in Columns

On my music and beyond: The world is a mosaic

"With my teaching this summer, I have found a new and hopeful vista opening before me," writes Kaija Saariaho. This column is part of the series On my music and beyond, where composers and other music makers write about their music.

July is ending. In front of me on the table lies the half-completed orchestral work Vista. Behind me are several composition courses given across Europe.

Actually, I have been teaching more this summer than I ever have. I usually reserve the summer for my quiet, painstaking composition process. But I am happy with how these lively and noisy summer days turned out: meeting young composers from various countries highlighted just how diverse the field is today.

I had some concerns about how to get back into my stride when returning to my own work, having had so many new scores whisk past my eyes. In the end, it was remarkably easy to retreat into my own world. Although I always strive to find new angles and untrodden paths, the landscape remains familiar.

One of the challenges with Vista is the orchestration: I omitted the harp, piano and celesta, all of which are very dear to me.

This may not seem like a radical departure to the casual observer, but the omission forces me to think about the orchestra somewhat differently, since I am used to using the piano and the harp in particular as sonority links between other instrument sections. Now, I have to adopt a different strategy for smoothing the seams, or else just let the sections be more distinct.

The days go by quickly when writing an orchestral work, although progress is slow because there are so many notes. Yet I do find it calming and relaxing to work on a purely instrumental texture after so many years immersed in writing an opera. That was a project so long and heavy that when I finally put it behind me towards the end of last year, my relief was unimaginable – I felt I was seeing the world around me with new eyes! It was this vision of freedom that provided the title for my present work in progress. 

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But as buried as I am in my own work, I still think a lot about the junior colleagues I have recently met. Their circumstances, faced with incredible pressure and the bugbear of worldwide competition, are very different from the environment in which I grew up to be a composer.

One of my composition courses this summer was at the ManiFeste event in Paris, organised by Ircam at the Centre Pompidou. I told my students – who had been born in the 1980s and 1990s – about my experiences at Ircam in 1982 when I took my first computer music course. There were no such things as laptops, of course, and the students shared time with Ircam employees on a massive Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-10 computer. It seemed awesome and technologically revolutionary at the time, but it is sobering to think that these days the computing capacity of a humble smartphone is more than a thousand times greater!

This being the case, back then practically nothing worked in real time, particularly in the daytime when there were several dozen people accessing the computer simultaneously. The best time to work was at night, when there were fewer users and the computer was faster (in relative terms).

Even so, we had to wait for the results of our computer runs. Minutes, hours, sometimes an entire night.

Nostalgia aside, this way of working now seems quite idyllic: there was time to chat at the coffee machine, and when a really massive batch was processing, one could go to the cinema or have dinner.

I have been working with computers in composing ever since, and it has been an inspiring and important process for me to see just how hugely technology has progressed over the past decades.

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Technological advancements have provided humanity with unprecedented capacity for expanding our knowledge and skills, yet they have also facilitated the global production and distribution of purely commercial products, music not excepted. And, of course, technological advancements have enabled the planet-destroying, ultra-commercialised lifestyle that is now slowly smothering us.

The contrast between the lightning-quick flood of instant information running around the world and the slowness of the composing process and the concentration it demands seems to be growing all the time.

Today’s young generations have no experience of a life before digital technology. We who grew up before the digital revolution may find it difficult to identify with their world, but we nevertheless bear a responsibility for them.

For me, a key question is how to retain a human contact with one’s own senses, with the living environment and with one’s own body. My soapbox speech these days is about learning manual skills in childhood, even as these are being phased out of the school curriculum: for example, to my mind it is an inconceivable and short-sighted decision to stop teaching longhand writing in Finland’s internationally celebrated school system.

By extension, music education and more generally arts education should be a right enjoyed by every child. This is essential not only for building motor skills and cognitive skills but also for developing emotional intelligence. 

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Author Amin Maalouf wrote in his essay collection In the name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong (Les identités meurtrières, 1998) about how important it is to recognise the multiple identities that we all have, because that prevents us from identifying for example with the hate thought of extremist groups:

“The world is a mosaic, the world is a mosaic of beliefs, of languages, of varied communities, and the question is not whether it is possible for them to coexist but how their coexistence could be facilitated, because we have no choice.”

With my teaching this summer, I have found a new and hopeful vista opening before me. Musicians of the young generation are already living together in that mosaic. Through music studies they have obtained the tools for building individual and pluralist identities of their own. Actually, they see today’s reality, with all its pressures and seemingly insurmountable problems, as a domain of new opportunities rather than just as a huge challenge, which is often the only perspective embraced by my generation

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Photos: Kaija Saariaho by Maarit Kytöharju.

Kaija Saariaho9215 Netti

saariaho.org

Forthcoming premieres:

Vista 
World premiere, 20 March 2020, Musiikkitalo, Helsinki
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Susanna Mälkki

U.S. premiere, 30 April 2020, Los Angeles
Los Angeles Philharmonic, cond. Susanna Mälkki

Innocence (opera)
July 2020, Festival International d’Art Lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence