KAIJA SAARIAHO: Saariaho X Koh—Tocar—Cloud Trio—Light and Matter—Aure—Graal theatre. Jennifer Koh, violin—Nicolas Hodges, piano—Hsin-Yun Huang, viola—Wilhelmina Smith, cello—Anssi Karttunen, cello—Curtis 20/21 Ensemble/Conner Gray Covington—Cedille CDR 90000 183, *****
As a child, the 64 year old Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho imagined sounds coming from her pillow as she fell asleep. It’s the belief in and power of those sounds coming from within that allowed her to overcome challenges to become arguably the most famous female composer of today. Although Finland was the first country in Europe to give women voting rights in national elections (1906), it was the sheer force of will that overcame Saariaho’s natural reticence. She sat outside the door of composer Pavo Heininen at the Sibelius Academy until he said ‘yes’ and became her teacher. In the early 1970’s, “there were some teachers who would not teach me because they thought it was a waste of time,” she remembers. They commented, ‘You’re a pretty girl, what are you doing here?’ She left Finland in 1980 and traveled to Paris to discover IRCAM, the mecca for experimentation in merging acoustical and computer generated sounds. There Saariaho found a place where her internal sounds could finally become the music she was meant to compose.
That music is based on sensitivity to the sensual world: the timbral colors of what the eyes see, whether it be a beam of streaming sunlight or the rippling formation of clouds. The conductor/composer Essa-Pekka Salonen, a colleague of hers in the Sibelius Academy, calls it music that “vibrates in colors.” Although this album contains no electronic sounds, it pulses with the glimmering overtones of notes, those ‘extra’ subtle sounds that become the halo around the main sound of the note. It is here, in this breathing, ‘inner space’ that Saarhio wants to connect with the listener’s private intimate experiences. She admires Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen. The physical presence of darkness and light in her native Finland connects her to nature. Sibelius’ unification of material with form inspired her to heed her impulse to integrate “the back-and-forth between thought and intuition” into music of pulsating fluidity.
Saariaho’s violin concerto Graal Theatre (1994) adds drama to her brilliant range of orchestral colors. The inspiration comes from Jaccques Roubaud’s book of the same title. Saariaho is contrasting the tension between the fixed but abstract score the violinist follows and the theatricality of performance that brings the music to life. “I imagine the violinist as a main character in a play,” the composer said. The interaction between violin and the percussively saturated orchestra gives it a thespian energy that is simultaneously intriguing and riveting. There’s melodic substance here that makes this is one of the great modern violin concertos. Jennifer Koh and the Curtis musicians fully realize its unique and creative sound world.
In Tocar (Spanish for touch), Saarhio asks the question, “how does an idea or a person touch each other?” Specifically, she means how the cello and violin touch each other? Here the two instruments individually draw closer to each other “culminating in an encounter in unison,” then move apart independently. Cloud Trio (2009) recalls the composer’s observation of clouds in the French Alps. “One often sees many different layers of clouds, having all different forms, speeds and textures,” she said. Expanding the sonic possibilities of the instruments (i.e. the cello uses high registers and the noise of the bow glides from the bridge to the fingerboard) creates an amazing sonic picture of cloud movements and formations.
Light and Matter (2014) was inspired by how light changes the landscape of Morningside Park in New York City. Saariaho changes the harmonic spectrum of each instrument as the intensity of light varies. It’s not hard for the listener to imagine how the sound of light flows across the landscape. Aure (2011) for cello and violin takes the theme from the third movement of Dutilleux’s Shadows of Time. It’s a line from Anne Frank’s Diary, “Why us, why the star?” The cello “calmly” states the first motif (small theme); it becomes more “intense” and then ends “fragily.” It’s a moving tribute to the innocent children of all the world.
Jennifer Koh and all the soloists are magnificent. This is a wonderful introduction to the subtle, intimate and dramatic music of Kaija Saariaho.