idea than that of a composer creating a marvelous artificial object for our stimulation. Saariaho seems to be uncovering mysteries in the world around her, and sharing them with us.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

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