in From the Archives

Kaija Saariaho: “At the moment the computer and I belong together”

by Risto Nieminen

It is often claimed that computer music is so technical and 'cold' that it has nothing whatsoever to do with live music-making. Kaija Saariaho is a composer using a computer to create music for musicians and sound tape so that man and machine are mutually supporting yet contrasting elements.

The work by Saariaho that has attracted most attention internationally is Verblendungen for orchestra and tape. Saariaho is at present working on a piece commissioned for the French 2e2m ensemble. In it she makes use of a computer, but the final score will be pure instrumental music.

The noise imperceptibly changes. As if someone were trying desperately to find the right channel on an old valve radio. Then a woman’s voice strikes up an old hit: “Warum…”

Kaija Saariaho sighs and switches the recorder off. She has promised to provide the music for Tuija-Maija Niskanen‘s new film ‘My Great Illusion‘, which was inspired by the novel of that name by Mika Waltari. Young people setting off to find themselves and each other in the frenzied Paris of the 1920s.

Kaija Saariaho has been working at the Finnish Radio Experimental Studio, and after eight hours she is ready to go home. Time is running out: the film music ought to ne finished in two days’ time. Then back to her home in Paris to prepare a paper for the international computer music conference to be held this year in Vancouver, Canada. And some thought will have to be given to the work for the French ensemble 2e2m commissioned for next spring. At Ircam Kaija is working on her computer software so as to be able to command the various parameters of music using the same basic models. “I must say that what I am most interested in at the moment is timbre and harmony,” she says, having dedicated the past few years to her work at the centre for research into music and acoustics in Paris. She even lives right next to Ircam. Kaija Saariaho admits to being a work maniac: music is constantly raising questions that require an answer.


IRCAM – Vers le blanc

Kaija Saariaho made her way to the research centre in Paris via the Freiburg Musikhochschule. On completing her studies under Paavo Heininen at the Sibelius-Academy in Helsinki she followed Brian Ferneyhough to Freiburg in the Federal Republic of Germany, where she spent 1981 and 1982. Then a course on computer music began at Ircam, and Kaija Saariaho is still there.

Her first work to be completed at Ircam was Vers le blanc, a computer work for tape. Vers le blanc is outwardly very simple, its aesthetics recalling Steve Reich‘s type of minimalism, though the final sound is not reminiscent of this. The piece begins with a chord, the three voices of which glide across one another in the space of 15 minutes to form a different chord. But the closer one looks at the piece the more detailone discerns. Not a single moment is the same as the preceding one.

Vers le blanc was the first work to win Saariaho a wide reputation. The tape was played at a number of concerts in different parts of the world. All the works produced since then have met with the same fate: nowadays her music is already in demand. Verblendungen for 35-piece orchestra and sound tape produced in 1982–1984 was her first experience of writing for a large combination. Now, four Finnish and one French performance later, the work is to be played at the ISCM World Music Days in Holland at the beginning of October.


Symbiosis of orchestra and computer

When you were writing Verblendungen, did it occur to you that it might become a popular work?

“Certainly not! I was dreadfully uncertain about it. After all, it was my first piece for orchestra. I was also doubtful about how the tape and the orchestra would ultimately blend together. I had an exact image in my mind, but even so I was nervous when I went to listen to it for the first time.”

Verblendungen is a variation on the novel Die Blendete by Elias Canetti: the work undergoes a dazzling or blinding process, during which the tape and the orchestra change places. To begin with the tape produces a harsh sound, like an alarm, while the orchestra has a pure sound. By the end, about 13 minutes later, the situation has been reversed: the orchestra sounds like the tape and the tape has assumed the rich texture of the orchestra.

Like all the recent works by Kaija Saariaho, the basic idea behind this work was a single vision, the idea of a large form, this time a vast diminuendo in which an initial explosion gradually disintegrates and fades away. The material for the tape part was provided by two violin sounds, a sforzato stroke of the bow and pizzicato. This material was processed at the digital studio of the Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM) of the French Broadcasting Company and finally mixed at the Finnish Radio Experimental Studio. In the programme the composer equips the work with such key words as “Blindingness, various surfaces, textures, weaves, depths. Metaphorical dazzling. Interpolation, contre-jour. Death. The sum of independent worlds. Shadowing, therefraction of light.”

Verblendungen was the first work in which Saariaho combined tape and instruments. “I had heard works like this, combining two different worlds of sound, and afterwards I was always left wondering whether there was any justification for the relationship between the instruments and the tape. I personally aimed at a uniform, blended sound in which it is not always necessarily possible to say which part of the sound comes from the tape and which part from the orchestra.” In Verblendungen the precisely notated texture merges to form a field of sound that may remotely be reminiscent of the music of Ligeti – though Ligeti never used the devices of electronic music, producing, as it were, electronic music on instruments instead. A similar approach to sound was adopted by the young French composers in the L’Itineraire group at the beginning of this decade, analysing the spectra of instrumental sound and thus creating new timbres and harmony for the instrumental combinations they had discovered. ”This sort of technique may of course be interesting, but I am not personally inspired at all by the idea of making, say, a ring modulation on an orchestra. My technique in Verblendungen is different. There the instrumentation relies to a great extent on intuition. It is of course planned, but not systematic.”

Titles from literature

It is interesting to note that there is not a single symphony, sonata or string quartet in the list of Saariaho’s works. All her works have names indicating the overall idea behind them. “It is important to me tor the name of a work to be revealed at some stage during the composition. When I first started working on Verblendungen I read Canetti’s book and I got the idea of optical dazzling. This idea expanded, and I thought about how man may be dazzled and go blind by his own doing.”

 Often the names for the works were inspired by literature. Laconisme de I’aile for solo flute begins with a recitation of Saint-John Perse‘s text from the anthology called Oiseaux. The rhythm and timbres of the text change and mingle with the sound of the flute. The birds, soaring in the clear air, and illusions of freedom liberated from the burden of consciousness, are also present in the work Sah den Vögeln for soprano, flute, oboe, cello, prepared piano and live electronics, written in Freiburg. The text was compiled from German translations of texts by American underground poets. The texts are fragments; combining them does not make a “story”. As the work is described in the score, they are “a vision of time and limits, of journeying between two worlds, like the twinkling of an eye that may last an eternity. The building materials are textures, colours, dream and reality, inertia.” Sah den Vögeln and Laconisme de l’aile implement the idea of a colour scale with clear, pure sound at one end and grating noise at the other. Tension is often created by contrasting these two extremes.

Composing is also researching

Since composing Verblendungen Saariaho has conducted more sustained research into sound at Ircam. “Up till then I had used a computer purely to construct sound. I then got interested in the organisation of sound, but so that I connected up with the construction of sound. I am trying to devise a system for controlling the structure of a sound and the organisation of some musical unit using the same basic premises.”

The outcome was tape music, the work Jardin secret 1, which was given its first performance at the Helsinki Biennale last November. “I’m now trying to examine timbre – the colour and harmony of sound and the interaction between them. This is far more difficult than studying rhythms, for example, but of course it’s also more interesting.”

The computer: a fruitful tool

Just at the moment Saariaho’s thoughts are all on the 2e2m commission. Scheduled for completion next spring, this work is pure instrumental music for nine players. “I have been using the computer in what is for me a new way in my composition. I have analysed the sounds of acoustic instruments, not normal sounds but noise, which has an inharmonic spectrum. Like the sound made by playing a cello sul ponticello, on the bridge. The result is noise with a specific structure, and by analysing noise like this I have been trying to build harmony.” Following this there will be another work for a larger ensemble and tape. This has been commissioned by the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and the research for it will naturally be done at Ircam.

The list of works by Kaija Saariaho is not yet very long, even though at times she works round the clock. “Working with a computer does naturally delay the completion of works, because if I am to use one I will have to study a lot of new things that are not included in the conventional teaching of composition.” Do you believe you may work without a computer sometime in the future? “I have never thought about it, because of course it will depend on my needs. At the moment the computer is a fruitful tool for me. Somehow I get a lot of musical ideas while working on it. What’s more, there are beginning to be devices that make the use of a computer for musical purposes possible and motivated.”

Translation: Susan Sinisalo

This article was first published in FMQ 3–4/1988.