– I’m a happy composer when I can compose, but to fight for that space in my life is strangely difficult, because of the success. And yet, of course, nobody can complain about things like that.
By Bodil Maroni Jensen Front page photo: Bodil Maroni Jensen
Kaija Saariaho is one of the most recognised and award-winning composers of our time. June 13th she received the Spanish BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge, an award given for the 10th time this year and that is presented to researchers within many fields, as well as one composer. The winners each receive 400,000 euro.
Just a few days earlier Kaija Saariaho payed a longer visit to Oslo. On the occasion of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra recording four of her works, a one-day festival was arranged at Sentralen, where eight of her works were performed. The Norwegian Academy of Music, the Oslo Philharmonic and the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir each gave a concert. There was some family business amongst the performers, however, this was not announced. Violinist Aliisa Barrière performed two solo pieces and led the Nordlyd Quartet, director Aleksi Barrière had created a whole new version of the violin concerto Graal théâtre, and Jean-Baptiste Barrière provided videos for two pieces. Daughter, son and husband.
– I have never experienced this before, in one day, that I hear Aliisa play solo as well as leading a string quartet, and then a first performance of this version of Graal théâtre, with a text written by Aleksi, and also directed by him. It is a very dense piece, so I had a hard time understanding how there would be room for any text at all. And then suddenly it emerges, and it is really beautiful and does not swallow the music. I cannot really imagine anyone else doing this. And the last concert, by the Soloists’ Choir, that I liked so much. There was something there that reminded me especially of them, the small piece Horloge, tais-toi, that we did together when they were children. So it was really special to me. But announcing that they are my children… I think it is best not to mention it before they have really created their own worlds.
Can I write about it?
– Of course, there is no taboo, but what can I say? These two have spent their entire life with my music. They have heard it from they were very small. They spent their summers at festivals where people played my music. It might have been the first music they ever heard. I am just so surprised that now when they are adults, they have become the two most insightful people when it comes to my music.
Close contact with Norway
Kaija Saariaho’s music has been performed several times in Norway, and in the last few years she has had close contact with the music community there. Last year she was Festival Composer and Artist in Residence at the Bergen International Festival, and she was visiting professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music during the academic year of 2016/2017. At this point, Aliisa Barrière had already left the Mannes College of Music in New York to study with Peter Herresthal at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo.
As visiting professor, Kaija Saariaho gave masterclasses and individual lessons, and concerts were given with her music. She gives great importance to the latter.
– Students get a much better understanding of what I say when they also hear my music. Then they can form their own opinions about what I am telling them, and find out if it is audible in my music or not. Music is such an important part of my personality, and I do not normally teach. I have spent my life writing music. This is why I always wish to bring my own music to my teaching engagements.
«I think it is very naïve to be concerned about influence, because it is there no matter what.»
Finding your own voice
Most composition students wish to learn as much as possible, but at the same time they can be concerned about being influenced. They wish to find their own voice. Do you take this into account when you teach?
– No, this is how we learn. We learn through influence, in life and in music. Everyone is influenced by so much, and of course you have to find your own voice. Composing is a deep psychological process, and if you want to express something personal, it is necessary that you understand your personality and what is personal to you. I think it is very naïve to be concerned about influence, because it is there no matter what. Of course everyone wants to find their own voice, and I encourage everyone to do it.
If a student imitates your style, what do you say to them?
– Many do. I hope it is a phase, and that they are on their way to finding their own voice. When we study composition we must copy many styles, so if someone wishes to copy my style, why not? It is not their style, but perhaps it will help them to develop their own music. As a student of composition you have to take in as much as possible. Listen to music, read music. That is how you find what interests you. And then you continue to work with it, and develop it further in your own direction. In the end, we work with the same parameters as composers have done for a long, long time. But there are always new perspectives available.”
«One thing that differs, is that we had the freedom to be idealistic when I was a student.»
Freedom – pressure
Your days as a student were in the seventies. Which changes do you see for students today?
– One thing that differs, is that we had the freedom to be idealistic when I was a student. We did not think very much about the practicality of things. We did not think about who would perform our music. I didn’t even think about how I would earn a living. Another difference is that in Helsinki, where I come from, we had to know the history of western music, and many other things. This has changed. I don’t know how it is in Norway, but in many countries young people know very little of what we usually call classical music, for instance. It is a pity. That is where our rules come from, musically.
But I think young people today experience great pressure. This is a difference, as well. We did not feel such pressure. It is connected to the global information we are always surrounded by. We have to know how to choose in this flow of information. I can realize that many young people experience stress and pressure to establish themselves. It must be hard for them to survive in this world.
Are you speaking of the life of professional musicians, or life in general?
– I am speaking of both. They cannot be separated. I am speaking of the society we live in. On the other hand; perhaps it is just because I am not young anymore. Maybe I see the world differently now. I do not have the energy of twenty-year-olds or twenty-five-year-olds.
Kaija Saariaho is 65. She studied in Helsinki, then in Freiburg, and finally at the IRCAM-studio in Paris, the city she has lived in ever since 1982. During the last thirty years, she has had an international career, where leading orchestras, soloists and institutions have commissioned her work. Now she is working on an opera for the Royal Opera House in London.
To what extent do you demand of yourself that you should create something new?
– It is important to create something that is new to me. Not to repeat myself. Then my work would become very boring. It is not so important to me to create something new in the actual sense of the word. For what is newness, anyway? It is important that it is personal, and that it is a part of my personal development. Since I am not the same person I was five or twenty-five years ago, then my music shouldn’t be the same either. What would that mean? That I was not capable of filling the music with my life. I would only be repeating rules or effects that I already knew worked well.
Your oeuvre is a sort of musical biography, then?
– Yes, definitely. As long as I write personal and honest music. My interests change and develop, and sometimes the reason is very personal. Life and work is very closely knitted together.
«I have an odd relationship to my own music.»
What about the things you are capable of expressing, has it changed?
– I don’t know.
A short answer like this one does not mean that Kaija Saariaho has nothing to say. Quite the contrary. It can be the starting point of a long, interesting answer.
– Naturally, my music has changed, and my intentions for the expression has also changed. But I have an odd relationship to my own music. I am seldom pleased with it. I do not feel emotional about my music. I have no feelings when I hear it. I do not try to express my love for the world or my feelings, unless I have lyrics. So if you ask me: Are you capable of expressing what you wish to express? Well, what do I wish to express? Music is an abstract form of communication, and it is a complex process to comprehend, even for me, where the elements people say they hear in my music, come from; that it is touching, or sensual. I do not try to create sensual or touching music. That is why music is magical. Composers from long, long times past have left behind something very deeply human, and it creates emotions in us, but where do these emotions come from? When you see the score, you only see harmony and counterpoint.
«Experience does not make the process of composing easier.»
But do you experience emotions when you are in the process of writing music?
Naturally, I have many emotions, emotions that are constantly changing. However, composing is slow work, and one particular feeling does not usually last for very long. Very many things happen in one’s attention, but it is difficult to verbalise.
Your experience as a composer is very long. How do you use this experience?
– Experience is useful, of course. I know the instruments much better, I know how to write the score so that it is more precise, and I know what to expect. And I know how to act towards the orchestra, the conductor, things like that, because I have had to learn it. But experience does not make the process of composing easier.
The motivation for writing
What has been your motivation all these years, when writing music?
– Since childhood, I have loved music. And I have imagined music. When I was young, I felt I had to devote my life to music, because I felt life had no meaning without doing this. This is completely irrational; it has to do with my personality. I don’t know if I am a happy person or a unhappy person, but even after all these years I cannot imagine life without trying to compose. I don’t know at which stadium in life I will have to give up composing. Time will tell. But as it is now, I believe that the regularity in the time I spend composing every day, is what holds me together.
The many faces of success
You must be very happy as a composer, since you wish to compose, you do compose, and you have such great success, as well?
– Well. Success is nice, but it does not make composing easier. Success may make my life easier, in some ways, but in others: No. I am a very private person and do not appreciate public appearances, of which I now have many because of my position. So yes, I’m a happy composer when I can compose, but to fight for that space in my life is strangely difficult, because of the success. And yet, of course, nobody can complain about things like that.
Do you feel obligated to give interviews, speeches, lectures, and so on?
– I believe that when I receive honorary doctorates, and the awards that I have been given that are entirely overwhelming, then I must put down my pen and participate on these occasions. It is the least I can do, to be grateful for the attention my music is receiving. And for these occasions I must write speeches and give interviews in many languages. All of this is very positive for me, of course, but it takes up my time, and my attention is taken elsewhere than on my music.
“This award is for me a call for responsibility and integrity in artistic creation. To let music continue enriching the lives of people means giving place and recognition for deep, sincere artistic work, which is irreplaceable.”
From Kaija Saariahos speech at the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award 13 June 2018.
A role model
When you were young, there were not many female composers around. Today you are a role model for many young composers and musicians. What are your thoughts on that?
– Role model… Well, I hope it can be a help. I hope it can give some of them strength. I always try to make time for young composers that wish to meet me. I had no role models myself in music, but in literature and painting. Perhaps it is important, just to demonstrate that it is actually possible, that this path is not closed even if you are a girl, or black, or whatever. These are questions not only related to gender, many other minorities are affected in similar ways.
Catering to a specialised audience
Which importance does the composer of contemporary music have today? Has it changed over the last thirty or forty years?
– I am not sure if contemporary composers have ever been very important public figures, except maybe in some historical moments, such as Sibelius’ time. However, this contemporary-media-life, with public personas that do not really need to do anything, that just swim towards fame and receive a lot of attention from the media, in radio, TV… Everything is about profitable projects, and people in my profession are not the best products for that sort of commercial business. We exist in a different sphere.
«There are many types of music in our culture today, but what is wrong with that, as long as we are not totally excluded from that culture?»
What do you make of the conditions of contemporary music in the future?
– My idea of reality is dependent on what I have experienced that specific day.
Again, the crackling laughter. It disappears as fast as it arrived.
– I believe that humanity has a fundamental need for spirituality, and here I am not speaking of religion, but spirituality. And I believe that art in general, and our music, still is important to humanity. We have always been a small group, and we need to find ways to continue our work, but I do not think it is possible to do this work without feeling the necessity of doing it. There are many types of music in our culture today, but what is wrong with that, as long as we are not totally excluded from that culture?
We have to take responsibility, collectively, to defend the deeply human quality that I believe is present in all art. What can you expect? You cannot expect anything. If you find a way of living, and a way of surrounding yourself with people that share your ambitions and feel the necessity of the same things as you do, then that is already very much.
«When I moved to Paris I was happy because I was free there, being in the city felt like being in a large forest. This has changed a lot now.»
Earlier, you mentioned the pressure that is on young people today. What sort of pressure do you feel, as a composer, to continue writing music on a level that is expected from the international music community?
– I do not write for others expectations. I do not think in those terms. Not everyone likes my music. That is the way it is. Things may come and things may go. I do not feel that sort of pressure. I feel pressure as a person, in private. It has to do with my personality. Some people like to be recognised. It gives them joy. It does not give me joy. Perhaps it is my Finnishness? When I moved to Paris I was happy because I was free there, being in the city felt like being in a large forest. This has changed a lot now.
I think we all feel pressure because of the news. All the awful things happening in the world are constantly fed to us. Everything feels so close, every moment a catastrophe is going on somewhere. There is so much uncertainty in the world, it is stressful.
Your children seem to be aspiring towards international careers. Does it worry you?
– They left home early. Aliisa went to New York and Aleksi to Prague. But I enjoy their work. Those things do not worry me. I am glad that young people can do what they wish to do. I am more concerned about the lives of all those other young people, who do not have these choices available to them, and that do not have the conditions for doing what they wish.
I try to help young people so that they at least can have the opportunity – like those of my children – to receive some abundant experiences in life.
I participate in many projects, but I do not work with one specific organisation. I want to be able to choose which projects I partake in. At all times, I have connections to several young people, and I want them to know that they can always come to me if they need it.
Two world premieres, a short review
There were two first performances at the Saariaho-festival at Sentralen in Oslo, 31 May. Both performed by violinist Peter Herresthal and the Oslo Philharmonic: Vers toi qui es si loin and a new version of the violin concerto Graal théâtre that included an actor, text and videos.
When I heard this violin concerto at The King Håkon’s Hall during the Bergen International Festival last year, I experienced the violin part as a bit tiring. In this new version the piece takes on an entirely different appearance. Director Aleksi Barrière has written a poetic, associative and tempestuous text, even apocalyptic in the most dramatic parts. It is performed by an actor sharing the podium with the violinist. They seem equal, and I cannot recall that this extra space was there at all in the original piece. What went on in this space in the original version?
The actor personifies a man that bravely stands before overwhelming forces, even audacious and self-indulgent – he disrespectfully imitates the violinist. He toils and rages, pours out his troubles to something or someone when he does not succeed in his feats.
Some sentences linger longer than others: How hard is it to listen? Useless war. Take me to the silence.
The greatest force, the orchestra, is placed behind two large screens. We see the conductor and some musicians in the opening between them. Sometimes the lighting illuminates the whole orchestra, at other times it disappears in the darkness.
Various instruments emerge with their individual parts, and the totality of it is airy and dynamic. I hear references to the Renaissance from the orchestra. Did I hear those the last time?
The actor conveys illustrative words and thoughts. It is as if he also clarifies the music. It becomes significant and expressive on its own premises.
The videos are projected on the two protagonists and screens behind them: they exist in the same sphere. Visually, two main issues revolve across the screens, either abstract images reminiscent of nature; clouds, leaves, water, or clean, large areas and lines of clear colour, perhaps inspired by painter Mark Rothko?
Catastrophe is imminent as we see ancient runes in the light. Is it the same, old story being told? A violin concerto made into a narrative poem? We are seduced into believing that the music has been there forever. And Aleksi Barriére’s text has a ring of ancient dilemmas, challenges and longings. We easily excuse him for being a little pretentious at times. Maybe the big words should sound just this big?
Conductor is Clément Mao-Takacs. With his sensitivity for refined and detailed sound, he allows the orchestral loom to sparkle. He and Barrière make up the music theatre duo La Chambre aux échos, that have created the concept for this performance.
Seldom do more elements lead to deeper clarity, but that is what is happening here. The visual and auditive together create a modern ritualistic performance.
Vers toi qui es si loin for violin and orchestra is a long paraphrase over the Clemence theme from the opera L’Amour de Loin. It flows freely and fantasising in front of the finely embroidered fabric that is the orchestra. Wonderfully written, wonderfully performed. A hymn, an aria, a gem.
Clément Mao-Takacs, conductor
Peter Herresthal, violin
Tomas Kellner, actor
Étienne Exbrayat, lighting
Jean-Baptiste Barrière, video
Aleksi Barrière, text and stage direction
Clémentine Marin, production administration
La Chambre aux échos, concept and realization
Translated by Annika Lisa Belisle