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Photo by Maarit Kytöharju

Kaija Saariaho

The Arctic Philharmonic Sinfonietta and soprano Berit Norbakken Solset will present Quatre Instant by Kaija Saariaho at the opening concert at Nordic Music Days. Kaija Saariaho is a prominent member of a group of Finnish composers and performers who are now, in mid-career, making a worldwide impact. She studied composition in Helsinki, Freiburg and Paris, where she has lived since 1982. Her studies and research at IRCAM have had a major influence on her music and her characteristically luxuriant and mysterious textures are often created by combining live music and electronics. Although much of her catalogue comprises chamber works, from the mid-nineties she has turned increasingly to larger forces and broader structures, such as the operas L’Amour de Loinand Adriana Materand the oratorio La Passion de Simone. Saariaho has claimed the major composing awards in The Grawemeyer Award, The Wihuri Prize, The Nemmers Prize,The Sonning Prize, and The Polar Music Prize. In 2018 she was recognized with the BBVA Foundation’s Frontiers of Knowledge Award. In 2015 she was the judge of the Toru Takemitsu Composition Award.

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Always keen on strong educational programmes, Kaija Saariaho was the music mentor of the 2014-15 Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative and was in residence at U.C. Berkeley Music Department in 2015. Saariaho continues to collaborate for the stage. Only The Sound Remains, her most recent opera collaboration with Peter Sellars, opened in Holland in 2016. In the same year, her first opera L’Amour de Loin was presented in its New York premiere by the Metropolitan Opera in a new production by Robert Le Page. The Park Avenue Armory and New York Philharmonic presented a celebration of her orchestral music with visual accompaniment in October 2016. Her fifth opera, Innocence, will be premiered in the summer of 2020.

Photo by Maarit Kytöharju.

The festival’s theme is “truth?”. Can music be “true”? Is it something you are struggling with in your compositions?

For me, music is true when the composer is true to herself when composing it. Often this isn’t as simple as one could think, it takes time to find the way in yourself to this truthfulness, and to build the technical means to express it. Nevertheless, it is really important that the artist finds a way to express herself sincerely, thus giving their work depth and individuality. We are touched by artists who have ‘something to say’, even if that something is difficult to define with words in music. I think that arts are needed today maybe more than ever, as spirituality is not present in our lives, and our society is brutally commercial. Many artistic and innovative skills are used for pure manipulation or economic profit. We need free, independent, creative minds! Of course, I am questioning myself about all of this in my life and work.

In Quatre Instants you work with words and the human voice. Can you tell us a bit about Amin Maalouf and how you work with his texts?

Amin Maalouf began his professional life as a war reporter, and after having left his native Lebanon, he travelled to war zones all over the planet to report about wars. He then started writing novels, often connected to people from the oriental cultures, such as the Persian philosopher and poet Omar Khayyam in his novel Samarkand. More lately he has published essays, for example On Identity, a book about the importance of understanding the multiple identities we all have.

Our first collaboration was for my first opera L’Amour de loin. We then continued working together for five texts altogether, four stage works and Quatre Instants. Two of these texts are for the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila. For Quatre Instants, I asked Amin for texts or poems that I could use for a song cycle dedicated to Karita. He gave me a pile of short texts, some of which had been written for early versions of my first opera. I selected three and proposed then a collage based on them for Amin to close the cycle.

In the context of operas, our collaboration includes many meetings and discussions before librettos are completed. During the composition period, Amin always is open for modifications when needed. In the case of Quatre Instants, not many changes were needed, and I was happy to get into composing as soon as I found the right order for the texts and the collage before the last song was ready. This cycle became a small monodrama about different stages of a woman in love.

Civilized Music
13 November, 19:00 | Stormen, Store Sal

Quatre Instants song cycle

Quatre Instants was born from Karita Mattila’s desire to have a new work for her recitals in Châtelet Theatre and Barbican Centre in April 2003. From the first moment I discussed these songs with her I had a clear idea of the feelings that I wanted this music to evoke. Knowing the hugely expressive spectrum of Karita’s voice I imagined a whole section of music built of contrasting images, sub-sections of which would be compressed into short but powerful moments. This reflection also gave the songs their title: “four instants”. The fact that these instants are associated with different faces of love is without a doubt connected with the fact that I have seen Karita playing the role of a loving woman in so many opera productions. The cycle was originally written for soprano and piano. Trying to extract the colours I had in my mind from the piano, and at the same time adapting its vast expressive scale to the diminutive vocal lines, reminded me of the work of a jeweller, who, with the help of a loop, creates rich, microscopic details.

I had always planned to make an orchestral version of these songs, yet when I finally did, it was not so easy because, in reducing everything onto the piano, I had tried hard not think in orchestral terms.

But I wanted in the new version to achieve the same very clear, bright sound as in the original, and I’m pleased that, because this version was made for a Classical-sized orchestra rather than a big Romantic one, it retains some of the piano version’s chamber-music feel, so that the phrases we hear from the orchestral instruments – from the wind, and so on – are, in a way, in dialogue with the singer. The two versions are not completely similar, however: there are tiny differences of details. In the original, for example, the singer starts the third song, while here it begins with a phrase on the flute. In both versions, though, the instrumental writing is integral to the overall texture and not just an accompaniment to the singing. Rather, it is a musical extension of the text that sometimes develops several musical ideas simultaneously.