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Interview with Kaija Saariaho

Finland & Phone Calls; Red Shift Through the Algonquin Hole

Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #65/67, 17 and 31 August 1996. Kalvos & Damian on the road in Paris at the composer’s home. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast: Audio Part 1 [0:33:15–1:32:55] / Audio Part 2 [0:35:25–1:14:40].

Kaija Saariaho lived a childhood surrounded by music, and played several instruments. She studied composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki under Paavo Heininen, and later studied with Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber in Freiburg. Research of new timbres has stimulated her study of new techniques in the instrumental as well as the computer domain, and in 1982, she began to work at IRCAM. Kaija Saariaho has composed numerous multimedia productions, including the ballet Maa (1992) choreographed by Carolyn Carlson. Among the many awards and prizes she received are the Prix Italia, the Musical Award of the North Council and the Musical America Composer of the year 2008.

Part 1

Audio Part 1 [0:33:15–1:32:55]

[Kalvos] We are here in the flat of Kaija Saariaho, it’s a beautiful place…

[Damian] It goes vertically.

[K] We’re going to listen to some of her music today, we’re going to talk about it, and I think this is going to be one of the most unusual and interesting musical experiences we’ll have yet had on the show. We have already played some of Kaija’s music, it is very dense in most places. I think her harp piece was probably the only harp piece I’ve ever heard that I enjoyed. [Laughter]

[Kaija Saariaho] Kind of a compliment.

[K] I do not like harp music, and I was enchanted by it. So, welcome to the show.

[KS] Thank you.

[K] Tell us first about music in Finland, because we find that the institute there, the Conservatory, and a lot of the people are very interested in helping and encouraging Finnish composers. Why is that?

[KS] During the past 20 years, something has happened in Finland. It must be partly a coincidence, which started by producing great singers, then some great instrumentalists, big conductors and interesting composers. I think that the cultural administration, which sometime back ago was not so interested in supporting all this, has understood that for a small country like Finland, it’s a very good thing for its reputation. That’s why, in maybe the past 15–20 years, they have really tried to help the culture a lot to be exported. And of course they can do it since it’s a small country, and the number of artists and musicians is anyway quite limited.

[K] We found also that on the Internet, the Finnish Academy has probably the most complete site for contemporary music in the world.

[KS] Right, yeah. They are very active, that’s true.

[K] So then, what brought you to Paris?

[KS] Well, I traveled first to Germany, to Freiburg, to complete my composition studies, and from Germany I started to make trips to Paris to meet some friends and hear some concerts, and I learned about IRCAM and the possibility to study there, to learn about the possibilities of using computers in music. Meanwhile, I had started to work a little bit in the studios, so I applied to a course. Also, small Freiburg was not really what I expected when I came from isolated Finland to Europe, so I felt like I wanted to hear more concerts and see more things going on. So, little by little I moved to Paris. I was accepted to this course, and that’s how I started the work with computers, which was a revelation for me. So, I’m still on that path. That was 1982.

[K] If I can generalize, this is not very accurate, but let me generalize a little bit: there are schools of acoustic writing, and there are schools of electronic writing. Your writing does not seem to live inside either school. It is very unusual, and very different from most of what I’ve heard. Let’s select a piece to play first, and maybe you can use that as an example of how you arrived at the styles that you use.

[KS] We select a piece here? I think that my ensemble piece, Lichtbogen, could be a good example of this. I wrote this in ’86, it’s an ensemble piece, but the instruments are amplified, and also some of the harmonic ideas for the piece derive from the analysis I’ve made with computers, but are based on some instrumental sounds. I think that the reason that I never felt any necessity to belong to any kind of school is that I had many problems in the beginning of my career, but I think they were rather technical problems, as opposed the problems of vision. I think from the early stage already, when I understood that I must be a composer, I knew how I wanted my music to be, so I didn’t need to reflect myself in the mirror, really, of other musics. Rather, I needed to find the knowledge to realize what I was dreaming of.

[K] When did you know that you needed to be a composer? This is sort of a line, or an area, what we’ve been asked about often. How does one know?

[KS] It was in a very painful way for me. I started to play instruments very early, but my family is not a musical family. I started to compose when I started to play piano. I started with violin when I was six, and then I started to play piano when I was I think eight years old. My mother really didn’t understand why I didn’t rehearse the pieces that I was supposed to rehearse, but was messing around with the piano. So, I stopped it. My career as a performer, also I understood very soon that it wasn’t something that gives me pleasure. I cannot do it as well as I want to, and when I was about 13 or 14 I understood that I must not be very gifted, because I’m so old already and, you know, I didn’t do all the stuff that Mozart did. This was a big frustration for me, and then I decided that the world doesn’t need any kind of mediocre musicians, that there plenty, and I turned my eye to visual arts. I had always been painting and drawing, and so on. When I finished school, I went to art school. I continued to play instruments and make music, but I somehow closed that door of myself. Then, after one year in art school, I had a growing anxiety in myself saying that my life is wasted, I can do nothing else. I felt that every second I’m not trying to go towards music is a wasted second. So I forced myself to start studying composition. After I made this decision, then it didn’t matter anymore.

Only very recently did I understand that with my son, who is six now, who plays piano and with whom I rehearse every day (of course he’s advancing wonderfully), it just came to my mind that myself, I started to play the violin at six and nobody even showed me how to tune the instrument, so how could I have possibly become a violin virtuoso? So, I was overly critical towards myself, I think.

[K] But how did you end up not writing, say, television music? Do you understand what I’m asking, that there’s a direction one might go from a family that is not necessarily musical, which might be towards a popular form. What turns you in the direction of this highly imaginative and original approach?

[KS] Because I imagined the music, I always imagined the music.

[K] You did? Early in your life?

[KS] Always, always. When I was a child, I remember one time when I tried to compose. I remember, I was trying to write down music which was yellow and nervous. So, I always imagined the music, and that was then when I decided that, “Okay, maybe it’s worth doing it anyway,” and at some point it was my only choice. So, that was never my problem. What kind of my music I would write was my music. It was expecting to be written down, so in a way the æsthetic choices I never really did. I see composition as something really, for me, nearly like a religious thing. So, there is only one music I can write. I don’t need to choose between post-serialism and minimalism, because they are just labels, I have nothing to do with that.

[K] Let’s turn back to the piece we were just going to listen to, Lichtbogen. A little bit more description, a sentence or two, and then we’ll listen.

[KS] Lichtbogen is a chamber ensemble piece. Before that piece I had worked quite a lot with computers analysing sound, and also realizing a few works for tape media only. It was a very big pleasure for me to come back to instrumental writing, but coming from the studio, having all the new knowledge I had about the sound and how it’s living in space, how it’s moving in time, I realized that I’m thinking about the instruments in a different manner. Working in the studio and learning about sound as a physical phenomenon had brought new things to my notation, because I had started to imagine my music differently. I imagined very clearly the different kinds of vibratos (or lack of vibratos), and also concerning the strings, the very exact placement of the bow on the string, and all this is notated quite exactly in the score, and this gives the music its special quality, I think.

We listen to Lichtbogen by Kaija Saariaho [0:47:40–1:02:42].

[K] We’re going to hear a number of pieces of yours, next a piece with string quartet. You said it has some of the same thinking, some of the same techniques we spoke about.

[KS] Yes, Nymphea is the first of my works which is really for this kind of traditional ensemble like string quartet, which has a very loaded and important history. The reason I dared to step into this kind of category was my interest in strings, and my idea that I would really concentrate only on string writing, and continue the things that I had started in Lichtbogen.

[K] Well, let me ask you about notation, because you just said in the previous piece that the notation is very detailed. How do performers react to your notation, are they comfortable with it? Do they have to learn a whole new set of ideas to interpret what you write on the page?

[KS] This depends completely on the performers. Of course, there are performers who have played a lot of my music over the years, and they are completely comfortable with that, but of course there are performers who have great difficulty. I recently wrote a violin concerto for Gidon Kremer, and Gidon is a perfectionist. This being one reason, and the other reason being that he himself, for example speaking about the position of the bow on the string, is doing this kind of variation, more or less intuitively. When he’s playing, he’s changing the colour of the sound. In the beginning, I think it must have been really uncomfortable for him, that this aspect of a music that he would usually add himself was notated there already.

[K] So, you overrode his performer’s intuition, and because he’s such a very good performer of contemporary music, it must have been difficult. Did you have a long interchange with him about this?

[KS] Well, not really. We talked about it a lot, but on the other hand he’s someone who completely respects the composer and the score, if he chooses to play it. He was working enormously, and there I didn’t feel so comfortable. I was asking myself if it’s really necessary, that I had added this layer to my music. On the other hand, that was how I had imagined it. So, yes.

We listen to Nymphea by Kaija Saariaho [1:06:25–1:25:10].

[K] And now, we’re going to turn to one of our favourites on the show, one we’ve played twice already, that’s Du cristal. This is an extraordinarily dense piece, and for me, one that best makes me want to ask you about your music. This is the piece that said, “You need to find out how she works through a piece.” Can you reveal how you composed Du cristal.

[KS] I spent most of one year to write this piece, so… but there is something very general I can say about how I write my music. The first thing is normally always that I imagine it, more or less, or I have a certain kind of sound image of the music, which has some atmospheres and instrumental details, and I try to put all this down. The next thing is that I construct a plan, a formal plan for the piece, thinking about the tensions and which musical elements I use to create these tensions. When I have some idea of the totality, I start creating the musical material. In the case of Du cristal, the most important thing was the harmonic structures, which are sometimes very complex, but on the other hand, I needed to have very audible things. For me, music is audible, even if it needs to be complex sometimes, to bring audible things that we imagine. I think that in working with music it must be really audible, it must not be something that is wonderful to read on a score, but it must be heard.

So, in working with the harmony, I wanted to find a kind of basic chord, which would be a guideline for the listener, where we start the music, where we come back, a kind of far-away way to use ideas of tonal structures. So, the harmony in this work took months. Normally I start writing the piece, and write it once all over, the whole piece, except for the end, and then start writing it again. This is how I made Du cristal, with a big piece like that, I really need to get into the musical material, somehow to memorize it. Only recently I tend not to do it anymore, I don’t know why. I hope it’s not for any bad reason. [Laughter] It means that I don’t write all my music twice anymore, but this is what I did with Du cristal. This music was written in the United States, in San Diego. I stayed there for one year, and it was kind of a strange experience, because I was in this sunny California and I lived most of the time called Pacific Beach, and I saw from my window the surfers and all these people, and I was not sure that my music really belonged there.

[K] [Laughter] There are a couple of questions that brings up. One is that in your brochure, you are very harsh in your rejection of traditional shapes and melodies and harmonies. You call them “obsolete.” Why do you feel that way?

[KS] Obsolete, in which context? In the context of us repeating things. I think that the time in which we are living is an unbelievable time. Look at what is happening around us, there is all this about natural catastrophes and all the big problems in this world that we are all conscious of. These we cannot avoid, unfortunately. But then, if we think about the cultural world, there is this enormous pollution, and this idea that money power and measuring everything in money, measuring your value and the value of your music in terms of money, how many people listen to it, how many people bought your CDs and this, I think it’s horrible. How can anybody stay creative in this kind of environment? What are the things that young composers today, for example, ask themselves? I really would like to know, and I’m sure that the answers can be sometimes horrible, because I’m sure that they need to ask themselves in this world where they’re living, they’re asking themselves if they’ll sell, all these questions which really should not be our problem, if we want to create personal music. There are all kinds of post-modern attitudes, taking historical elements and gluing them as if that by us being the ones who glue them, it will make them contemporary. This I find most hateful.

[K] Let’s listen to Du cristal, and then we’ll come back and have some more conversation about such things as surviving as an artist and audiences.

We listen to Du cristal by Kaija Saariaho [1:32:55–1:49:32], before moving on to the second part of the interview.

Part 2

Audio Part 2 [0:35:25–1:14:40]

[K] A massive orchestral piece, Du cristal, by Kaija Saariaho. Who are your audiences?

[KS] The audiences seem to vary very much depending on which kind of combination I write. When I make music for symphony orchestra, of course the audience is often much more traditional than some chamber music or, let’s say, tape music all alone, for which the audience is completely different. Or, if we speak about Nymphea, depends who plays it. When it’s played by Kronos Quartet, you know that they have quite a special young audience, and if it’s played by a more traditional string quartet, the audience is again different.

[K] I guess what I mean by the question is, who do you reach with your music? There’s a such a personal-ness to how you write. To whom are you communicating?

[KS] I’m communicating to all living people. Of course, I understand that there might be barriers depending on different culture and cultural backgrounds, but if you ask the woman addressing my music, I cannot really give a more detailed answer.

[K] When you talk about writing Du cristal watching the surfers, the surfers are probably not that audience. Would you like them to be, do you think that that audience could hear your music and grasp from it.

[KS] Certainly not all of them, but some, surely. If they would have a chance to be brought to the concert hall, to start with [laughter] so I think it’s a very complicated question.

[K] Let’s listen to a short section we’ve also played before. It’s a harp solo. As I mentioned to you, I am not a fan of the harp, but found this to be a remarkable use of the instrument. Why the harp, and how did you imagine those sounds coming out of an instrument which is so loaded down with other traditions?

[KS] It’s true that the harp has a traditional, very specific character. I like the instrument very much, and I’ve used it in all my chamber ensemble pieces. I think there must be always a harp, mostly. I like a lot to combine with other textures, because it has very specific attack, and it always brings us a new dimension to the music in that sense, in a colour sense. How did I imagine these things? [Pause] They came to my mind. I wrote them down.

[K] I only ask because there are some instruments that are just so weighted down with tradition, and particularly the harp, one imagines these glissandi and the Rainbow Bridge of Wagner, and does almost not imagine the very pointillistic sound you were able to produce from that. That’s why I asked the question. So let’s listen to Fall, an excerpt from Maa, from Kaija Saariaho.

We listen to Fall from Maa by Kaija Saariaho [0:39:56–0:45:30].

[K] That was Fall, a beautiful piece for harp solo, by Kaija Saariaho. You have a piece for cello, called Près.

[KS] I worked a lot with a Finnish cellist named Anssi Karttunen, and in fact he’s been a really important person during all these years when I’ve developed all these string techniques. He’s been very patiently collaborating with me, and for him I’ve written two solo pieces and one concerto, in my double concerto, which is the continuation of Du cristal, called …à la Fumée, the cello part is written for him. I wrote a lot of music for him. And this, Près, comes from the same material as the cello concerto called Amers, and in this piece I’m working with the cello in different manners, and its expansion with electronics. The piece is in three parts, and I’m developing quite different kinds of textures. The first is linear, quite spacey, colourful writing, the second being quite strict and rhythmical, and the third being a kind of combination of these two.

I think that something which, over the years, has become really important to me… well, one of the most important ways to get feedback in this profession is working with interpreters, because understanding how much a good interpreter adds to your music, or finds the music as it is, and shows you how difficult it is with an interpreter who maybe — though technically skilled — doesn’t get into your music, and how meaningless the music can sound all of a sudden. So, this magic, these kinds of things we cannot easily analyze, I think it’s very fascinating.

[K] So, your cellist for this piece, Anssi Karttunen, adds that kind of magic to your work?

[KS] I think he does, yes.

[K] Very good, let’s hear it!

We listen to Près by Kaija Saariaho [0:48:35–1:06:32].

[K] Let me take the discussion somewhere else, just for a brief moment. We interviewed another composer the other day in Cologne, Maria de Alvear, and her pieces are very, in some ways, political in nature. One of the things she says is that in America, some things have changed, but that for her, she has noticed that being a woman among men in composers in Europe is still very, very difficult. And you are not only a woman among men composers, but you’re a mother with several children. How do you survive, both as an artist, how does your humanity survive, and how do you feel about the problems of being a woman as a composer in Europe? Do you agree with Maria on that idea?

[KS] Yes, I agree in that sense, that of course, the world is completely a man’s world, and that the history that we know is man’s history. So, in that sense it’s true. You know, on the other hand, I don’t care. I did fight a lot to get where I am. What did I want to reach? I wanted to reach a possibility to write my music and live my life. Well, here I am. I write my music. My life is very strict, my minutes are really counted for the time being. I work very regularly, I have two children, I give most of the rest of the time, what I can, to them. I travel a lot for the concerts, so for the time being, my life is quite tough, it’s true.

On the other hand, I consider myself being very lucky, being a composer who’s music is played a lot. So, I don’t complain. I don’t know how my life would be if I was a man, you know, I never really speculate on this question, because anyway I know it’s quite impossible. I know, and sometimes it makes me laugh bitterly when I see my men colleagues who, often, have children as well, and I see what an artistic life they can spend, and how egotistical they can always be, and how their loving wives pat them on their shoulder and take care of the children while they are finishing their works. [General laughter]

So, I don’t have this kind of chance, but on the other hand I think my life is very rich, and I think it’s very good for me to be taken down on the earth. It’s very interesting to see small people growing, and how you can interact in their lives and how you can guide them. I think it’s, anyway, one of the meanings of the lives of human beings, and again, I don’t know about the instincts of men, but women have this instinctive need to communicate with children, to see them grow up, it’s really important for me. So… voilà.

[K] Let’s listen to Stilleben. Tell us about Stilleben, it’s different.

[KS] Yeah, Stilleben is a radiophonic work, in which I wanted to bring, for the first time (at that time)… I worked on this piece in 1988 to get the different words, verbs, where I’m realizing my music. That is in the studio context, instrumental context, and also voice. This piece is all about distances, reaching other people, or not reaching them. Of course, for me, these kinds of feelings are natural because I don’t live in my country, and when I go back to my country there are things that I miss here. So, I always miss somebody somewhere.

The carrying text is Franz Kafka’s letters to Milena. Because Kafka lived this extraordinary love story with Milena, and most of the love was lived through the letters. They met only a few times, and it seems in fact that when they met it was quite catastrophic. But at the end of this letter love affair, Kafka became very bitter and felt that finally, one cannot love somebody if the person is not in front of you, that the only meaningful way that lovers can communicate is through the eyes. All this communication through letters and through different media, before the kisses that you sent with your letters to your loved one reach the person, they are drunk by ghosts. There were very nice things in these letters, so this is the basic text I’m using in Stilleben, and it’s kind of a big score.

I worked on the piece as if it would be an orchestra piece, but here the elements are not the instruments of an orchestra, but rather text by Kafka read in different languages, Finnish, French and German. There is also the instrumental part, the choral part, and then a big number of environmental noises, which are kind of treated like one part of the orchestra.

[K] Kaija Saariaho, thank you very much for joining us on the Kalvos & Damian New Music Sesquihour. This has been very good, very enjoyable. We have finally gotten to meet someone whose music has fascinated us for some time. Thank you very much.

[KS] Thank you.

We listen to Stilleben by Kaija Saariaho [1:14:40–1:36:48].

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