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Pleåsure Nøise: Kaija Saariaho's Cello Works

available at Amazon
K.Saariaho, Cello Works,
æon AECD 0637

The latest CD with the music of Kaija Saariaho features her complete works for cello, ranging from the 1988 Petals (on the Contemporary Music Forum concert next Sunday at the Corcoran) to the 2000 Sept Papillons. The best of modern classical music appeals immediately (on some level) while offering enough complexity and novelty to intrigue on any number of hearings. The litmus test to figure out if a new work meets this standard is successfully passed if the idea of giving the recording another, second or third, spin is not met with a cringe. Even when there is other music eagerly awaiting to be listened to. I’ve listened four times to the Saariaho disc – and duty was not the compelling force.

Categorization in contemporary classical music will more likely confuse than illuminate. But it is tempting to distinguish between the very different approaches of composers like Golijov, whose ambitious ethno-flavored classical popsicles have plenty of appeal (Ramírez and Sierra are less successful exemplars of that craft), and the explorative Romantics who dare to be authentic 21st-century composers (Benjamin C. S. Boyle, Nicholas Maw, Ned Rorem, Kaija Saariaho, David Del Tredici might be counted among those) without getting stuck in the trappings of austere academia (Milton Babbitt, Brian Ferneyhough, Lee Hoiby… name your favorites). Any of these, no matter the quality, will compare favorably to the type of schlock that masquerades as “classical music” and flows from the – miraculously unembarrassed – pens of Karl Jenkins, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Paul McCartney, John Rutter, Roger Waters… no better than an off-Broadway musical soundtrack, most of it.

Sister WendyThe best approach to this heap of contemporary classical music is akin to the “Sister Wendy Museum touring method”: glance at it all but only stop at what intrigues (not necessarily pleases) you. Then spend time with that particular work, enter into a dialogue with it. Learn about the many different appeals of contemporary music. Like in painting or photography, it is often not the subject per se that is the attraction, not necessarily melody or harmony or even rhythms, but light and shade, texture, structure, vague evocations, games with time and sound (or silence) itself.

Modern music succeeds as an art for the public to the extent that the listener, not just the composer, his fellow composers, and that odd subset of the human species, musicologists, can follow these themes. One might go so far as to pin-point success in composition being a work that appeals through its aims, experiments, mood, and expression thereof: appeals because it employs a language that communicates its intent. If the intent is appeal itself, its success is at best that of a consumer product, not art. If the work is all intent, but unable to communicate, the composer ends up with something still-born, enjoyable only to him. Like a scientist who marvels at his latest creation – a flying, egg-laying, and fire-resistant hamster – may be proud studying his project’s superior genetic code but conveniently ignores the minor snag that these critters are invariably dead before hatching.

Dead, flying hamsters are admittedly a long way from Kaija Saariaho’s cello works. Take the excursion as a way of saying that this recording is no such chimera; that it contains music of the kind that makes you listen up, willingly joining for the journey, even if you can’t necessarily discern where the journey goes. Elsewhere I have described the impression as "grinding through stone, ageless sounds, crumpled paper, blown glass sculptures (some of them broken)." It isn’t important that beauty, in any conventional sense, is in short supply. (“Beauty,” as my favorite Celibidache quote goes, “is not the goal itself; it is the lure.”) Nor is it of consequence if you go away from “Près” (1992) noting the diligently coy development of “a trill between the cello’s B-flat and its 4th natural harmonic” or merely a curious “uh-huu.” Comprehension of underlying theory and techniques can help you appreciate modern music – but for the music’s ‘success’ it is not necessary that you do. Watch some of Fellini’s films and see if understanding necessitates enjoyment.

Join Saariaho’s Petals by not expecting anything in particular, and allow yourself to be enveloped and poked by strange, strangely familiar sounds of Alexis Descharmes’s cello receiving imaginative use and abuse, conventional manipulations like sul ponticello and sul tasto, which are then (optionally) modified by the electronic-musician/technician from IRCAM, David Poissonnier. Jérémie Fèvre adds his flute to Mirrors (1997) and Nicolas Baldeyrou his bass clarinet to Oi Kuu (1990).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been lucky enough to hear Alexis Descharmes twice at the French Embassy. I think he is an excellent performer and totally committed to the music. The Saariaho pieces he played were all fascinating - she's one composer whose work I look for on programs.