Kaija Saariaho talks about the creation of her new work “Vista”
Colors, textures, spectra: when Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho talks about her music, one can get the impression that she is describing a painting. And although she sees herself in some ways as a synesthete and is inspired by art, she initially takes a rather abstract and mathematical approach to composing. She primarily is known for her compositions with live electronics. Commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker and other renowned orchestras, she has now created Vista, a purely orchestral work that will celebrate its German premiere under the baton of Susanna Mälkki on 22 May 22 2021. In this interview, Kaija Saariaho tells us how the piece was created, and why listening to music is like eating cake.
The title of your new commissioned work Vista promises music that creates visual impressions. What did you have in mind when you composed the piece?
Before this piece, I had worked for a long time – seven years to be exact – on my opera Innocence, which will be premiered this year at the Festival in Aix-en-Provence. When the opera was complete, I felt free from it, and wanted to create something very different. While I was driving from Los Angeles to San Diego with my husband one day, I could see the seaside beside me and I asked him to turn right to drive closer to the water. This open view felt like my present state: I could see new horizons and a wideness that coincided with the feeling I had. We drove for a while, and there were a lot of signs that said Vista, to point out the several view points. And that is how the new work got its name.
Live broadcast in the Digital Concert Hall
Watch the German premiere of Vista as well as Béla Bartók‛s opera Bluebeard‛s Castle condcuted by Susanna Mälkki with the Berliner Philharmonikern live on 22 May 2021 at 19:00 in the Digital Concert Hall. The following Sunday, at 13:00, the recording will be broadcast again.
What was then the path from inspiration to finished work?
It’s not like I tried to put the scenery of the coast into music. This inspiration stayed in the background, and the process of composing is both more abstract and practical. Often this kind of first inspiration can give formal ideas, for example. But when I start the actual composition, I start by defining harmonic material, imagine the particular instrumental colours and musical textures. With each new work, I try to renew and challenge myself, and this time I wanted to use a different orchestral instrumentation. I usually always include the celesta, harp, and piano in my orchestral scores. This time, I decided not to use these instruments at all. Instead, I focused on wind instruments, and especially the different instruments of the woodwind family: Vista has flutes in different sizes, the oboes are combined with cor anglais, and clarinets include also the smaller E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet.
Your work consists of two contrasting parts: Horizons and Targets. Why and how did you decide on this division? With the same musical material, I wanted to create two contrasting and formally different movements. Where the first movement has independent lines that are transformed sometimes into pure colour textures without pulse, the second movement has a clear physical energy and determination. Here the rhythmic elements are multiplied into forceful tutti unisons or multi-layered climaxes, before the end of the work, that reinterpret the calm textures of the beginning.
The premiere took place last Wednesday with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Susanna Mälkki. She will also conduct the German premiere with the Berliner Philharmoniker. What was your collaboration like, and how was it to hear your work for the first time?
When I compose, I have often a particular musician in mind, and Vista was composed for Susanna Mälkki. When working on operas I create a specific music for every character, and when working on concertos, I often bring something of the soloist to the music, either intuitively or on purpose. In this orchestral piece, Susanna is the interpreter, and maybe something of her musical personality has guided my musical choices. In any case, she is sensitive with my work, knows the new score very well before the first rehearsal, and understands my music. She is still able to leave her imprint on the work, too. That is not something you can take for granted.
It’s always a very special feeling to listen to my music for the first time. Until then, the music is only in my mind, and, in a way, it stays abstract. This time, it was even more special because Vista should have been premiered last year, so we waited for a long time. I was in Helsinki for the rehearsals, and then for the world premiere, which was broadcast live, and I sat alone in the auditorium. I felt happy and grateful to hear live music-making in the same space with me, and that happiness made me less critical of myself and my work than usual.
With the Berliner Philharmoniker, the piece will be played with the full set of strings. And every orchestra has its very special sound, so I am really looking forward to listen to the piece in the Digital Concert Hall.
You often work with live electronics in your compositions. What experiences and insights from electronic music influence you in your works for a “classical” orchestra?
I take a lot from my experience with electronics into the composition of instrumental music. During my research and periods working at Ircam, I studied complex sounds and their perception with computer sound analysis programs, and that helped me to develop new ways to assemble timbres and build orchestration. The same knowledge about sound and its behaviour has enriched my work with electronic pieces and orchestral music. But that knowledge is then of course mixed with creative elements, feelings, and intuitive decisions.
In any case, all the technical work belongs to a composer’s work process, and I don’t want to tell people how to listen to my music. I think that music can be enjoyed very differently by different people with different backgrounds. I hope the music can open all kinds of minds. It’s like eating a cake. If you are not a pastry chef, you do not analyse the components of the cake, you just enjoy it or you do not. And that’s how I want people to listen to my music as well.
Portrait: Susanna Mälkki
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