Kaija Saariaho: Nymphéa

performed by the Cikada String Quartet, or as below

You were not allowed to have pulse, or tonally oriented harmonies, or melodies. I don’t want to write music through negations. Everything is permissible as long as it’s done in good taste.

Saariaho, speaking of post-serialism

(cover image by Hithesh Vk)

Kaija Anneli Saariaho (née Laakkonen) was born on October 14, 1952 in Helsinki. She studied at the Sibelius Academy under Paavo Heininen, and attended Darmstadt summer courses, later moving to Germany to study with Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber.

She was profoundly influenced by the spectral music of Tristan Murail and Gerard Grisey, and later worked at IRCAM in Paris, later making use of their CHANT program. I’ve never really given much of my attention to Murail or Grisey, but heard some of their work live and while I’m sure I might find it interesting and maybe even enjoyable with more study, the idea of it does not appeal to me in the way the idea of much other music might, so this work was sort of a new experience. It’s also the first work on the blog where electronics are incorporated. (With the exception of like, Glass’s Einstein, which is just keyboards and synths, not actual ‘electronics’ in the way we’re talking about them here.)

That having been said, reading the opening quote, I think it’s pertinent to keep the ‘in good taste’ part in mind, with the idea that it at least sounds like the composer wanted to have things like melody and “tonally oriented harmonies.” Keep that in mind as you listen to this piece.

So the work is spectralist, uses electronics. What does that actually mean? Well, here are two quotes from the composer that might be a little bit repetitive, but who can say it better than Saariaho herself?

…my aim was to broaden the colours of string instruments and create music by contrasting limpid, delicate textures and violent, shattering masses of sound.
The basis of the harmonic structure is provided by cello sounds that I analysed with the computer, through the use of some personal computer programs. The musical material is going through rhythmic and melodic transformations as the motifs are gradually converted from a trill into arpeggios, or unison rhythms into multilayered micropolyphony. The electronic component of the piece consists of live transformations of the string quartet’s sound in the concert.

(from Music Sales Classical)

She says that some of this actually comes from earlier pieces she was working on, the Jardin Secret pieces, of which series this piece is the third, sometimes bearing that subtitle to connect it to those works and earlier ones making use of these processes. She continues:

In preparing the musical material of the piece, I have used the computer in several ways. The basis of the entire harmonic structure is provided by complex cello sounds that I have analysed with the computer. The basic material for the rhythmic and melodic transformations are computer-calculated in which the musical motifs gradually convert, recurring again and again.

Saariaho, on the composition of Nymphea

That aside, there is a spoken part or parts, based on a poem by Arseny Tarkovsky. Saariaho says that “It appears gradually, first in separate phonems [sic?] whispered by players, adding thus a vocal color to the palette of string sounds.” It’s mostly whispers, hardly intelligible, like splinters of words or phrases reflected through a series of mirrors in a dark room.

If you want to do some reading from someone who really loves this piece, read this excellent article by David Harrington, violinist and founder of the Kronos Quartet. He also tells us, or seems to suggest, that the piece was written for the Kronos quartet, perhaps not a commission, but that it was at least one of the very first pieces they ever performed with electronics. He speaks eloquently and very highly of the piece, in a way more convincing than I would be able to do, probably. Needless to say, as a performer, he has more insight than just about anyone but the composer.

But what about the rest of us, especially those of us who are somewhat new to classical music, or likely not versed or accustomed to such modern pieces? Well, some of you may love it at first listen; others (most) certainly won’t, but it’s ultimately a matter of perspective and expectations. Tricky things.

Your immediate opinion of or reaction to the work is perhaps one of harshness and chaos, even, for unfamiliar ears, like mine, maybe grotesque, but if you (really) want to hear it, and look for it, and loosen up your expectations, you do hear some kind of sincerity, warmth, delicacy. But there’s also something raw, nonhuman, almost alien, like the time lapse photos of a fern’s frond unfurling, or a Venus flytrap consuming its prey, as if they are sentient beings. That is to say it’s organic, but also perhaps esoteric, mysterious. Listen for the “limpid, delicate textures and violent, shattering masses of sound.” At the very least, there’s that.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s nothing I’d go to sleep or shed tears to. In many ways, I can see how the harsh sounds and textures generated here, with the addition of the electronics, not to mention the whispers, make for a very ‘creepy’ or spooky soundworld, something like Penderecki a la The Shining.

Ultimately, though, can we focus on this stark contrast between a beautiful, fragrant flower and the heavy, ‘dirty’ mud from which that plant emerges and thrives? What an interesting juxtaposition that is of these two elements, and as much as you might find it extremely avant-garde to represent it in music this way, I certainly find the idea interesting, at the very least. That’s nature.

I suppose I don’t have too much to say about this piece, and it doesn’t read like one of my typical articles, but these were my thoughts. Also, we couldn’t have a Finnish series and not include one of the most notable living Finnish composers, so here she is. It’s December 30 (where I live!) and we have only one more piece of music to discuss in the few hours left of 2017, so do stay tuned for that. Thanks so much for reading.

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