Liner notes for the CD Circle Map, Graal Théâtre & other works by Kaija Saariaho (composer), Clément Mao-Takacs (conductor), Peter Herresthal (soloist) and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, published by BIS records.

A strong object of fascination in modern mathematics is the study of dynamical systems, that allows us to formalize and predict complex phenomena, and create models that can be explored with increased precision through the processing power of modern computers, unfolding levels of reality previously unavailable to mankind. The behavior of fluids, the mutations of a growing organism, the stability of a market, or the weather are just some of the occurrences that dynamical system theory models in “evolution functions” called maps. When several dynamical systems interact and influence each other’s evolution and “lock”, meaning their frequencies become co-dependent, such as the processes of breathing and the beating of the heart within the human body, the mathematical function that describes them is called a circle map. There are many layers to why Kaija Saariaho picked this image as a title for one of her pieces, layers fundamental to her musical discourse.

When the tonal system was deemed outdated by many leading classical composers in the early 20th century, what was at stake was not simply the idea that music was not anymore to be written solely within a limited amount of keys, structured around a tonic note. A lengthy history had installed the idea that the organization of the tonal sound world was a reflection of the broader organization both of the universe and of man, a transposition of the harmony of the spheres echoed in the humors and emotions within ourselves. Hence, atonality did not only leave composers with unprecedented and vertiginous freedom; most importantly they had to face the fact that the cosmos is complex and messy, that their craft no longer grants them direct access to its fabric, and that humanity’s place and role in the big picture is anyway rather marginal and negligible.

But new horizons opened up. Composers of the generation before Saariaho’s submerged themselves in dynamical systems theory, realizing that mathematical descriptions of reality, when applied to sound parameters, could also be used to generate musical gestures and structures, while reconnecting music with the secret inner workings of the universe, in the same way that Debussy was interested in imitating the very movements of nature, its ‘curves’ and ‘arabesques’, in his ‘harmonic melodies’. Some, like Iannis Xenakis, used mathematics and probability extensively to generate musical complexity, and not just to create series of notes: after the revolution of Integral Serialism, the pitch of notes had ceased to be the main parameter as in melodic tonal music, and much attention was also given to duration, loudness, location in space and timbre, i.e. sound color. The latter was a major source of fascination for Spectral composers, Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail using electronic tools to analyze the nature of sound itself, and the following generation studying its perception with the input of psychoacoustics, all means to learn how to sculpt it with new insight. Instrumental in mathematics, the computer consequently became a crucial device in musical creation too, and gave birth to new tools to analyze, synthetize, organize and notate sounds.

Much of this research was happening at the IRCAM in Paris (the Institute for Research and Acoustics/Music Coordination), which Kaija Saariaho, at the age of 29, joined for training in 1982, just five years after its creation by Pierre Boulez. In this hive devoted to the collaboration between musicians, scientists and programmers, Saariaho did not simply gorge herself on intellectual debate and artistic invention, but came to play a major role in them. Her work at the institution produced many groundbreaking pieces mixing live instruments and electronics, greatly informed her writing even in purely acoustic music, and contributed to the development of software and technology that she, like many other composers, still uses.

Saariaho’s oeuvre, which brings together many techniques prevalent in her student years, is remarkably explicit in its project of recreating through the means of music that lost connection between us and nature, cosmos, the greater scale, depending on how one prefers to name it. Many of her pieces are named after natural phenomena that serve as a starting point to her compositional process, including major early works such as her string quartet with electronics Nymphéa (1987), inspired by the symmetries and transformations of water lilies on the surface of water, or Lichtbogen for orchestra and electronics (1986), triggered by the spectacle of the aurora borealis in the sky of Lapland, and based on harmonic material stemming from the spectral analysis of the multiphonics of a cello – making the tissue of sound scintillate in a manner similar to how the earth’s magnetic field affects the charged particles brought into our atmosphere by solar winds, made visible in the form of Northern lights. Written a decade later, Neiges (1998), which is performed on this recording in its version for twelve cellos, stems from a similar type of inspiration – in this case, various qualities of snow – and explores instrumental languages and colors similar to those found in Saariaho’s earlier works, this time without the help of electronics.

However, like the other works on this recording, which are from a later, more mature period of the composer’s output, Neiges was written with the help of computer analysis and has all over it the fingerprints of Saariaho’s earlier electronic research: its consummate savoring of color shapes a soundscape immediately recognizable as personal to its maker, created by the permanent interplay between one instrument and the other, pitched sound and noise, harmony and dissonance, and musical parameters interpolated to blur and taunt our perception, as bow movements teasingly take us slowly from soft harmonics and notes to scratching noises and back. Between the larger works recorded here, Neigescan be enjoyed as a meditative contemplation, five sketches or etudes to which one can listen, rather than as fully sketched pictures, as five beginnings that, like walks into a snowy landscape, don’t lead anywhere but silence.

The other pieces on the program deal with the same artistic premise, but incorporate an added level of complexity and drama. The orchestra, rather than relishing in its own sound and exploring it, has to deal with a foreign body and be influenced by it. We witness three forms of interaction between two dynamical systems, in which Saariaho’s familiar paradigm of electronics echoing and transforming a live instrument is not realized but transposed to new levels.

Saariaho’s first concerto Graal Théâtre (1994) and her recent Vers toi qui es si loin, which is a transcription for violin and orchestra of the final aria of her first opera L’Amour de loin (2000), were born from similar sources and gestures: musically, from her exploration of the interactions between a soloist and an orchestra without electronics –and thematically, from the corpus of medieval literature, respectively the legends of the Grail and the story of the troubadour Jaufré Rudel, both brought to the composer in French rewritings by poet Jacques Roubaud (born in 1932). The narrative content has little musical bearing other than distant inspiration, similar in that respect to the exotic medieval and Persian modes and colors that one could be tempted to recognize on this recording, and similar to the images of nature that inspire some of Saariaho’s other works: the adventures of knights, like the experience of snow, helped unify the compositional process, but they also dissolved in its course, leaving in the end only a couple of words in the title with the hope of inspiring, in turn, the performer and the listener. We should be warned not to expect a detailed expansion of the idea expressed in the title, but an invitation to make free associations. In the background of these works does however lie the Christian mysticism of the original sources, realized musically: Graal Théâtre is the quest of a violinist working his way through musical landscapes and battling the orchestra and its various sections, trying to impose rhythm and colors and mimicking theirs, and finding in the second part a way to create with them an integrated, organic musical whole. Originally a prayer to the dead lover identified with a God whose name can only be Love, Vers toi qui es si loin, on the other hand, displays the soloist against a delicate, ethereal orchestral texture into which he blends seamlessly, and where the unity of the self and the universe is realized without putting up a fight, for one fragile moment.

Circle Map (2012) turns this entire traditional setting that is customary in operas and concertos upside down: the human character, the individual self, personified by the voice of the poet Rumi (1207-1273), is not showcased in the musical and visual foreground, but dematerialized as an invisible and absent figure that only makes occasional appearances, through a processed recording of Rumi’s poems in the original Persian in the electronics. Clément Mao-Takacs, who has conducted many of Saariaho’s orchestra and stage pieces, describes how unusual this situation is in the composer’s output, and in a concert context in general: the piece is performed like a work for orchestra alone, and – without any need for the conductor to cue the voice and perform in dialogue with it as he would do in a piece featuring a soloist – the electronics emerge, seemingly from the musical fabric itself. In Graal Théâtre, it is clear from the opening bars of each movement that the orchestral material is born from the sound of the solo violin, as displayed nakedly in pure harmonics and scales: we understand the self is embarking on a journey within his own inner world; the landscapes and demons come from himself. Circle Map uses very similar devices: as in Saariaho’s concertos and operas, rhythmical cells and sound colors are all built from the material of the ‘soloist’, in this case the spoken voice whose very breathing and harmonics are echoed by the woodwinds. But rather than making this origin clear in the exposition of the piece, the composer suggests to the listener that the voice is only something fleeting that emerges within the orchestra, an ephemeral phenomenon. And so the speaking voice doesn’t have to struggle to find its place within the cosmic whole: the voice only has to realize that, proceeding from the same material, it is not an alien component but organically belongs to the broader musical fabric from the beginning, is only one of its many manifestations, like the solo flute that discretely opens each movement but is not revealed as a key image to the text until the end. That is also the Sufi mystical message of Rumi: the soul suffers from the feeling of its separation from its source, until it makes the journey to understand the greater unity of the universe to which it belongs.  

In this sense, the circle map image of two systems synchronizing is unified with the circular dance of Rumi’s Whirling Dervishes, who by spinning try to join the greater dance of planets. “Turn as the earth and the moon turn / circling what they love”: it is perhaps no coincidence that the never-repeating but mutually interfering and synchronizing orbits of the earth, the moon and the sun are the classical illustration of a fundamental case of dynamical systems theory, the three-body problem. There is, in Kaija Saariaho’s music, no discontinuity between the scientific ideas that irrigate her craftswomanship on a conceptual and technical level, and the mystical thoughts that inspire her and which her works so purely express: all hail the fundamental unity of reality by exploring its processes from the cosmic scale to the microscopic scale, and place the listener in the middle of it.

In the words of the philosopher and mystic Simone Weil (1909-1943), to whom Saariaho devoted an oratorio that she has described as her spiritual testament, this is the ideal of a vision that reconciles the mind and the heart, a science not leading to dehumanizing barbarity, but attempting to be something “that a human mind can love”: “the study of the beauty of the world”.

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