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Kaija Saariaho and Olli Virtaperko: A conversation

by Olli Virtaperko

Composers Kaija Saariaho and Olli Virtaperko sat down to talk about the meaning of art and music. In this dialogue between composers from different generations, fascinating insights into the structures of and changes in writing music and the world of music at large emerged.

OV – One of the themes that has been rolling around in my mind for a long time is how the symphony orchestra is structurally trapped in the beginning of the last century. It would take quite a different set of tools to make the symphony orchestra capable of reflecting our day and age in its instrument lineup. How do you feel about the relevance of the sound of the symphony orchestra and the current state of the institution?

KS – This is really interesting for me, because around the time when I was completing my studies, it was taken for granted that there was no future for the symphony orchestra. When I moved to France, they had [Ensemble] L’itinéraire and the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and then Ensemble Modern and Avanti! were founded. The symphony orchestra was regarded in much the same light as opera: both were stuffy and expensive systems, and it would only take a few years to get rid of them, and then electronics or synthesisers would create completely new colours and opportunities.

Well, it certainly didn’t turn out that way! Since then, I’ve written major orchestral pieces myself, and I’ve enjoyed the concentration of human energy in an orchestra. There’s something quite irreplaceable about it. Never mind that an orchestra is a sort of relic of ages past – I’ve come to appreciate it, in a way. Few musical contexts offer the thrill of energy that a symphony orchestra can generate. For me, it’s empowering. I’ve been both avidly opposed and avidly in favour, and there’s no way I could now even try to form an objective opinion about the relevance of the symphony orchestra. What is important is that the balance between contemporary music and core repertoire in orchestral programming should be healthier. The institution as a whole needs to be revitalised in one way or another.  

OV – There are two things in parallel here: the status of contemporary music in a concert culture that is heavily biased towards the past, and the issue of the makeup of a symphony orchestra. For example, is there any point in holding on to the massive violin sections that historically emerged simply as a means of amplifying the sound, before the advent of electronic amplification? Do you recognise this problem?  

KS – Partly, yes, but if we began amplifying the violins, it wouldn’t be the same as having those 16 first violins actually on stage – the human experience is different. As for the instruments of the orchestra, I quite happily discard some of the most standard instruments in my orchestral works. And on the other hand, there’s a huge number of percussion instruments today that were not available in Beethoven’s time. Having said that, for a composer to be able to express themselves in their own idiom in this day and age, they should have the right to choose their palette according to their needs. Inevitably, this may run up against the structures and financial constraints of an orchestra. Being compelled to consider such things does force us [composers] towards a middle ground, of course.  

OV – Indeed. I’ve found that in criticising the orchestra institution I’m wearing two hats, so to speak, representing diametrically opposed value sets. Criticising symphony orchestras for having the wrong instruments and playing the wrong music seems undeniably valid, but on the other hand the sensation of working with an orchestra is overwhelming – as you said, it’s about empowerment and shared energy like nothing else. It must be said in defence of the instruments of the symphony orchestra that they’ve been found to have sound resources for which they were never designed: we need only consider multiphonics on the clarinet or the rich array of noises that the strings can produce. Nevertheless, these are in effect unintended by-products of the original purpose for which those instruments were made, prompting the question of whether we shouldn’t be designing instruments from the ground up to cater to the sound ideals of our time. That would lead to a very different orchestral lineup, and we wouldn’t need to amplify existing instruments, as with the electric guitar. We would invent new acoustic instruments. Wouldn’t that be fascinating?  

KS – Certainly, but how could such a thing gain wider interest? There have been all sorts of attempts of this kind. 

“Few musical contexts offer the thrill of energy that a symphony orchestra can generate”, says Kaija Saariaho. Photo by Jean-François Gornet

OV – The scenario I’ve toyed with is converting the rearmost desks in the strings into flexible freelance positions, which would free up resources for, say, having five new musicians/instruments in the orchestra to begin with. This means that orchestras could play Mahler and Strauss just like before [with violins in those flexible positions], but composers would have easier access to something like a concert accordion or a saxophone section. This tiny amount of structural flexibility would yield huge added value in musical opportunities, as it would become financially more feasible to score for unusual instruments.  The problem here is that in order to work worldwide, this would have to be an internationally established practice, because otherwise works written in such a context would not gain traction beyond the country where they were written. This seems quite unrealistic.  

KS – True. There was actually a time beginning in the late 1980s when it seemed that orchestras were broadening their horizons to include electronic instruments. The trend was that every orchestra should have a synthesiser, and as those instruments got better, they were able to imitate all kinds of keyboard instruments, like harpsichords. Composers were excited about this, and I myself wrote for [synthesisers] in Du cristal... à la fumée, but when that piece was performed again, the equipment available was completely different. Technology advances so rapidly that the DX7s that were state of the art at one point had been replaced with new, better instruments. With the rapid developments and turnover in synthesiser models, orchestras began to lose interest.  

OV – You’ve included electronics in your orchestral works. Have you come up against problems because of outdated software or having to apply old technology in a new context?  

KS – It’s a perennial problem, because you have to keep updating your software all the time. I’m fortunate to have Jean-Baptiste taking care of all this for me. But it’s an endless slog, and over the years I’ve come to consider that if a particular musical idea doesn’t absolutely require electronics to produce, then I won’t use electronics. Rehearsal times are shorter, no one has time for a sound check, or the sound check is minimal, and then you have to work out things on the fly in concert. I’ve rarely been completely satisfied with it. So once again it’s a question of conception coming up against reality.   

OV – It sounds like the established practices in the orchestra world are so robust that if you want to deviate from the standard you’re asking for real trouble, or at least substantial difficulties.  

KS – That’s very much the truth, because in this more than in anything else, time is money. 

On working with orchestras and musicians 

 – I still recall attending a rehearsal for the world premiere of your clarinet concerto D’Om le Vrai Sens at Finlandia Hall in October 2010 where you said that when you go home, you go through the rehearsal in your head, listening to it again, as it were. Do you really have the ability to make an audio recording in your head and later play it back from the hard disk of your mind to analyse it?  

KS – Well, with the score, of course. It’s how I do things, I’ve learned how to do it. I can quite clearly recall a rehearsal, and I write notes based on that. 

OV – Do you communicate directly with the soloist or the orchestra, or do you go through the conductor? 

KS – Both the soloist (if there is one) and the conductor. Sometimes the conductor pretends to be so busy that they don’t have time for a debriefing. What I do then is I give the conductor the list of notes I compiled and say that all these things need to be fixed.  

OV – How important is it for you to have trusted musicians – people who are already familiar with the aesthetics of your music and have performed your pieces under your supervision over a long period of time?  

KS – It’s hugely important! These days, I don’t want the premieres of my orchestral works to be conducted by conductors who have never performed any of my music. Those conductors just don’t know where to begin, however big stars they may be. It’s a foreign language to them, and that’s all there is to it. There’s really no chance for someone unfamiliar with my music to come to grips with its logic on the basis of a single work.

OV – Incidentally, are you working on something new right now?

KS – I’m working on a very rare kind of concerto for [trumpet player] Verneri Pohjola. Verneri is very inventive with colour.

OV – True, he has an unusually refined sense of tonal colour. He reminds me a bit of Miles Davis in the sense that he can inject a lot of affective content into the music with tiny but significant shifts of colour.  

KS – Many trumpet players have approached me over the years, but somehow I’ve never found a place for my ideas and the instrument to meet until now, even though I use the trumpet a lot in orchestral textures.  

OV – Have you specifically studied the trumpet and its properties with the soloist in this case?  

KS – Yes, absolutely! I’m not physically familiar with the trumpet by any means. I always have a very tangible image of instruments in my mind. Strings are easy to imagine, but the trumpet is more difficult to approach. You know that there’s the three valves, but I don’t really know what goes on in the mouth. Verneri said, you know how to whistle, don’t you? It’s pretty much the same thing. Verneri and I get along really well. He understands my verbalisations, and I believe that this may turn out to be quite an exciting piece! 

Olli Virtaperko with the Cornucopia Ensemble. Photo by Jonte Knif

On opera

 – It’s quite clear that you have a need to control the end result in performances of your works as far as possible. But going from the world of the orchestra to the world of opera, with a range of soloists with very different expressive idioms, one might imagine that the potential for control over, say, the choice of soloists would be very limited. How much can a composer influence casting? Are there collisisions of conflicting ways of making music?  

KS – I do exercise quite a bit of control in premiere productions, and I do have influence on the casting, if only because of the voice types required. I’m not often offered Puccini singers, you know. Sometimes you get men who are Wagner singers, and then it’s just a question of working through things together. If I ask for a glissando, then it’s a glissando that I want, not a portamento. This aspect of the process goes down into quite small details. Also, every singer has a different and unique voice.  

OV – What made you venture into opera in the first place? I recall that you once declared that you would never write an opera – yet here we are, many operas later!  

KS – As much as I loved to listen to Tristan and Isolde on record, all of the operas that I saw live in my youth – because my family wasn’t a musical one – were at the old National Opera. They did perform large-scale works too, but largely I got the feeling that the singers were there just to showcase their voices. I can’t recall seeing anything very interesting, apart from Silkkirumpu (The Damask Drum) by Paavo [Heininen]. And then there were Ratsumies (The Horseman) [by Aulis Sallinen] and Viimeiset kiusaukset (The Last Temptations) by [Joonas] Kokkonen in Savonlinna. I had no problem with them aesthetically, but at the time modernism was on the rise, and the question was raised whether such grandiose stuff was needed any more. It also felt like orchestras were on the wane – after all, it was around that time that Ensemble Modern and [Ensemble] Intercontemporain and so on were founded, and there was serious discussion about whether any cultural institutions could afford such expensive things and attract full houses any more. It felt normal to assume that all this would disappear in the future.

But once I moved to Germany and went to the Stuttgart Opera, and particularly once I moved to Paris, I saw quite incredible works such as Wozzeck [by Alban Berg]. The opera productions I saw in Germany and France were comprehensive artworks, meetings of artists. By this time, my previous convictions about opera had pretty much crashed and burned. I recall Paavo [Heininen] once saying to me: “Opera is how you define it.” That was important for me to hear at that particular time. 

On the future

 – I recalled a column you wrote for FMQ in 2019, titled On my music and beyond, where you described a summer course and the young composers from around the world that you met there. The tone in that column was positive and hopeful. Has your outlook lightened up?  

KS – Maybe not my world view as such, but my confidence in future generations, certainly. Their reality is completely different from mine because of when they were born. I see today in relation to a golden age in Europe when we were free and had no war and everything was about growth and increasing prosperity. Now that that has collapsed, I see little hope for the future. Then again, I meet young colleagues who have grown up in a very different reality and for whom the ‘global village’ concept with ubiquitous digital connections (a nightmare for myself) is no problem and they can navigate it effortlessly. I’ve come around to the notion that there’s a time and place for everything and that people of my age should definitely not be in decision-making positions. Younger people should take over, as they have more physical energy and brain capacity!  

OV – Well, I’m more than twenty years younger than you, but even I’ve noticed that the boundless energy of youth is a thing of the past, and I do feel ‘old and tired’ sometimes. But when you meet young people living their own unique youth, you realise that there’s no reason for pessimism. Each new generation will discover a new energy and reform the world in ways which may seem frightening from some perspective but which nevertheless move things forward. When you imagine that your personal reality is the only reality there is, it’s difficult to perceive anything that is outside yourself and your feelings and your experiences.  

KS – Yes, I do see that, and I also understand that that applies to every one of us. After all, every one of us is unique.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi 

Featured photo: Olli Virtaperko (photo editing: Lasse Lehtonen)