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Seen and Heard (Opera Critic) Interview


Reproduced with permission from The Opera Critic web site. (www.theoperacritic.com)

The pains of operatic labour by Michael Ellison

Michael Ellison spoke with Kaija Saariaho backstage over a freshly opened box of Istanbul Turkish delight, minutes before the fourth performance of her opera premiere, Adriana Mater..

Michael Ellison: Could you talk about the genesis of Adriana Mater, and particularly your collaborative efforts with Amin Maalouf and Peter Sellars -the process of your working together?

Kaija Saariaho
: I was very happy and impressed after L'Amour de Loin. I had known Peter for a long time already and I like very much his methods of working - I was often in his rehearsals - but still, it was very different and very inspiring to see how he was with my music. So one motivation really for writing another opera was to continue collaborating with him. And then of course with Amin, because I only learned to know Amin when we were working together on L'Amour de Loin. Amin and I both felt that we wanted to do something more personal, and since we had already done L'Amour de Loin, which had great success and worked very well, we wanted to do something very different. We were not so worried anymore how the piece would be defined - is it opera or not - but we really wanted to do something very personal. So the personal experience for me was my experience as a mother. And, for him, the experience of the war.

That's how, then, these two subjects became the starting point for the whole project. And we spoke a lot, we met as the three of us. We spoke about many aspects. We discussed what sort of inter-relationships we'd like to have: two sisters, and how interesting it would be to see the same reality through two different people. The violence around us and how it changes us…all of these things we discussed a lot, and then Amin wrote the first version.

When we read the first version together, I realized that it was quite difficult, and asked him to make the material richer by adding dreams. I wanted to have a different kind of interpretation of the same material, maybe less linear, less tied to that reality. So we inserted some dream sequences. We don't always know who is dreaming: they are dreams, but they are also not so far from the material. Then, for all of us, it was important to find some element of hope, also - to deal with the problems, somehow. So from the beginning it was something very personal.

Finally, I got the text, when the first act was completely written, and I started to compose. I realized quite soon that, in fact, it wasn't easy to compose the text, because it was not much less poetic than L'Amour de Loin. But a very important, meaningful text. I had very different problems in L'Amour de Loin, even if my starting point was similar. So I created musical material for every person and so on. During the composition process, which was nearly three years, I didn't see Peter much, he's always on some different part of the planet doing different productions, and when he is working on something it is always difficult to reach him because he's always so concentrated on his current work. With Amin, every now and then I found places that I felt I could not use, or we needed to modify. But he has always been ready to modify things as I needed them to be modified. So, in the beginning we had a lot of discussions, then Amin goes to write his first version, we read it together…but he's modified it, several times.

ME: How does it help you musically when the text is less linear?

KS: You mean the dreams?

ME: Yes, the dream insertions you mentioned.

KS: It just keeps a certain freedom. It gives a different freedom, I feel, musically. I cannot really explain it, but I often work with ideas concerning dreams. I like the idea of how thoughts are hidden or are presented differently in our dreams. The same way, then, you can somehow modify more freely [your approach to] the musical material, or take it to some extreme, and it seems justified.

ME: Right. The fact that you would prefer having material which supports such excursions instead of it having to be too literal makes a lot of sense, and many writers have remarked on the dream aspect in your work. But this is a difficult subject to do that with.

KS: It really is very difficult. And I felt that I couldn't really be adventurous with the voice, with the vocal expression. Because the text is so meaningful - it's not exactly realistic but it's not poetic often, either. The vocal expression, then, needed to be quite syllabic. It didn't make sense when you speak about such concrete things to start writing weird vocal melismas or trills and things like that. So that, then, brought me to create very detailed orchestra writing, which is much more developed than in L'Amour de Loin. And that, then, brought me to a completely different situation concerning the balance between orchestra and voice, because in L'Amour de Loin it is very clear that the voice is always in evidence, and here (in Adriana Mater). The relationship is much more in-depth, and maybe much more complex.

ME: I wanted to ask you about something you mentioned already: musical characterization. Do you have a process where you sit down and sketch out the characters musically?

KS: Yes, yes.

ME: In L'Amour de Loin it was very clear that Clémence had these swooping melismas - they made me think of Hildegard, actually-whereas Jaufré is very different. Did you attempt something similar with the characters in Adriana Mater as well? That is, with the vocal lines themselves, or did you go more into the orchestra?

KS: In fact, it concerns all musical parameters. But the big difference here with L'Amour de Loin was that in L'Amour de Loin it was very natural to go beyond my music with this pretext of a Medieval [setting]. I went in a kind of modal direction. There was the contrast between West and East, so I had a certain orchestration with the octaves and so on. In Adriana Mater, I had no pretext to go outside of my syntax, really. So yes, everybody has their own orchestration, they have their own harmony, they have their own scales or modes, and they have their own tempi and their own rhythmic behavior. But then it's superimposed or alternated. And yet, maybe it is more coherent, because it is all within my music.

ME: Was there more of a separation in L'Amour de Loin between voices and orchestra?

KS: Yes.

ME: How do you see the chorus's dramatic role in Adriana Mater?

KS: Well, the chorus isn't on the stage. In this production, we don't see them at all. They don't need to be seen - on the other hand, they could be seen. But they don't have a role. In L'Amour de Loin it was already a bit at the limit. In certain tableaux or acts it was the Tripolitaines, or Jaufré's Compagnons. Here, they have no role at all. They are mostly really an extension both of the orchestra and of the feelings, or echoes of the soloists. So their role is very abstract.

ME: When you generate musical material, do you concentrate more on characters and blending them together, or more on dramatic situations, or more on creating an atmosphere, or is it a mix of all these?

KS: I think in this kind of opera context, it's a mix of all that. When I started to create the material, first I imagined every person's…maybe their atmosphere. You know, dolce nervoso for Refka, dream sections misterioso…and from that, then the orchestration. And then from that, for example the tessitura or how the orchestra is [spaced]. You will hear when Refka, Adriana's sister, is singing, she is inside a big space, there are always high instruments and then low. All persons are defined that way. So I think it started, maybe, from the instrumental colors…combined with the voice, with the vocal colors, of course, because every voice invited different orchestration and then different registers. And from that, I think I went to the detail: the harmonic structures and harmonic behavior, then from that I imagined the tempi and tempi relations and so on.

ME: So it sounds like material comes from inside out, forming the characters first, and their sounds, and then making a more…in the end there has to be some kind of linear musical form.

KS: Yes, well also, before I really started to write, I planned the whole piece. This is how I always work.

ME: Could you talk about that?

KS: Well, I draw, sometimes I have millimeter paper or sometimes just white paper, and I just really imagine the relations, the approximate durations of each section. Already at that stage I imagine if there are some symmetrical elements, if… So I draw it. I draw the whole work in front of me. And quite often it's really quite precise, timewise. I really need to imagine the duration for each [statement of] material, what kind if material I need for it to develop a certain amount of time. And then when I have the totality somehow solved, I go to the detail and I take, for example, the First Tableau, I imagine its duration, I analyze the text, and where I need more space for orchestra and so on. So I plan the first section more in detail, and then I start writing.


ME: Does it always work out that the text will fit in the amount of time you have already in your mind for it?

: Often quite well, yes.

ME: Are your durations very precise? Do you measure the exact amount of time, or close to it?

KS: I imagine it, and then - I don't care so much after…I imagine it, and then, in the end, when everything is finished, I read it through and really try to time the music, and it's quite precise, I think it's really quite precise.

ME: I will hear Adriana Mater for the first time tonight, but L'Amour de Loin to the listener sounds like a whole, which is not true of a lot of operas, in fact.

KS: Yes. Well, this is different and then some people say that the text is not as successful or there is too much text, but the text is what it is. I think it's always horrible that when you do something that works, then people expect that you do the same thing again.

ME: The same thing twice…

KS: The same thing, but somehow better. But why would you like to do the same thing? Its very strange, people have a hard time accepting that you are doing something very different.

ME: I've been teaching a history course in 20th century opera, and it's amazing how many pieces that were not well-received at the very beginning later found a permanent place in the repertoire. I think it's so exciting to have, though, so much sheer interest in new opera. I read that you were covered on French television, with interviews with all the major figures involved in the production.

KS: That's true, yes.

ME: That's amazing. And then people are coming from great distances…

KS: Isn't that the strange thing about the opera. Because you get together artists from different fields, so somehow, it creates interest. I just thought when I was on a bus coming here that, "Oh! Happily, my next thing is a cello concerto (laughs) and it is like a secret thing; it will be just one piece played at one concert, and not with the whole earth coming to see it!" Because, that was horrible, when the premiere was cancelled. [March 30.] That was very tough. Because really so many people came, and couldn't see it.

ME: It was at the last moment, I heard.

KS: Yes, the same day, at four o'clock, when eight o'clock was the premiere. That was so sad. And this could happen only in opera, you know! Who cares if your cello concerto is cancelled? It's nothing at all…

ME: I had some other questions on your composition process. You've described some of this already. Do you use computer-aided means of working out the whole form, or at any point in composition, and do you use specific programs at all to help in the process of manipulating material?

KS: I've used many different things over the years. I stopped using nearly everything. When it comes to the global form, it's purely the result of thinking and imagination, I don't use anything there. Sometimes, when I feel like it I analyze some sounds, some instrumental or vocal sounds, to give me fresh harmonic structures. But I never, even since beginning…it is for me a very clear starting point. It's maybe even a kind of laziness that I analyze and I get the structures, which then take me a little bit away from my normal ways of working. But then I have these structures and I want to make them sound really as I want. So, I'm afraid I'm taking them back to my solutions! But this I do every now and then, but many things I used to do a lot, like to generate rhythmic interpolations, I don't do much at all.

ME: So, when you say you don't do it, are you not going through that stage anymore but still doing something like that intuitively, or do you not think that way anymore?

KS: A little bit of both. That's one way of treating material, and then there are other ways. And that one way I know very well. I don't need to make these calculations anymore. I know quite well how it works. It's as if I have been filled with that information, and for that I don't need a computer anymore. Also, I spent a lot of time trying to define in a computer language certain musical ideas. And I learned that if I purely realize an idea with the computer, the result is extremely boring. Certainly my ideas are too simple, to work with a computer. So there is always the interaction with the intuitive feeling. What do you do to break the process of something, and make it really musically interesting? That's the most important thing that I learned about my composing: that my thinking is very poor! (laughs)

ME: I understand very well…

KS: That's something so complex, isn't it, that in fact we don't know ourselves what is going on.

ME: We can try so hard for something, try to make it go the way we want it to go, but the next day the solution is in a totally different direction, from nowhere, without effort...it's a mystery of composing.

KS: Right. Which is fantastic.

ME: You've talked about the importance of tension-and-release patterns (or perhaps I should say dynamics) in your music. Could you talk about this a little bit? Perhaps one way to approach a vast subject is to ask whether this is something that happens from moment to moment, or something that happens gradually over time?

KS: I think there are different scales, different levels (things) that are superimposed. And whereas I need to know where I'm going in my mind in lengths of five minutes, I need to always assure that every second is interesting. That means it needs to be realized in different scales, the tension and release and how you balance between the two. And that's of course the interesting thing in composing. That's it. That's why the formal design is so important. And the way you choose your material, that it has profile. Because you really need to have material with profile in order to have something contrasting. If you don't see that something is round, how can you put something square next to it? So I think a lot in those terms. But I'm little bit worried of my somewhat obsessive tendency to reduce the material. I want to work with very reduced material. And I would not like my music to be minimal or minimalistic, because that, often, for me, is thinness. And I never look for thinness, I really look for depth. I don't know. I think these are big problems.

ME: There's a side  question here concerning your melodic style, the emergence of which in the last ten years or so much has been written about. In L'Amour de Loin I felt that there was a certain melodiousness, but there also wasn't too much melody either, with parts grabbing attention from one another. I also almost felt as though you were taking great care to not have a melody within one part be too "sing-songy," either.

KS: Really?

ME: Are those factors you are thinking about with melody, a restraint you are putting on yourself?

KS: Well, I think I am putting limits on myself. I always try to avoid everything that is really not needed. You know, I rarely speak if I haven't anything to say. It's not in my character to. Rather, not having enough is my problem, rather than to have too many notes. I think it's really something that comes from me, to clarify, to purify. But in the case of Adriana Mater this is very different because I needed to create an orchestral texture that is much heavier. So that's something else.

ME: If you could imagine being an outside observer to your music, say, someone who doesn't know anything about spectral music at all, but a musician who wants to look at your music and its tension and release in such a way that they would really gain an understanding of how your music works, which musical parameters would they look at?

KS: First of all, I don't think my music is "spectral music" in the same sense as Gérard [Grisey]'s or Tristan [Murail]'s music. If I think about which parameters at which one would look, certainly orchestration, certainly harmony, and I'm not sure which one comes first, because tension is often…even if I don't use scratch sounds or things like that, I do use spectra which are more complex, and I do use percussion which are unpitched and so on. But I think there is another element in the tempo, also. Maybe those, and ambitus.

ME: I actually have a student who is trying to write something on both your music and Tristan's, and trying to create a graph showing the tension level, but it's very tricky because on the one hand you have contrary forces…

KS: Yes

ME: …and you have to decide what is tension-producing and what not, for example I think sul ponticello would be more tense than sul tasto

KS: Yes. But then it depends on texture, yes.

ME: With your harmony is it more the density of that harmony, like we see in a spectrogram, which is important? Or is it the actual notes themselves?

KS: Density, maybe, but ambitus…because the notes are always the same. I mean, my harmonic material is very limited, always. Very limited. So the first chord, well, there is often a harmonic structure which is like the basic structure. I have certain harmonic structures to which we always return, and that gives us the feeling of relaxation. We come through different processes to this. But it's not something that's constant. And in music as complex as Adriana Mater, where every person [character] has their own harmonic structures, there are often things that are superimposed. [softly] I was always very bad in analyzing any music, so you won't get much advice! [laughs]

ME: There's of course a danger in analyzing too much…

KS: Yes...

ME: What is the role of electronics in this piece?

KS: Well, it's very limited, because there are no electronic sounds. It's only the spatialization-the choir which is brought to the hall. And that doesn't come originally from the libretto, that comes from this hall, because this hall is enormous. I've experienced so many pieces here and I felt like they always stay far, on the stage, and never reach us really. So really one of my first musical ideas was to bring the choir sound to the hall, to somehow really surround us. So there is something coming from the orchestral sound which is extended and brought to the audience. That's the only thing.

ME: Sometimes, and I think of L'Amour de Loin here, there is a marvelous, what I will call "blurring of edges" in your music. Oftentimes one thing doesn't seem to go directly into something else; there's a kind of transformation that happens in the sound. Is that something you hear from the beginning, generally, in your music, or do you have more clear ideas about where you are starting and where you are going to, and then create these "blurred" or dreamlike transition passages?

KS: The beginning and the end are the clear things, and then what happens in between, it's perhaps more intuitive, or then I have a clearer idea. You know, I think that this is the whole challenge, to go again from "A" to "B." I think that's something that we are thinking constantly, in fact.

ME: It becomes more and more perhaps the most interesting part…

KS: Sometimes it comes so easily and sometimes it's so impossible to find.

ME: What was the most difficult part of Adriana Mater to compose, once the libretto was finalized?

KS: The Second Tableau, the rape. Because that's unbelievably violent music, and it took me a horrible effort to write it, and to imagine that violence. That was very hard.

ME: Did that stretch you in unexpected ways? You had probably never conceived of passages like that before.

KS: Yes, that's true. And the end was also very difficult to imagine, very difficult. That, I couldn't imagine beforehand, and it took a very long time.

ME: The themes of ideal beauty, forgiveness, and hope in the face of suffering are central to your operas. Is one of the reasons you are writing opera to give a voice to these themes?

KS: Well, I think the reason is, yes, to think about these themes, and to penetrate into some of them with music. Because music is so secret. Our feelings are so secret and multi-faced and impossible to analyze often, at least very deeply. The more important the feelings, like love and hatred, the more important the mysteries, like death, the less we can penetrate into them. There is something about, you know it yourself when you…there is so much music that we love and we listen to it…how strangely wonderful it is. Humanity and its relation to music is an unbelievably vast field, and I have more and more feeling that music is vast, limitless... And when it is refined and sensitive it can penetrate to secret places. Of course you work with your intellect and experience and you try to communicate something with it, but what do you really want to communicate with art? Many people ask, "Is this a political opera?" I think it's reducing it to say it's political. Of course I'm trying to communicate with other humans, but what do I really exactly communicate? What I'm looking for is the way out from this horrible violence and suffering. Of course I cannot pretend that my opera can bring really anything. So maybe I'm just inviting others to really think about these things. And yet, it's not even that! Of course, I'm a composer, and I want to write music. I think its very complex. I don't know, but I don't defend my operas as dramatic works. I maybe define them like meeting points, with Amin and Peter, and the beautiful musicians who are so dedicated and who perform the music. And then we all hope that this result will be rich, and bring us things we cannot analyze or expect. That is how art, at its best, would be. In a way, then, the mystery is there.

ME: It sounds like you are very unconcerned whether you finished an opera, or not…

KS: The genre, as such, I couldn't care less.

ME: Is that also true in your instrumental music, for example your new 'cello concerto?

KS: I really realize that writing "abstract music" is something very different from writing stage works. Because stage works, with text, and characters, there is something that people relate to, and me, in the first person. I relate to these characters. Me, my life, my life experience, all my feelings relate very differently to these stage works than to this "abstract" 'cello concerto. They are two very different things, that's for sure. OK, they are different. So I do one, and then I decide to do the other one. It's not easier or more difficult, but surely very different.

© 2006 Michael Ellison


Photos (top to bottom):
Kaija Saariaho
(© Ralph and Kara Mecke)

Adriana Mater, Opéra national de Paris:
1. Patricia Bardon (Adriana), Stephen Milling (Tsargo)
2. Patricia Bardon (Adriana), Solveig Kringelborn (Refka), Gordon Gietz (Yonas), Stephen Milling (Tsargo)
3. General Scene
(© Ruth Walz / Opéra national de Paris)


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