Kaija Saariaho: Compositionally Speaking
Since 1995, The Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair has occasioned some of the most exciting events at Carnegie Hall. These composers are innovative, accomplished music makers with strong points of view that extend beyond the scope of their own works. Kaija Saariaho, this season's composer-in-residence, stands apart with her dramatic, sensual soundscapes.
We are currently producing a series of video interviews with Ms. Saariaho, which we will post throughout the remainder of her residency. In the meantime, she recently spoke with Stony Brook University music professor Judy Lochhead about her Carnegie Hall residency.
What kinds of musical thought were influential for the development of your own compositional voice?
During my years as a student, several different aesthetics were heard in the contemporary music field in Europe. Where I lived and studied, the most common techniques were connected—in one way or another—to post-serial musical thought. When I moved to Paris to work at the Institute for Music / Acoustic Research and Coordination (IRCAM), I got to know the music of Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, and I found it very refreshing. Because their compositional methods were more closely connected with issues of musical hearing and perception, I felt encouraged to follow my instincts concerning my own music. Basically, I think that this is how all artists work—they are influenced by many things in their youth, which serve as material for their unique compositional voice.
You have programmed several concerts that highlight the music of Finnish composers. In what ways were your life and musical experiences in Finland influential for your musical thought and compositional voice?
As I lived my whole childhood and early adult years in Finland, the country has been very important for my identity. My general education was completed there and most of my musical education as well. The extreme changes of natural light have a strong affect on the body and mind of people living in the North. But it is virtually impossible to determine how all this has influenced my music. And of course, since I have been living in Paris now for several decades, I’m sure those experiences must be taken into account as well.
Much of your recent compositional work has been for voices in a theatrical context. What prompted this?
Working on operas or stage works gives me an occasion to collaborate with artists coming from other fields. Opera today can be, at its best, a rich and spiritual meeting point for the arts. For composers who often spend most of their time writing music alone, this can be a wonderful and inspiring change. I am also interested in opera as an art form and the particular way we relate to it compared to other musical works. Because of the characters and text, our relation to opera is less abstract than to other music. Experiencing a great opera performance differs from that, for instance, of a great symphony. I don’t think that one is more important than the other, but the difference is big. This is why I like to compose for these dissimilar genres. Each calls for a unique compositional attitude and has particular challenges.
Over the course of your career, many of your musical works have employed electronics in combination with acoustic instruments. What interests you about this combination?
My choice of whether to use electronics with acoustic instruments depends on the individual project and my original idea for the piece. Right now I am working on an orchestral piece that includes electronics because I wanted to include poetry in the orchestral textures without using a choir or vocalists. One can do many different things with electronics and computers today, but I don't use them if not necessary; as everybody knows, machines can also bring many problems to our lives when they are not functioning as we expect them to do. So I add electronics to my instrumentation if I cannot do otherwise.
Do you think there are differences between audience's perception of contemporary music between Europe and North America? If so, how would you characterize these differences?
In Europe, there are several strong traditions of musical education, all of which include instruction—some more, some less—in contemporary music, depending of the country. In Finland, audiences have a generally positive attitude toward contemporary music, thanks to the inclusion of contemporary-music instruction for children and young people. It directly affects the attitude of the adult audience towards the music of our time. It is important for contemporary composers and musicians to cultivate a good relation with audiences so that we can assure that our cultural heritage will be transmitted to future generations. People tend to choose what they know. Contemporary music doesn't bring much profit, if calculated in dollars. The problems that this situation evokes, concerning children especially, are now global and there is not much difference between Europe and North America. The value of many important things in human life cannot be measured by economic profit.
What significance does this opportunity at Carnegie Hall have for you?
It is wonderful that Carnegie Hall has a residency for composers of our time. It is important not only for composers, but also for musicians and audiences to have the opportunity to experience contemporary music alongside the great works of the past. I see my music as a continuation of the Western music tradition in as much as my compositions deal with the same questions and the same musical parameters as all composers before me. And, like all artists, I find my own answers to those questions. Contemporary perceptions of time, humanity and the destruction of the natural world, our knowledge about sound and its behavior—all of these factors evoke in me certain kinds of music. My hope is that this music can in its turn inspire musicians and listeners because it is written to be shared.