Kaija Saariaho: An intense moment-by-moment fragile and mysterious soundworld

concert review: It required a certain kind of surrender - and also a silent listening environment

Kaija Saariaho Photo: Andrew Campbell

Normally when I’m taking my seat at a concert, I switch my phone to airplane mode. After the public announcement requesting phones to be turned off, I double-check. At two concerts on Friday and Saturday I checked five or six times. Maybe more, I don’t know. I kept checking.

The concerts were devoted to chamber music by Kaija Saariaho. In her first visit to Ireland, the leading Finnish composer was guest of honour at the Louth Contemporary Music Society's annual summer festival, this year entitled Stations of the Sun.

The phone paranoia was prompted by the intense, moment-by-moment fragility of Saariaho's soundworld. If your phone starts blaring the Hawaii Five-O theme during the overture to The Marriage of Figaro or the Hallelujah chorus, maybe no one hears. A little no-look sleight-of-hand kills it within seconds and limits the consequences to a few frowns, maybe a tongue-click.

Almost none of Saariaho’s music was robust that way. It was the opposite: as delicate and refined as a miniature glass sculpture, vulnerable to the tiniest disruption, nothing random or accidental, every moment in sound painstakingly judged and created, and invested with significance which - although known fully to the composer only - you couldn’t fail to register.


While the music wasn't always soft, pieces often opened that way, presenting a quiet but irresistible inducement to enter

That’s assuming you surrendered to it. During an interval someone told me they couldn’t. In fairness, it requires a conscious effort, like finding the right blurring of visual focus to be able to make sense of one of those Magic-Eye pictures. While the music wasn’t always soft, pieces often opened that way, presenting a quiet but irresistible inducement to enter. And if you entered, you were in: no expectations or assumptions, no conventions to follow, just an openness and trust in Saariaho’s crafting of sound.

Her first piece of the weekend, Laconisme de l’aile, demonstrated much of this. It’s for flute and recorded sound, but begins with the flautist (Camilla Hoitenga) half-speaking, half-whispering verse. There’s the inducement to enter, which you do, trying automatically to track meaning. Then almost imperceptibly the whispering is melded with sounds from the flute: no notes, just the movement of breath, the tapping of keys, until eventually there are notes, taking to the air like birds. And it’s a birdy piece, with fluttering and flight and sky, all evoked by the flute and textured by the recorded sound.

Words also provide Saariaho's initial inducement for an extract from her 2002 From the Grammar of Dreams, a setting of Sylvia Plath for soprano and live electronics. Before she sings at all, the soprano (Raphaëlle Kennedy) seizes you by opening with a choppy, unhinged spoken delivery of the first line of 'Paralytic'. Once again you are in, before the soprano goes on to sing the rest of the poem, at times in duet with herself as the live electronics assert their partnership.

It doesn't really grieve but is pensive

A 2006 piece for string quartet, Terra Memoria, begins almost below the level of audibility - you can see movement in the hands and fingers of the players, but only gradually does sound emerge. Dedicated ‘for those departed’, it doesn’t really grieve but is pensive, gradually growing from a quiet ostinato beneath a gentle violin melody and into louder, thicker textures that become anxious-sounding, even angry. It was a highlight. The combination of intensity with clarity by the Meta4 string quartet seemed to convey, even in the flow of the richest passages, how Saariaho had calculated every moment and made each one important.

Again, it required a certain kind of surrender - and also a silent listening environment that could preserve both the fragility of her soundworld and its invisible hold on us listening. At the expense of one piece, it was in fact revealing to observe just how instantly and destructively that hold could be shattered.

With Saariaho's music you are absorbed and moved by such mysteries even though they are not explained

Nature conspired with a sequence of quiet but intrusive sounds - tip-toed footsteps, someone trying to muffle a cavernously deep-seated cough, even a baby burbling - to shake the Magic Eye picture back to its wavy patterns, like someone switched on the houselights in a cinema or slammed a door during the vows at a wedding. While small sounds like these might have far less impact on Beethoven or Ravel, whose chamber music would at least leave you with a way back, here they were devastating and underlined Saariaho’s spectral, delicate essence.

When asked in these pages by Michael Dervan about her idea of musical heaven, she answered that it would be “any musical concert where I don’t have to suffer from people who move, cough or snore, and I feel the music can live in the acoustic of the hall the way it should”. Bluntly honest words that perhaps secretly every composer would like to say. Probably every performer as well, and every committed listener.

Apart from that one piece, and one brief intrusion by some kind of low-humming generator or air-conditioner, it seemed to me, and I hope to Saariaho, that she was within reach of that musical heaven for most of the rest of the time during her two concerts, the first in Dundalk Gaol and the second in St Nicholas Church of Ireland.

The LCMS provided Irish audiences with an unprecedented and concentrated encounter with a kind of music that draws you in so that you become immersed in it and can engage with its many mysteries - how do you discern the connection she mentions between one of her pieces and a painting by Paul Gauguin, what exactly does it mean to manipulate sound with a phase-vocoder, why should a movement subtitled 'Sursum corda' ('lift up your hearts') sound so anxious and angry, then remorseful. With Saariaho's music you are absorbed and moved by such mysteries even though they are not explained.