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Interview with Kaija Saariaho

Video and transcript/translation of Johannes Baumann’s interview with Kaija Saariaho in Istanbul at the Borusan Arts & Culture Foundation’s Music House on the day of the world premiere of her piece for violin and electronics, Frises. (Review here.) Because Mme. Saariaho didn’t feel comfortable with an interview being conducted solely in German, I happily volunteered to facilitate or translate where necessary. In return I got to sneak in a few questions of my own. Johannes Baumann runs VioWorld, a Germany-based employment website for culture and especially orchestra jobs all around the world.

Transcript below the jump

Johannes Baumann: Vioworld meets Kaija Saariaho. You were surrounded by music in your childhood; how did you get to compose?

Kaija Saariaho: I started to compose because I was imagining music and little by little it became a necessity. I felt that I must live with music. And since I’m not a good instrumentalist, and I really wanted to find a way to express myself through my music, it seemed to me the only meaningful way of living.

JB: You paint. Was that a key element that led to your composing?

KS: No. I don’t paint anymore. I did drawings and I did paintings when I was younger, but when I seriously started to study composition and came to this profession, I’ve not done anything else.

jfl: You say that at some point you knew you had to have a life in music. Did you also think that you might actually be able to make a living with music?

KS: In fact, no. I was not thinking much about the practical side  of things, because it was such an urging necessity [to compose], as sometimes young people have, that I was rather fighting against reality. Because I knew that this could be something very complicated. And for example my parents were therefore against it.

jfl: How old were you at that time?

KS: I had a continuous crisis starting from the age of eleven until maybe 20, 21.

jfl: And when did you have your first piece performed?

KS: The first piece performed was when I was 24, maybe.

JB: Years of childhood, years of adolescence – how long did it take for someone to recognize, encourage, and promote you?

KS: For me it took a very long time. But htat’s because I don’t come from a musical family and the people around me were rather against this prospect of a musical career. And we are all very different. Some people show their talent early, some people much later as you know. Some composers decided to become composers very late. I think it’s very individual.

jfl: Did you have any one person, relatively early in your compositional career, and said: ‘I see a talent, let’s foster that’?

KS: No, that never happened to me. Myself, I had a feeling that I need to study with Paavo Heininen who was a composition teacher at the Sibelius Academy. And I think my intuition was right. He benefited me enormously; he really helped me construct the technical tools for this work.

jfl: And then did you immediately get into a group with fellow Finish composers Esa-Pekka [Salonen], Magnus Lindberg etc.?

KS: It was easy to get into this group because we were studying at the same time. So it was very natural. We were fellow students and that’s why we then did many things together.

JB: Your education began in Helsinki. Then you continued in Freiburg and Paris. Did you always know where you wanted to go?

KS: Yes. I had met Brian Ferneyhough who was then teaching in Freiburg and I felt that he would be a good next teacher for me. I wanted to get away from Finland so I applied to Freiburg, I did my Masters there, and after that I heard about computer music courses in Paris and I applied to those courses as I felt it would be important for me… I always followed what I felt was important—and somehow it worked out.

jfl: How was it learning from and working with Brian Ferneyhough? Did you always feel a musical kinship? Because I can’t perceive it in the music.

KS: My music has very little to do with Brian Ferneyhough’s music. Maybe nothing to do. But he was a very interesting person—and still is—who has very sharp eyes and he had interesting things to say.

JB: One of your great successes has been your violin concerto Graal théâtre. Is it also your favorite work?

KS: Graal théâtre is one of my important works, but there are many others and it’s difficult, you know… how would you compare your children? They are all very different. I like them all and there are many things in them I don’t like, also.

JB: What do you need for composing?

KS: I need paper, a pen…

JB: No computer?

KS: No. But I do use computers. Big scores I type directly into the computer. It’s practical.

jfl: Is the process labor? Is it craft? Is it inspiration or does the inspiration come at one point and then you tweak it out? If you say “pen and paper” that sounds like you are just writing it like a cobbler would make a shoe.

KS: It’s a combination of all of these. And of course the intellect and feelings and intuition and craft they are all combined… it’s a constant switching between all of these. That’s what is so interesting in composition that you use so many different sides of your brain.

jfl: Last night you mentioned that you don’t think of the audience when you compose. But are you happy when you realize that your work is being liked and appreciated not only by a closer circle but by more people. Like L’Amour de loin, where you must have realized that you were being heard by many more people than perhaps in the past. And that it’s being enjoyed.

KS: Of course I am very happy if I reach other people with my music… if it can give something to them. We are human beings, we try to communicate. And if I can see that my music can communicate something, that makes me very happy.

jfl: Do you still write mostly for yourself and if it happens to communicate you are happy, or is that part of the aim in composing: that you actually want to communicate and work towards that goal.

KS: It’s neither. It’s really that when I imagine a work I want to realize it as well as possible. That includes the fact that I myself I want to step back and at some point try to imagine if I heard it for the first time, would it be satisfactory… are there weaknesses, does it really communicate the things I wanted to communicate. So I think it’s more abstract. It’s about work. But it must become a living work. And it must speak to me, when I take that distance.

jfl: So you are your first audience?

KS: That’s for sure, yes.

jfl: How often do you go through something that you have composed and say: ‘It’s not necessary – pffffffit, [out the window]’?

KS: Not the whole piece. Never. But certain passages I reconsider often.

We are meeting you in Istanbul here, what brings you to Turkey?

I’m taking the airplane on Sunday to Boston because in fact yesterday there was a big concert with the Boston Symphony [Ed.: with the American premiere of Kaija Saariaho's Circle Map, six movements for large orchestra and electronics, co-commissioned by the BO] and today is another, and the last one is on Tuesday. And after that I come home and then I hope I can really start composing again. I am starting to work with a piece for orchestra and organ.
What brought me to Turkey? All these things happening at the Borusan Center. There’s the exhibition of which I was one the exhibited artists, then it grew into this idea of the concerts, then it grew into the idea of this commission we will hear tonight,
Frises, which I’m very happy about. So this is why I am in Istanbul.

jfl: The name of the work Frises refers to… what exactly?

KS: It refers to the friezes… it came to my mind when I saw a big exhibition by a painter Odilon Redon. There was part of his work I didn’t know about. He was working on furniture and on decoration and he was painting friezes. And they are extraordinary. Painted… not ornamental, flowers… very free.

JB: Are you a content composer?

[pause] I am very happy. My music has got so many opportunities and so much feedback, good feedback… I am happy.

What is coming up next?

Yes, well… the next piece is this piece for organ and orchestra. And then maybe… something. Maybe a new stage work. We’ll see.

Have you considered a concerto for accordion?

No. It’s a difficult instrument for me.

For you, generally? Why?

For my music. I haven’t yet found the connection.

What are you hoping will the future bring?

I don’t ask so many things for myself. I would be happy if there would be an awakening concerning the culture in many countries and as there is a slow awakening concerning ecological problems we have similar problems with education and culture and I think it starts to be urgent and I hope that little by little it could be understood that music and arts are really a necessary part of human life and that they would not be killed but supported.

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