Music For Writers: The Colorist Kaija Saariaho’s ‘Instants’ Of Love

iStockphoto / germi_p
iStockphoto / germi_p

‘Perfume Of The Instant’

While writers talk of “color commentary,” they actually mean something not that different from what in music we might call great “colorists” among composers.

And in world music, Finland’s composers are surely among those most prized for their work in creating sonic “color.” Einojuhani Rautavaara is perhaps chief among the great masters of orchestral shades and textures, and the tradition goes back, of course, to Jean Sibelius and Uuno Klami and others.

Kaija Saariaho | Image by Maarit Kytoharju, provided by Oscar Zepeda-Arias
Kaija Saariaho | Image by Maarit Kytoharju, provided by Oscar Zepeda-Arias

From the moment you hit play on this very recently released album — Kaija Saariaho: Émilie Suite, Quatre Instants, Terra Memoria from Ondine — you know that Paris-based Helsinki native Kaija Saariaho stands among those leaders in her sheer mastery of music’s intimacy with the soul.

Under the baton of Marko Letonja, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg is, I think it’s safe to say, as much in the thrall of this artist’s spacious vision as we are. The first of three works, all drawn from the past decade of the composer’s work — she is now 61 — is the Quatre Instants. And her deep dive into Attente — as in longing — is arresting.

Tinged with the barest whisper of a finger cymbal, a cavernous mystery is suspended in shuddering, liquid foreboding at the outset of this fascinating work, the strings and a soft gong’s rumble rolling into your mind’s view as you listen.

Thanks to New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music 24/7 contemporary-classical streaming service Q2Music, we’ve had a chance to preview the CD, an Album of the Week offering, and a terrific choice, in fact, to follow the opulent vistas of an American colorist, the composer Andrew Norman.

The voice you hear join the orchestra at about a minute-and-a-half into this first Instant is that of Karen Vourc’h’s agile soprano.

Those who know the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko may find Vourc’h’s opening bars almost eerily reflective of the murmuring, deeper-toned  modesty with which she enters the sound-scape. From the panicky, tension of the second movement, Douleur — Torment — past the luxuriant glide of Parfum de l’instant, Vourc’h is unquestionably in command of Saariaho’s material.

By the fourth movement, Resonances — Echoes — the gathering dread and wonder that Saariaho has conjured is securely entrusted to Vourc’h, who can float up into her top register on a harp’s run and open quick in head-voice — she captures a sort of blossoming sound, at once full of surprise as it might convey warning.

She’s singing texts created for Saariaho by the Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf. his cycle of songs is a kind of tour of moments in the experience of love. When you hear these searching, poised lyrics in the context of Saariaho’s music, you can only be glad that the “Four Moments” were adapted by the composer for orchestra from their original voice-and-piano creation. All twinkling doubt and brave perseverance, those Resonances  stay with you, echoing later in curious moments when you think of your own affections and, perhaps, misgivings.

‘For Those Departed’ And A Woman Of Science

618z5jdMdkLAs richly conversant as Vourc’h is with the vocabulary of Saariaho’s orchestrations, I’m especially glad that the 2009 Terra Memoria for String Orchestra is here. A beautiful follow to the Quatre Instants, this entirely instrumental tone poem is dedicated “for those departed,” and in this position on the album, it tells us something about what does follow love.

Like Rautavaara, Saariaho is a great champion of her strings. But instead of the gymnastic bounds and leaps of his soaring string sections, hers work in a tighter range, hemmed in by nervous, sometimes slashing energy. At times a sort of feverish entropy captures the cellos while the violins skirl fearfully above.  Without warning, the whole assembly advances upward in a chord progression that exposes what sounds to me like something as much about fear as it is about loss.

Writers will find this a darkly compelling 18 minutes of music, just as emotionally raw as it is symphonically refined. The contrarian nature of Saariaho’s vision is what sticks with you: when she calls down “those departed” onto the stage of her concerted intelligence, there’s not one note of sentiment or nostalgia to be found. Saariaho is at once the medium who can cause these ghosts to walk again — and the haunted, who cannot send them back.

Have you found it hard to escape thoughts of your characters’ inner life lately? Then you will want to sit at the table of Saariaho’s Terra Memoria with special attention to how classily certain unsettling energies can go bump in this symphonic night.

‘The color of the orchestration is as integral to the substance of the work as melody, harmony or rhythm.’
Daniel Stephen Johnson

Almost like someone coming to get you out of a scary spot, Vourc’h sounds awfully good in her return to the recording for the final work, the Émilie Suite based on Saariaho’s 80-minute Opera Émilie of 2010.

Émilie du Châtelet was a physicist and a mathematician whose translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica became the definitive interpretation of the work. The central of three movements in Saariaho’s Suite is titled Principia, and it sets Vourc’h’s quaking calls above restless strings that the opening movement, Pressentiments, as in forewarnings, put into motion.

The Marquise du Châtelet counted Voltaire among her lovers and vied with him for the attention of the Paris Academy in a competition on the nature of fire.

And as commetator Daniel Stephen Johnson writes in his piece for Album of the Week, Saariaho “may be the closest thing to a master that classical music has left.”  He goes on:

Utterly original and new, her music is nevertheless recognizable as a successor to an old French tradition of rich lyricism and color: the color of the orchestration is as integral to the substance of the work as melody, harmony or rhythm, and often so artfully accomplished as to blur the distinctions between these elements.

And that’s as clear a reading of the value of what Saariaho brings to us as any.

When Vourc’h powers up into a dizzying cry in the final section of the Émilie, you know that this composer’s answer, when Contre l’oubli or “Against Oblivion,” is to scatter auditory color into the space — a quick run on du Châtelet’s harpsichord suddenly breaks across the woodwinds’ trill.

Welcome to what Johnson terms “an unsettling sound-world that showcases the shadowier depths of Saariaho’s mastery.” Your imagination is in for a treat. TC mark

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Image Credit: iStockphoto / germi_p

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