I remember... Kaija Saariaho

Testimonial 13.06.2023

Kaija Saariaho passed away on June 2. A major figure on the contemporary music scene, the Franco-Finnish composer left a catalog of some 170 scores. Privileged moments come to mind, moments of great emotion linked to listening to her music and reading her writings...

I remember her first opera, L'amour de loinperformed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in December 2001 to a libretto byAmin Maalouf and staging by Peter Sellars, with the three solo singers: the American soprano Dawn Upshaw, for whom the composer wrote the role of Clémence, Lilli Paasikivi as the pilgrim and Gerald Finley as the troubadour Jaufré Rudel de Blaye. How could I fail to be fascinated by this Prince of Blaye, whose "la vida" and "canso" I used to introduce to my pupils during music history classes on the Middle Ages? So close for me, L'Amour de loin was a first revelation, a more intimate knowledge of the art of the composer who says she revealed a part of herself by giving life to her characters: "(...) I realized that each of the three characters in the opera corresponded to me in some way: the troubadour Jaufré to the musician, Clémence to the nostalgic woman living far from her native land, and the Pèlerin to the need to unite these two destinies ".

This precious text by the composer appears in Le passage des frontières, the book of writings on the music of Kaija Saariaho compiled by Stéphane Roth and published by Editions MF in 2013. Twelve years have passed since the premiere of her first opera, during which time three other operatic works by the composer have seen the light of day: Adriana Mater in 2006 at the Opéra Bastille, La Passion de Simonein Vienna, also in 2006, and Emilie in 2011 at the Opéra de Lyon, three women's destinies renewing the collaboration with the same librettist, Amin Maalouf.

In 2013, Stéphane Roth's book came as a new shock, this time intellectual and revealing in terms of my knowledge of the composer's universe, an awareness of the amount of work, reflection and commitment that went into an activity carried out tirelessly for over forty years (1970-2013) by a composer who lucidly admitted that composing, for her, was " a matter of life or death ".
The author has gathered together and, above all, translated (or had translated), from Finnish, Swedish, English and German, a series of texts - most of them completely unknown to French-speaking readers - written by Kaija Saariaho on the occasion of conferences, colloquia and international residencies, in which she sets out her options, clarifies her approach and sheds light on the nature of her work: an essential work, if ever there was one, which gives us a better understanding of what composing means to our musician.

I remember this concert at the Musée de l'Orangerie, in Monet's Water Lilies room, during L'Ircam's Manifeste festival in June 2019. The Béla played NympheaKaija Saariaho's string quartet with electronics, alongside Jonathan Harvey's string quartet n°4. I'm always moved tenfold by concerts given in contact with works of art in a museum. It's the second room of Les Nymphéas that the performers and Ircam technology have taken over, as electronics shape the listening space in the two works on the program. Although Saariaho does not directly evoke Monet in her piece Nymphea (1987), it was the image of the water lily and its "symmetry broken and transformed by the swirl of the waves" that came to mind when she was composing the work. Here, the quartet is a meta-instrument for sixteen strings, serving colors and textures that come and go with remarkable plasticity. Russian director Arseni Tarkovski's poetry infiltrates the music on two occasions. These are two more intimate moments in which the four performers whisper the text, breathing in the shadows with breath and whistling, and intensifying the mystery in a space where the visual and the sonic go back and forth.

I remember this new production of Kaija Saariaho's fourth opera, Only the sound remainson the Maillon stage in Strasbourg, in a new production byAleksi Barrière (her son) and with musical direction byErnest Martínez Izquierdo, already present at Garnier in 2018. In this 2016 opera, the composer reaches out to the Nō theater, choosing two well-known tales from the traditional Japanese repertoire, Always Strong and Feather Mantle in the adaptation Ezra Pound makes from the English translation by japonologist Ernest Fenollosa. Both stories straddle the real and the supernatural, like a lunar dream contemplating our world: through the appearance of a specter, that of Tsunemasa ("a troubled sound that alone remains"), conversing with the priest Giokei. Less darkly, Feather Mantle features the Tennin, a sort of messenger from heaven who asks the fisherman for his feather cloak, without which she cannot soar through the sky to return to the moon's palace. "We find beauty not in the thing itself, but in the pattern of its shadows, light and darkness", says Jun'ichiro Tanizaki in The Praise of Shadows. Saariaho's music, with its fine textures often blurred by electronics, and the set design by Aleksi Barrière and Étienne Exbrayat, track this reflection of things. Also on stage and in the garden, the instrumental line-up is reduced to the essentials: a string quartet(Quatuor Ardeo) and percussion, with the addition of the kantele, a traditional Finnish instrument(Eija Kankaanranta) and the flute(Camilla Hoitenga), two sounds reminiscent of traditional Japanese instruments, the koto and the shakuhachi. The Japanese flute is evoked through the timbre of the bass flute and the energy of the breath that flows through it. Curiously, the Japan to which this opera looks is a country with which the composer felt fully attuned: in the appreciation of nature, the modesty and politeness of people, light and shade, care and precision... 

Deeply moved
I remember that same autumn of 2022, when Aleksi Barrière had Kaija Saariaho's chair wheeled around so that she could be on stage with the performers and greet her audience.
I rememberInnocenceher last opera, seen again on the screen of Strasbourg's Palais des fêtes with the same astonishment as when it was first performed.
I remember the fervor with which her daughter, Aliisa Neige Barrière, a violinist and conductor now living in Helsinki, played her Nocturnea 1994 solo piece written in memory of the late Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski .

And I reread with great emotion the composer's words about her music: " The harmonics here are a metaphor for the fragility of life and its path, which are sometimes abruptly cut off, sometimes slowly weakened before disappearing "...

Michèle Tosi

Photos © Priska Ketterer
Photos © Theater Osnabrück
Photos © AEC


buy twitter accounts