Kaija Saariaho: the Finnish composer who lets others play with her work

The composer’s attitude to combining her ballet, which is coming to Dublin, with a video she hasn’t seen was ‘why not?’

Kaija Saariaho: ‘We started to work on the number seven. I have seven musicians. The piece has seven parts’

Kaija Saariaho: ‘We started to work on the number seven. I have seven musicians. The piece has seven parts’


Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s ballet Maa gets its Irish premiere tomorrow courtesy of the electro-acoustic performance group Dublin Sound Lab. Maa won’t be presented as a ballet, but instead with a new video by Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, as Mirrors of Earth.

Don’t think of the project as a conventional collaboration, because it’s not. Saariaho is quite happy to lend the extraordinary alluring textures of her work to other art forms.

The 90-minute Maa was first performed by the Finnish National Ballet in 1991. Saariaho and choreographer Carolyn Carlson agreed to create an abstract work.

“At that time,” says Saariaho, “I was working a lot – and in a way I still am – with the idea of metamorphosis. So it became the thematic thing: crossing the space, opening the door, two sides of the windows, different spaces.

“We started to work on the number seven. I often work with numbers, and anyway we have numbers in time, so it’s quite natural for me.

“For Carolyn it seemed to be much more important still. In the beginning it was supposed to have seven dancers, and so on. Well, I took this number seven very seriously. I have seven musicians. The piece has seven parts. Every part of these seven has seven sub-parts. I developed seven different kind of materials, which then are used in seven different ways. For me it was a kind of mind game. We need strategies to restrict our material, so that was the starting point for this piece.”

The actual music was begun in the countryside, where Saariaho recorded material for the electronic part of the score. “The heart of the work is this piece for violin and electronics. I wrote it at the country house, and I felt that the atmosphere I had writing that piece somehow came to the whole work.”

A slow worker
Saariaho describes herself as a slow worker, who maps out her structures in advance, never interferes with orchestration once she has made decisions – and the use of electronics is as much part of that decision as the inclusion or exclusion of a saxophone. This limited the extent to which she could fully collaborate with a choreographer who worked “through improvisation with the body”. If the dance needed an extra five minutes, it simply wasn’t forthcoming. “I had carefully realised the big puzzle,” and adding or removing sections “would have broken it, musically”.

“When we had the first performance, I had no idea what Carolyn would be doing. She did what she did and she didn’t really ask my opinions. At the time I felt that I would have liked it to be still more abstract. But what did I imagine? I’m not sure.

“Later, when I started writing my first opera, L’amour du loin, I had very strong ideas about the material, and colours and so on. The first stage director was Peter Sellars, and he said, ‘you can tell me your ideas, but I cannot promise to follow them. They will give me other kinds of ideas.’ But I think he followed very much my ideas, and I think it was nice. I didn’t impose anything, and anyway he didn’t really want to discuss with me before the dress rehearsal. A little bit later I gave up telling anyone my ideas. No one seemed so interested in them.

“But now there have been many, many productions of L’amour du loin. I’m most attached to the first one. Is it because they were my ideas? Or because it was the first one? Or because it was Peter? You cannot separate these things. It’s really interesting to see what people come out with.

“There was one production and it was like a cartoon. The singers were singing in front of a movie screen, and the movie you saw was a strange way of interpreting the opera, where partly it happened in medieval times and partly in a modern society with a computer lab and vomiting in public toilets. This I was surprised by. Many people liked it. I’m very open.”

It’s no surprise that her attitude to combining Maa with a video she hasn’t seen is “why not?”

Leaving Finland
Saariaho left Finland long ago, first to study in Freiburg in Germany, then to settle in Paris. “I wanted to get away from Finland. It’s a very small place, and very soon I was known as the woman composer who is doing electronic music. It seemed to me to be really irritating to be put in a box like that. When I started to visit Paris, I didn’t know French culture very well. It was fascinating for me, and I felt that this was a big forest – nobody cares. I suddenly felt free to be what I wanted to be.”

One thing that brought her into the electronic studio was that “I was often unhappy about the acoustics of the performance spaces. That’s why I started to amplify instruments, and change the space.”

Purely electronic music allows a perfection limited only by “your time and patience. But I really started to miss the magic of the live performer, the musician. That’s nearly impossible to replace.”

Dublin Sound Lab’s
performances of Mirrors of Earth are at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, on Saturday and the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, on Thursday. Excerpts of the video at dublinsoundlab.ie

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