Kaija Saariaho Talks About – and Premieres – “Frises”

TurkeyTurkey Ysaÿe, Bach, Saariaho: Richard Schmoucler (violin), Jean-Baptiste Barriere (electronics),“Ciacona” at Borusan Music House’, Istanbul, 02.11.12 (AM)

Ysaÿe:  Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 27 No. 2, “Obsession”
Bach: Partita in D Minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1004
Saariaho: Frises for Solo Violin and Electronics (World Premiere)

Kaija Saariaho, who was commissioned for a new work by Borusan Arts and Culture of Turkey, was in Istanbul last week as part of a three-evening program celebrating her music. The first one, held on Thursday, November 1 featured the composer in a Q&A session regarding her new work, Frises for solo violin and electronics, dedicated to and performed by Richard Schmoucler on the second evening in its world premiere. The third evening, dubbed Portrait Concert: Hommage A Kaija Saariaho – with Sonanza Ensemble and Jan Risberg conducting, along with the soprano talents of Magdalena Risberg – covered an extensive façade of the composer’s portfolio.

I had the chance to sit down with Ms. Saariaho before her Q&A session at the modern and sonically pleasing auditorium of Borusan Music House, a renovated building located in Beyoglu – squarely in the heart of the city. As we took our seats, I was trying to do a quick calculation in my head: number of things I want to ask her, divided by the time she has available, as a function of the anticipated concision of a prototypical Nordic retort. The result of this calculation indicated that I was going to have barely sufficient time to cover the topics I had prepared. As it turned out, however, my concision variable was completely off: Saariaho gave candid and detailed answers to my every query, resulting in a very nourishing dialogue that while forcing me to forego some of my questions, allowed me to take a peek at her creative process.

My first question had to be about her new work, Frises. I knew it was related to Bach’s Chaconne (of the D Minor Partita for solo violin) in some way. So how did it come to be? “It has happened in the past in special occasions when I’ve written dedications for some certain composers where I’ve worked on their material, but Frises is different in the sense that here, I’m not speaking of Chaconne as a music but as a way of organizing music and how it could be played today in my musical language.” So, she doesn’t ask that the audience ruminate on the partita while listening? “No. It doesn’t really have a tonal context to Bach’s work. What happened is Richard [Schmoucler] asked me for a D. So I gave him a D,” said  Saariaho, referring to Frises’ first movement in which a constant D played on the violin is harmonized by electronic manipulation of the note with added electronic bells recalling a carillon. “That’s the D that ends Bach’s Chaconne, and it’s the D that starts and ends my piece.”

Frises takes its name from the 19th-century French symbolist painter Odilon Redon’s series of painted friezes. Which particulars of Redon’s work have made it into her music? “I was recently at a Redon exhibition, and the friezes that he painted interested me a lot. They were painted mostly for decorations for apartment buildings, but he painted them in this fantastic way. I began to see some of the mathematical connections, the relationships between the objects, the colors and the overall design as very suitable. So I used it as one layer of context. But again, it is only a layer and I had no intentions that the listener visualizes Redon’s work while hearing my music.”

Electronics plays a big part in Frises, but still, I had the fleeting suspicion that Saariaho’s use of electronics in her music had been getting scarcer lately. Was that true, and if it was, could it be because electronics have been getting much easier to access and manipulate as computers got more and more sophisticated? In other words, has the use of electronics ceased to be a challenge for her? “That’s not necessarily true,” she said. “Last year I wrote Circle Map [for large orchestra] for the Concertgebouw and the Boston Symphony which heavily uses electronics. All my operas include electronics in some way or the other. However, it’s an option. I’m not using it all the time. It is true that there was a time when I was discovering electronics and looking for ways to include them in my compositions. Now it is one optional part of orchestration for me; if the idea demands it I’ll use it, otherwise I won’t.” So, Frises perceptibly demanded it? “Yes. I really wanted to use electronics because I wanted to extend the violin’s phrasing, and in each of the four parts the use of electronics is a little different.”

Saariaho’s other piece for a solo string player, Petals (for cello) never ceases to amaze me, partly because of the expanse of sound she manages to draw from a single instrument. And a question asked her: whether her expertise in electronics helps her understand the physics of sound, and whether this understanding enables her to write different instrumental techniques that would not have been available to her otherwise? “It’s a give-and-take process,” she answered. “Yes, because in order to realize the music I write, the acoustic sound has to be manipulated in some certain way, and in order to achieve this there are some techniques that the performer must use. The acoustic sound that I want to manipulate electronically sometimes does not come from playing straightforward, but from say, an unusual bow gesture. On the other hand, it is much better for the instrumentalist to not pay too much attention to the electronic effects during the performance and concentrate on his part.”

So, perhaps that’s the reason she prefers the violin or the flute rather than the piano, since the piano is a percussive instrument that doesn’t offer as much resonance as a string or a wind instrument, and also because there are not many options for the performer to play around with except for the dynamics and the timing. “Piano, indeed, is a very difficult instrument to use because I’m interested in the transformation of sustained sound. With piano, you need to create textures. That’s how the piano works, but not my music in general. As you say, I like to use the flute, because I like the breathing effects that are an integral part of that instrument’s sound, and it is something that may be manipulated very effectively. It’s a very archaic instrument which I also love.”

Speaking of archaic, when she studied at the Sibelius Academy Saariaho was the only female student in composition, and she had a difficult time being admitted to the Academy as well as getting Paavo Heininen to become her tutor. That was in the 70s though; since that time, has it hopefully become easier for women to study and work in music? “It has, happily. But it’s been a slow progression. Finland is not the same country as it was 30 years ago. Back then, in all important positions we had old men. Even in our national mythology, it’s all about old wise men. It has changed – not to the extent that I would have liked, however. We had female presidents but it is still harder for women to get recognition in music. It’s a centuries-old tradition that has not been broken completely.” Saariaho quickly objects when I ask her whether her decision to move to Paris was because of the discrimination she faced in her homeland: “I never moved. I took residency in Paris because I applied for the computer music classes at IRCAM there and was accepted. It really just happened, it was never a decision to move to Paris, it just happened that the program I was interested in took place in France.”

I am also curious about her relationship with other Finnish composers – Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen, for example. Do they ever collaborate? “The three of us are very good friends. I recorded a lot under Salonen, but with Lindberg our only collaborations are our frequent phone discussions about our music. We learn a lot from each other, which is very important.”

Before we part ways, I ask her once again about Frises: is there anything else she would like to add about the work, to the members of the audience? “You might want to keep in mind the idea that my starting point was a Chaconne, Passacaglia or Carrion – all Baroque forms. They are, in fact, all kinds of continuous variation forms. The whole work is based on a quote; they are all variations on the same material – even if the material is only one note that is the building block of the original piece.”

Equipped with my newly acquired first-hand insight, I took my seat the next evening, a little disappointed that Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata was substituted for Berio’s Sequenza No. VIII for solo violin (also echoing the Chaconne) on the original program. The Ysaÿe – a romantic sonata which frequently uses two voices in all its four movements – is a showcase of technical aptitude, and Mr. Schmoucler emerged meritoriously. Although the work itself does not offer much apart from its contrapuntal elements, it is music that we don’t get to hear very often.

The original Bach material – the D Minor Partita – followed next, and I was pleased to see the violinist strip out of his romantic guise and take a straightforward approach for the Allemande. His use of vibrato was minimal, which is always welcome, but his tempo was a little slow for the moderate duple metre the dance calls for. The Courante and the Sarabande, were similarly presented in bare-bones, almost clinical states. In the Gigue, Schmoucler shifted his stance toward a more passionate, furious style. The Chaconne likewise started fervently, turned inward in its mid-sections, and ended even more intensely than it started.

Saariaho, of course, had already explained her piece better than anyone else ever could. In the first movement “Frises jaune”, I understood exactly what she meant by “Richard asked me for a D. So I gave him a D”. The very same D that ended the Bach partita opens the work, and it remains in place for the entire duration of the movement. The voices around the root amplified by electricity create harmony and dissonance at whim, but the music is clearly a carillon; there is a continuous variation around the melody that augments and swells accordingly. The second movement called “Frises da fleurs” takes the idea of basso continuo to create short and suspenseful melodic sentences that melt into each other. Both the melody and the harmonics around it expand gradually, increasing the tension, but there is a respite at one point in the form of a small, barely detectable quotation from Bach. I enjoyed the third movement “Pavage” the most. Here, Saariaho has played on the idea of the resonance from the violin transformed by electronics into basso ostinato. In this way, the violin executes counterpoint against itself through a singular melody line – a truly beautiful and inventive idea. The final movement “Frise grise” is a deconstruction of a Passacaglia. The base is provided by three strings played pizzicato, while the fourth string plays a grave melody that, although not tonal, slowly gravitates towards the starting D. As a whole, the piece is a continuous variation of forms, just as the composer described – a mostly quiet and pensive study of ancient styles that will be remembered as a gem among Saariaho’s mature works.

Alain Matalon