Kaija Saariaho, Petals (1988)

    Duration: 9 minutes
    Instrumentation: Cello and electronics
    Premiered by Anssi Karttunen on May 19, 1988, at the Musica Nova Festival in Bremen, Germany
    Publisher/copyright: Chester Music/Edition Wilhelm Hansen

    The composer writes:

    Petals for solo cello was written abruptly in a few days, but evidently after a long unconscious preparation. The material stems directly from Nymphéa for string quartet and electronics. The name of the piece is derived from this relationship. The opposite elements here are fragile coloristic passages, which give birth to more energetic events with clear rhythmic and melodic character. These more sharply focused figures pass through different transformations and finally merge back to less dynamic but not the less intensive filigration. In bringing together these very opposite modes of expressions, I aimed to force the interpreter to stretch his sensibility.”

    About the composer:

    Kaija Saariaho is a prominent member of a group of Finnish composers and performers who are now, in mid-career, making a worldwide impact. Born in Helsinki in 1952, she studied at the Sibelius Academy with the pioneering modernist Paavo Heininen; with Magnus Lindberg and others, she founded the progressive Ears Open group. She continued her studies in Freiburg with Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber, at the Darmstadt summer courses, and from 1982, at the IRCAM research institute in Paris — the city which most of the time has been her home ever since.

    At IRCAM, Saariaho developed techniques of computer-assisted composition and acquired fluency in working on tape and with live electronics. This experience influenced her approach to writing for orchestra, with its emphasis on the shaping of dense masses of sound in slow transformations. Significantly, her first orchestral piece, Verblendungen (1984), involves a gradual exchange of roles and character between orchestra and tape. Even the titles of her next linked pair of orchestral works, Du Cristal (1989) and …à la Fumée (1990) — the latter with solo alto flute and cello, and both with live electronics — suggest their preoccupation with color and texture.

    Before coming to work at IRCAM, Saariaho learned to know the French Spectralist composers, whose techniques are based on computer analysis of the sound spectrum. This analytical approach inspired her to develop her own method for creating harmonic structures, as well as the detailed notation using harmonics, microtonaly and detailed continuum of sound extending from pure tone to unhitched noise — all features found in one of her most frequently performed works, Graal théâtre for violin and orchestra or ensemble (1994/97).

    Later Saariaho turned to opera, with outstanding success. L’Amour de loin, with a libretto by Amin Maalouf based on an early biography of the 12th-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel, received widespread acclaim in its premiere production directed by Peter Sellars at the 2000 Salzburg Festival; it won the composer a prestigious Grawemeyer Award. Adriana Mater, with an original libretto by Maalouf, mixing gritty present-day reality and dreams, and again directed by Sellars, followed at the Opéra Bastille in Paris in March 2006. Emilie, an opera and monodrama for soprano Karita Mattila had its premiere in Lyon in March 2010.

    Around the operas there have been other vocal works, notably the ravishing Château de l’âme (1996), Oltra mar (1999) and the song-cycle Quatre instants (2002). The evening-long La Passion de Simone, portraying the life and death of the philosopher Simone Weil, formed part of Sellars’ international festival, New Crowned Hope, in 2006/07.

    The experience of writing for voices has led to some clarification of Saariaho’s language, with a new vein of modally oriented melody accompanied by more regular repeating patterns. This change of direction has been carried over into orchestral works including Aile du songe for flute and chamber orchestra (2001), and the stunning Orion for large orchestra (2002). Notes on Light (2006) for cellist Anssi Karttunen and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Bergman inspired Laterna Magica (2008) for Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Most recently, D’OM LE VRAI SENS, was written for the clarinetist Kari Kriikku.

    In the profusion of large and small works that Saariaho has produced in recent years, two features have marked her whole career: one is a close and productive association with individual artists — not least Amin Maalouf and Peter Sellars, as well as conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, flautist Camilla Hoitenga, cellist Anssi Karttunen, soprano Dawn Upshaw, and pianists Emmanuel Ax and Tuija Hakkila. The other is a concern, shown equally in her choice of subject matter and texts and in the profusion of expression marks in her scores, to make her music not a working-out of abstract processes but an urgent communication from composer to listener of ideas, images and emotions.

    Along with the Grawemeyer Award, Saariaho has claimed other major composing honors such as The Wihuri Prize, The Nemmers Prize and in 2011, The Sonning Prize. In May 2013, Saariaho was awarded the Polar Music Prize. In 2015, she will serve as the judge of the Toru Takemitsu Composition Award.

    AUDIO: To listen to or purchase on iTunes Kaija Saariaho’s Complete Cello Works, as performed by Alexis Descharmes, Nicolas Baldeyrou and Jérémie Fèvre, click here.