RECONNAISSANCE (rusty mirror madrigal)

Libretto for a work for choir and two instruments by Kaija Saariaho, 2019-2020.

Premiered by accentus at the Biennale di Venezia on Septembre 24th, 2021.
Co-commissioned by accentus, SWR Südwestrundfunk for Donaueschinger Musiktage, November Music, and Palau de la Música.

Programme note (Aleksi Barrière, 2020)

The word ‘reconnaissance’ contains two contradictory ideas: the English meaning of heroic military exploration of the unknown, immediately refuted by the French meaning which is the re-discovery of what we already knew, perhaps our own eerie mirror image. The high-definition pictures we now have of planet Mars’s arid landscapes, once covered with rivers and oceans that maybe were home to life, bring to mind the same contradictory impression, which must also have been the same kind of metaphysical contemplation the 15th century audience experienced when listening to the apocalyptic imagery of the Franco-Flemish School’s madrigals. This comparison is what triggered the idea of a ’science-fiction madrigal’, associating two genres that share a deep existential affinity. Indeed, choral music also articulates individual voices and collective fate, blurs the lines of who is saying ‘me’ and who is saying ‘we’. These categories are shattered in our age, when for the first time we are drawn to reflect, beyond our mapped identities, on what unites us as a species, possibly endowed with a shared future, or perhaps with no future at all. Through creative solutions that question musically what a chorus can be, Kaija Saariaho’s score treats humankind itself as a character, expressing itself both in unison and in fragmented voices, in opposing groups and in isolated individuals. Kaija’s very own brand of futurism doesn’t resort to the expected electronics –despite them being one of her favorite instruments– but strip things down to the raw sound material of human voices and a double-bass and percussions, metal against skin. A ’starry night’ typical of her sound world, were it not lacerated by the violence that took us from the canyons to the stars. Thus crumble the dreams of grandeur by which we pompously define ourselves collectively: we the species of immigrants who think of themselves as conquerors and emperors.

From an interview with Thea Derks (Contemporary Classical, September 2020):

Could you explain the title? 

The title is mainly a reference to the use of the word ‘reconnaissance’ as a synonym of exploration in English, especially about space. Originally the word is French and has many fascinating connotations in that language. Literally re/connaître means to know anew, to re-discover what was already there: to recognize, to realize that you are yourself within what you thought was other. Which brings us to the mirror…

The subtitle ‘Rusty Mirror Madrigal’ is intriguing too. Could you explain it?

The subtitle comes from a line of the final post-apocalyptic section of the piece, that describes the Earth and Mars becoming ‘Two rusty mirrors face to face’. The piece is constructed on the idea of the two planets as mirror images of each other. Mars used to be protected by an atmosphere and covered with water, and looked very much like the Earth before becoming a wasteland. It stands in the sky as an eerie image of our planet’s future, like one of those ancient memento mori inscriptions where the dead say to the living: Tu fui, ego eris – I was you, you will be me.

Working on this piece, we wanted to include the word madrigal as a nod to the Renaissance tradition that uses the choir as a medium to reflect on those very subjects. While writing the text I listened to a lot of music from Ockeghem and the Franco-Flemish School (Renaissance –‘Rebirth’– is another word that is hidden in the word Re(con)naissance) and it was only appropriate that the work ends with a rewriting of the Requiem Mass text. The images of that ancient text must have some day felt like we can now feel watching high definition pictures of the surface of Mars and learning about its meteorological conditions.

When looking for a subject for a contemporary madrigal, I realized that the great tradition of 20th century science-fiction operates very much in the same way as the Renaissance madrigal tradition: offering startling images of a possible future to make us reflect on our own mortal condition and our values. I got pretty excited by the idea of bringing these traditions together in a work that would be a ’science-fiction madrigal’, the first of its kind if I am not mistaken.

One precursor of sorts is Tarkovsky’s movie Solaris, in its abstract and metaphysical approach of the very concrete space race of the 1970s. I included into the piece, as an interlude, a fragment from the film’s script, which is a direct translation into Russian from the original story the film is based on, by Stanisław Lem. In this monologue the theme of the mirror also appears: the pulsion of conquest that we have taken to outer space is redefined as a quest for a mirror. The mirror as an image is in itself a recurring source of inspiration in Kaija’s music. Musically this was also an opportunity to explore what kind of dirty light and dark shimmers could be found in a rusty one.

Mount Sharp photographed by Mars Curiosity rover in January 2018 – Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The November Music Festival speaks of a ‘science-fiction-jouney’ and a ‘futuristic choir piece that addresses our ever crumbling environmental awareness’. Would you agree? And if so, how are we to understand this?

The work stands at the precise point of junction of the Renaissance madrigal and science-fiction, which have so much in common.

Before even deciding on a topic, a choir piece is bound to speak about the collective experience and its relationship to individual voices. As a form, a madrigal tells the story of the construction of a ‘we’, and the harmonic resolution of the conflict of individual voices, whether these voices belong to individuals coexisting in a given society, or to one person’s head and inner life. We tried to explore the meaningful possibilities of this form, from the antique narrator-choir or ritual-choir to a singular voice performed by multiple voices, and up to the representation of the polyphony of humankind itself (the multilingual parts of the text also stem from my previous collaboration with Kaija, the opera Innocence, where my task was precisely to develop the use of multilingualism in the storytelling of the libretto). So by nature the work was bound to be about collective questions: our shared experience as a society and a species, our survival and existential outlook in the face of our productivist hubris and impending self-destruction.

To be very specific, clearly the question of what it would take to rebuild an atmosphere on Mars through the greenhouse effect that is destroying ours, and in general the question of why we would even want to do that (our greed for natural ressources, our tendency to assume we can slash and burn this planet and move on to another one) are deeply rooted in the ecological questions we are struggling with now in 2020, and the ensuing collective angst.

In the process it felt natural to turn to a culture that has an unfortunate expertise in dealing with environmental destruction. The Hopi people have not only endured the violent (still ongoing) destruction of their home environment: it is central to their cosmology. The Hopi concept of Koyaanisqatsi (which gave its name to a famous film that deals with this topic) refers to the idea that when mankind lives a life out of balance, a catastrophe occurs that provokes a migration and the foundation of a new world. The Hopis have many accounts of this happening, from their foundation myth of moving from the underworld to the surface of the Earth, to recent history. In their narrative we are already living in the Fourth World, and we are on the threshold of the Fifth.

In contrast with our promethean spirit of conquest and hyperproduction, it felt right to give a voice to a culture from which we have much to learn, in their very own words which we quote in the original language, as transcribed by the scholar Ekkehart Malotki.

It is also an uncanny coincidence that the Hopi people live in a deserted landscape in Arizona that looks very much like Mars, making the juxtaposition even more concrete. Des canyons aux étoiles…

Beyond this mythological aspect, climate justice is a very real issue that we need to address: how climate change amplifies already existing social and economical inequalities in the world we live in. Native American activists are at the forefront of this issue, and I have also been inspired by the work of Kyle Whyte, who has written extensively on the subject. As a writer in the position of having a voice on a stage, I feel it is important to invite other voices to the table too.

As I understand, you collaborated closely with Kaija Saariaho on this new piece. Could you elaborate a little bit how this went about? Did you offer an idea and then she started composing, did you suggest musical ideas, was the text altered to suit the music…?

This is my fourth collaboration with Kaija on a choir piece. Each time the commission has been a blank slate, and she has invited me to come up with a subject matter and form. Like all composers I have worked with as a librettist, she expects a lot from the text in terms of providing formal solutions on a musical level, and is very open about it. Knowing her musical language pretty well, I could manage both giving her things I knew could suit her sound world and also (more importantly) push her into new areas. Per se the whole science-fiction background is rather foreign to her, but there was an entry point in the poetic science-fiction of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which she loves, and the Stanisław Lem story it’s based on. Quoting that material directly at the center of the piece was for me to her like a doormat that says Welcome. But a libretto also has the task to provoke a composer out of her comfort zone, and it was interesting to see how she would respond to the challenge of composing a rocket launch countdown, or setting to music words like ‘manganese’ and ‘fluorinated gases’. 

So when the text was ready and Kaija started composing, we stuck to the challenge. She didn’t ask for changes in the text to make it easier for herself, on the contrary she asked for more clarity in the existing material, clear rhythmical solutions on which she could base her own musical micro- and macro-structures.

The rewarding thing about the text/music process is that of course as a writer you have a certain idea of how the composer will interpret certain ideas musically (for instance I knew Kaija would feel at home in the more cosmic, ‘starry night’ bits of Reconnaissance) but the act of musical creation is one of such depth that there are always beautiful surprises, and this piece has many. Of course the outside input of an original text generates new musical ideas (it is indeed its mission), but there is also the secret place where the artist finds something personal and unique that takes it all to the next level. Just when we are getting slightly bored after half-an-hour of rehashing in the Goldberg Variations, out of the same material that was already there Bach comes up with the ‘black pearl’ of variation 25, and we hear music that we never heard before in the deepest possible sense: a personal music of the future, with echoes from the past. Science-fiction at its best.

Full libretto

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