A quest for new challenges – an interview with Kaija Saariaho


Over the past week or so, Kaija Saariaho has been visiting Tampere, Finland, in conjunction with a ten-day festival at Tampere Hall, devoted to her music. In the course of the multi-faced festival, there has been a series of innovative concerts, culminating with tonight’s Finnish premiere performance of the chamber orchestra version of her oratorio La Passion de Simone (2006/2013).

Conducted by Clément Mao TakacsLa Passion de Simone will be performed by Avanti! chamber orchestra and the vocalists of La Chamber aux échos, with soprano Sayuri Araida as soloist, directed for stage by Aleksi Barrière.

Originally written for large orchestra and chorus, La Passion de Simone was commissioned by Peter Sellars for New Crowned Hope festival in Vienna back in 2006.

”Peter wanted me to write an opera for him. I had just finished Adriana Mater (2005) after three yars of work, and the idea that I should start to write a new opera on the very next week seemed absolutely impossible”, Saariaho recalls.

However, for the composer, instead of writing an opera, working with an oratorio felt far more doable.

”Originally, I didn’t intend La Passion de Simone for stage, yet that is the way it is most often performed.”

La Passion de Simone is a journey into the life, philosophy and sacrifice of Simone Weil (1909-1943), a subject that had fascinated the composer for a very long time.

”In my teens, when I first started to read Simone Weil, I felt that she had experienced so much more than I had at that point, thus making it impossible for me to truly understand her. In reality, she was a very young woman when she died. She had only half of the experience years can bring that I have now. Yet, I still find it hard to understand her. She was such an extraordinary person, with unique mixture of intelligence and sensitivity, resulting in all those ideas that continue to carry a powerful meaning.

Her life and philosophy are, in many ways, so essential again here and now, in our own time. Once again we are in a situation where the prospect of war is upon us, and there is oppression for the weak all around us. And nowadays, we are fully aware of all this. We cannot hide ourselves in ignorance. Therefore, it is important for us to think, what each and everyone of us would be able to do.”

In addition to Saariaho’s early influences with Simone Weil, La Passion de Simone has its roots in the rehearsal process for the premiere of her first opera, L’amour de loin (2000) at the Salzburg Festival in the summer of 2000.

”Peter was reading Simone Weil back then, and he was under the impression that Amin Maalouf had written the libretto under Weil’s influence. Later, when I brought this up with Amin, he replied by asking ’who’s Simone Weil?’”

Following their fruitful collaborations with L’amour de loin and Adriana Mater, Maalouf became Saariaho’s chosen librettist for La Passion de Simone too.

”I came up with my formal concept for La Passion de Simone quite early on. I wanted a solo soprano part for the narrator, a pre-recorded speech part for Simone Weil’s voice, as well as a choir. With Adriana Mater, there had been way too much text to set, but by then, I had become persistent enough to tell him that that’s not what I want. And I was really insistent with him regarding to the amount of the text”

Yet, Saariaho has full confidence on her librettist.

”Amin has always been willing to put his craft into the service of the music. Whenever he has finished one version of the text, he’s been willing to hear my input, all the pros and cons. And he has taken up the process from there. So, for us, it has been an editorial collaboration.”

The impetus for a reduced version of La Passion de Simone came from Clément Mao-Takacs and Aleksi Barrière. The idea had been brewing in their minds ever since the Vienna premiere.

”Clément and Aleksi were starting La Chambre aux échos when they first approached me with the idea of a reduced version. Clément had already done some work with re-setting the choral parts for a vocal quartet, and Aleksi had a clear vision of replacing the pre-recorded text with an actor speaking the part, and having the vocal quartet involved in the stage action.

To be honest, the original version hasn’t had that many outings. The piece had a big tour of premieres, but since then it has been heard quite infrequently, due to its quite special demands.”

In the end, Saariaho found writing the new version surprisingly easy.

”By then, enough time had passed since the premiere, and I no longer felt sorry for discarding some of the material of the original. Rather, I felt, I was bringing the very essence of the piece into the surface. In the original version, the chorus is a huge mass, and the orchestra is another huge mass, whereas in the chamber version the four singers are very much present, as persons. Also, those nineteen musicians in the ensemble have such responsibilities for their parts, quite different from those of musicians in an orchestra.

Of course, Peter’s staging of the original was stupendous, like all that he does. In that context, the piece felt rather grim and inevitable, whereas I find much more warmth with it in the chamber version. I don’t quite understand, yet, how that is even possible, given that it is the same music in both versions, but nevertheless, the added warmth and the interaction with the audience are totally different.”

At the core of the vocal material of La Passion de Simone, there is a substantial part scored for a solo soprano. Saariaho wrote the part originally for Dawn Upshaw, who was then forced to pull out from the premiere production, due her illness. Pia Freund stepped in and sang the Vienna premiere, with Susanna Mälkki conducting.

”I didn’t want to write any brilliance into that role. When there’s such an important message involved, there’s no place for stretching for the high notes. While I was at work with the solo part, I had in mind all that experience I had gained working with Dawn’s smooth registers in L’amour de loin. With L’amour de loin, I set the first version too high, but on this occasion I knew exactly how this part would sit with Dawn’s voice.”

Collaborating with her performers is an essential part of Saariaho’s working process.

”The music I have written for Karita (Mattila) has been tailored for her voice, or at least that’s how I’ve felt it. In similar vein, we collaborated closely with Philippe Jaroussky on Only the Sound Remains (2015). For example, he suggested setting the first part in the lower registers and saving the higher ones for the second part”.

According to the composer, there are similar processes involved with her instrumental music too.

”In retrospect, all my concertos are portraits of the musicians for whom they are originally written. Although it is not a conscious part of the process, it is inevitable that the person and his or her style will be at play there. If we think about the Clarinet Concerto (D’om le vrai sens, 2010) I wrote for Kari Kriikku, it is no coincidence that in that very piece the soloist jumps around the stage. If I’d written the piece for someone else, that element probably would have not come to pass, but with Kari, it seemed necessary, even though I am not at all comfortable with musicians wondering around the stage, which, for me, at least, feels often rather superficial.”

Sooner or later, composers are faced with the fact that their pieces start to have lives of their own, with new performers including them in their repertoire, thus leading to new, unforeseen interpretations.

”By now, I have become somewhat used to that. The biggest shock for me came with the second production of L’amour de loin. Back then, I was still a young opera composer, and I had not realized how everything keeps changing from one production to another. As it happened, I was at the final matinee performance of Peter’s original production at Châtelet, and after it was finished, I took a train straight to Bern for the premiere of the second production. At Bern, the director, Olivier Tambosi waited impatiently for my feedback on the production, and while we were on our way onstage to take our bows, he kept asking what I was thinking about it all. I was totally overwhelmed, and simply replied, what can I say at this point. And Olivier started lamenting ’ah, your are disappointed, I knew it, I knew it…’ I wonder if he ever got over with that”, Saariaho laughs.

”After the initial shock, I’ve come to realize, that having all these different productions around is, in fact, fascinating, as long as they’re not too bizarre.”

For Saariaho, the actual process of composition is quite straightforward matter. She prefers working from the beginning to the end.

”I gain experience with my musical material as I go along writing the music. I would find it odd to make a jump ahead, and then try to fill the gap afterwards. For me, working with my material in a straightforward manner is absolutely essential, for in order to develop my material, there are certain experiences that I need to deal with during that process. Of course, I cannot determine precisely what those experiences will be.”

For the composer, there is no significant difference between stage works and concert pieces, in terms of the actual creative processes involved. Saariaho finds the distinction between pure and programmatic music quite problematic.

”I’m not sure if that distinction actually exists. For me, there can be some extra-musical ideas at play, but in the end the process always turns into something purely musical. And how could it be otherwise? One must focus on the musical parameters and their behaviour. Of course there are differences between writing an opera, with so much actual material involved, including the text, or say, a solo violin piece. But even with the latter, for me at least, there are always some extra-musical metaphors involved.

I find it really strange that such a distinction has arisen at some point of history, given that it is a very fine line we are dealing with. In addition, each musical piece has its own, unique starting point. Obviously, with a large work, more time and effort are needed for formal solutions, but I still would not claim that some kind of pieces are somehow more important than others”

Even though the process of composition changes over the course of years and experience gained, the everyday work of a composer doesn’t necessarily become any easier in itself.

”Given that composing is such a complex type of activity, there are so many things to learn in terms of knowledge and technique, as well as finding the balance between one’s own will and fantasy and the role one is willing to give to musical intuition. With young composers, their early pieces tend to be rather strict, simply because one dares not to let the intuition carry on the process, yet.

In the end, intuition is not some mystical black box, but something resulting from experience. Everything a composer does, becomes a part of that intuition. Over time, with experience, intuition becomes more solid.

On the other hand, I am always looking for new challenges, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Even though I might revisit some types of forms, of a certain way of developing my material, there must always be a sound cause for it. One does not get very far with mere cut and paste. As I have already written quite a lot of music, it takes an effort of its own to find out those very things that could be fresh and new and challenging for me. So, in this respect, the work itself does not become any easier, just different. It is like life itself. It doesn’t become any easier with age and experience either, only different.

In addition to self-imposed challenges there is always the pressure coming form the outside.

”When L’amour de loin became such a hit, I felt very strongly that I was expected to do more of the same, a bit better, maybe, but essentially the same. In a way, it makes sense, and I can understand why people feel that way. If somebody comes across with an interesting composer, it is only natural to have the desire for more of that same thing. But this is all simply a part of the everyday lives of each and every composer.”

Saariaho finished her latest opera last fall. It is to be premiered at Aix-en-Provence in July 2020. In the meanwhile, she is already starting a new project.

”It took many years to write the opera. Now I am starting a new piece for Susanna’s (Mälkki) orchestra and co-commissioners around the world. It will by my project for this year. I haven’t written a single note yet, as I am still at work with the overall form. With all those years with opera, I am so happy writing for the orchestra without the constant need to be so cautious with the dynamics. It think this new piece will open up some new paths for me.

Alongside her work as a composer, Saariaho is a keen everyday observer of the world around us.

”Even though there are cuts in the funding of the arts done everywhere, I am so very disappointed that these things occur here in Finland too. Globally speaking, Finland has had such a legendary reputation for its appreciation for the arts, and it would be such a shame if all that would be brought to nothing. I have the feeling, that our leaders simply do not see how all this is really based in solid education.

Art provides us with such amazing tools to deal with our emotions and our emotional intelligence as a whole. We have all those forms of art therapy out there precisely because the arts have such healing powers. It would be a shock if children would be deprived from all this. Just think about all those young boys out there. There’s of course something like ice hockey for them, which is OK, but in the end, it provides them with quite aggressive means of coping. For empathy and tolerance, art is such a powerful means of education.

Within the context of funding cuts, one can only imagine how our leaders deal with their own children. I’ bet they still provide them with music lessons.

Playing an instrument, any instrument, is one of the most complex of human activities. One must have cerebral control over the muscular system, and one must be able to translate the information from the notation into an interaction with one’s view on the music and the emotions arising from it. I cannot see how obtaining that kind of skill would harm anybody. It all comes down to how we can make all this available for children.

In similar vein, Saariaho remains lukewarm to our contemporary jargon, manifesting itself in all those empty concepts.

”I have found all this talk of developing a brand quite superficial. I think it has gone somewhat out of fashion recently, though. It always strikes me how the city of Hämeenlinna decided to call off the Jean Sibelius Composition Competition as too elitist. Rather, they decided to replace it with an idea of a Sibelius brand developed with making various Sibelius memorabilia and cult items, such as socks and cigars, available for sale. Yet, for that first Sibelius competition of 2015, six hundred scores, from all over the world, were submitted. And because of that competition the city of Hämeenlinna was known as Sibelius’ birthplace everywhere.

Each meaningful brand arises from content. Shouldn’t it be that our Finnish brand would include conservation of nature and a fine education system as well as a multi-faced cultural life, resulting in a musical education that keeps producing, at least for now, all those world-class musicians.”     

c Jari Kallio

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