Magazine article The New Yorker

Birth; Musical Events

Magazine article The New Yorker

Birth; Musical Events

Article excerpt

Kaija Saariaho, whose new opera, "Adriana Mater," had its premiere in Paris earlier this month, once said that she likes to explore the boundary between music and noise. Many of her large-scale works, "Adriana" included, begin with a great, heaving expanse of intermingled timbres, like a landscape turned molten, or an ocean boiling. Instruments cry out at high or low extremes; pitches are bent or broken apart; violins are bowed with such intensity that they groan; flutes are blown until they emit an asthmatic rasp. It's the kind of sound that boxes the ears and maxes out the brain; information pours in on all frequencies. But Saariaho is something other than a sonic terrorist out to shock whatever remains of the bourgeoisie. She makes her eruptions of noise seem like natural phenomena, the aftermath of some seismic break. Shapes emerge from the chaos, and the shapes begin to sing. The latter sections of her pieces often bring apparitions of rare, pure beauty--plain intervals that sound like harmony reborn, liminal melodies that disappear the moment they are heard. They are like the wildflowers that bloom in Death Valley, their colors intensified by the nothingness around them.

Saariaho, who is fifty-three, has had a fascinating career trajectory, moving from the hothouses of the European avant-garde into something like the cultural mainstream. She was part of a ridiculously gifted class of Finnish music students that included the composer Magnus Lindberg and the composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (who led the "Adriana" premiere). She has been living in Paris since 1982, and from the start her music has been marked by ideas that have been circulating in French music for several decades: the derivation of melody and harmony from overtones, and the blending of instrumental and electronic timbres. She has long been associated with IRCAM, the electronic-music institute that was founded by Pierre Boulez, in 1977. (New Yorkers will have a chance to hear IRCAM's gadgetry in a mini-festival at Columbia University on May 6th and 7th.)

Saariaho's chief French models were Tristan Murail and Gerard Grisey, who, in the nineteen-seventies, developed a compositional process that came to be called "spectralism." By way of computers, they analyzed the overtones that accompany any resonating tone--say, a low E on a trombone. They then tried to capture that spectrum of tone color in novel forms that unfolded in shimmering waves. The resulting music sounds exotic on first encounter, but its foundation in acoustical reality gives it a certain "rightness," in contrast to previous compositional systems, such as twelve-tone technique, which imposed alternate realities on unwilling audiences. After all, the lower end of the overtone series supplies the building blocks of Western music--the octave, the fourth, the fifth, the major third. Seminal spectralist works, such as Murail's orchestral piece "Gondwana" and Grisey's evening-length instrumental cycle "Les Espaces Acoustiques," have epiphanic moments in which grand harmonies coalesce from the ether--the same effects of emergence that are central to Saariaho's aesthetic.

Composers who have taken inspiration from spectralist methods--among them Saariaho, Julian Anderson, Georg Friedrich Haas, and the late Claude Vivier--aren't tune-happy populists by any means. But they have brought a new sensuousness to European music. In place of the spastic gesturing that was de rigueur during the Cold War era, their work often unfolds in meditative, deep-breathing lines. While spectralist music would hardly serve as the soundtrack to a yoga session, it does have the capacity to generate a state of eerie calm. In a way, it is the European counterpart to American minimalism, which, back in the nineteen-sixties, returned emphatically to musical ABCs. It was interesting that while Salonen was rehearsing "Adriana Mater" in Paris, his home orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was mounting a festival of minimalist music. …

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