NOTES ON LIGHT with Jakob Kullberg

Liner notes for the CD Remembering – Cello Concertos (BIS records) by cellist Jakob Kullberg, featuring Kaija Saariaho’s cello concerto Notes on Light and two concerti by Per Nørgård. These notes were intervowen with a text by Jørgen I. Jensen about Nørgård’s works.

The Concerto as Method

As a performer, arranger, composer and curator, Jakob Kullberg incorporates a broad range of unusual extended techniques, borrows from other bowed instruments or the guitar and sometimes even sings. In his hands the cello is an instrument devoted to the creation of new music, but gorged with the awareness of its own lengthy history, and its versatility and broad range are put to good use to collaborate and, when needed, steal. It is therefore only partly surprising that Kullberg’s work, a highly personal process relying on his own arrangements, skills and friendships, finds its centre of gravity in the concerto, a most classical form (to the point that in recent times composers have often approached it with reluctance) but also the most collaborative. Concertare does mean ‘to play together’, and a concerto is a musical dramatization of the encounter of an individual soloist with the sound world of a composer. This happens to be precisely what Kullberg is so eager to explore: the point where the instrumentalist enters into a dialogue with a living composer’s musical language, weaves himself into it without renouncing his personal artistry, playing with the idea of becoming a transparent vehicle for it, but ultimately transforming it into something personal by treating it as something that needs to be expanded. Music begets music, in what is a personal journey and adventure. On this record Kullberg continues his work on the concertos of two composers with whom he has collaborated extensively, and although his personal readings of these works are to be found in his performances, some background information may be useful to the listener.

Notes on Light

Like Per Nørgård, Kaija Saariaho came only gradually to the concerto form. Her distinctive voice as a composer emerged in the development of subtly woven sound textures in which, thanks to live electronics, individualities blend rather than enter dialogues. For that very reason, she herself dismisses the idea that works such as … à la fumée (1990) or Amers (1992), both including a cello next to the orchestra, are anything like concertos. It was only in her forties, starting with the violin concerto Graal Théâtre (1994), that Saariaho started tackling how the classical soloist/orchestra relationship could be integrated into her own language, a process that paved the way to the kind of musical dramatization of individual voices that allowed her to write operas in the 2000s.

As such Notes on Light (2006) not only functions as a kind of musical drama, but also recapitulates the development of her musical language until that point. The first movement (Translucent, secret) starts where Saariaho’s previous work for cello and orchestra, Amers, left us: in an aquatic world that possesses both the weight of water and its ability to carry and diffract light. As the concerto begins, descending cello lines suggestive of gravity are broken into glissandi and harmonics, like diffracted spectral chords that shine in the darkness. But unlike in Amers, the cello is immediately established as an individual character, one that tiptoes into cold water. The solo part starts with a series of tentative scales descending from an F sharp on the A string, meaning in physical terms that the player’s fingers begin their timid exploration of the instrument’s neck from the uppermost (and outermost) string. As listeners, we are treated to a close-up of the tactile adventure of a player taking possession of his instrument and then trying to find his place in the complex and extremely reactive environment of the orchestra. This is the beginning of a conversation.

The second movement is called On Fire, which can of course describe the state of burning, but should also be understood as the subject of a debate. The cello and the orchestra undergo a ‘heated’ conversation and refuse to share the space. But the writing, at first reminiscent of the dialogic character of Saariaho’s violin concerto, morphs thanks to the orchestral textures into something more elaborate during the transition to the third movement (Awakening), borrowing musical material from the work she composed just before creating this concerto: the opera-oratorio La Passion de Simone. Here the cello writing is both bellicose and integrated with the orchestra, in fact reminiscent of the position of a singer in an opera, and in its low register the cello does happen to sound like a human voice singing underwater. In the most dramatic way: the climax unfolds in the only clearly ascending line of the movement, which with its alternation between the highest and lowest notes of the instrument’s range feels like the toilsome gasping of drowning lungs. In this recording, Jakob Kullberg completes the resolution of the climactic line with a two-minute cadenza he has composed himself. Here, at the exact centre of the piece, he creates an expressive space, freed from the constraints of the orchestra and of the sheet music itself, playing in a personal way with the musical ideas at hand. But this cadenza is a swan song, and when the orchestra re-enters the cello melts into harmonics and the high register; when the orchestra recedes like an ebb tide, the soloist too has disappeared, seemingly washed away by it.

This feels like the end of the piece. The conflict has been solved, something like a traditional three-part arch (albeit inverted compared to a classical concerto: slow-quick-slow) has been completed. But the journey is not over. In the fourth movement (Eclipse) the orchestral sea flows back in heavily, without the soloist. The cymbal shimmers may evoke images of an actual solar eclipse, but it is really the invisible influence of the moon on the tides that we are witnessing over the course of several minutes. Besides, this majestic build-up doesn’t make for an epic re-entry of the soloist: when the cello returns at the beginning of the final movement (Heart of Light), like a bird rustling its wings as it emerges from an oil spill, it speaks not of the sun-hero’s return from the dead, but of transformation, shadows and memories, after a lost battle against the fatal entropy of the universe.

The cello’s utterances are not triumphant, but now more than ever made of descending lines, crushed sounds and a frail upper register. They do shine, but with the gentle dimness of a constellation amongst constellations. They are for us to contemplate, ‘looking into the heart of light, the silence’ as in the lines from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land quoted by Saariaho on the final page of her score, alluding to the moment when love and music live only in our recollections. Carefully re-constructed, re-membered as Per Nørgård would say, ready to live another life within ourselves as material for something else. The self-centred individual has dissolved into the greater cosmos and is now at home, ready to become once again what it always aspired to be: new music.

Jakob Kullberg performing Notes on Light (first movement)
Lighting Design by Aleksi Barrière / I Djurs og Mols Festival, Denmark, July 2021
Picture by Mats Iversen Vangen

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