SHE DIDN'T BEHAVE LIKE A COMPOSER: SHE SERVED ART.
From the staging of the Dutch premiere of L'Amour de loin in the early 2000s to the premiere of Innocence at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence in 2021, via the commission of Only the sound remains for the Dutch National Opera in 2015, Pierre Audi has forged a special relationship with the work and person of Kaija Saariaho over more than two decades. In this interview, he pays tribute to her, drawing a portrait of an artist who is both fundamentally free and perfectly in tune with the times, whose work is imbued with mystery and serenity, and who has won over a wide audience without ever turning away from her fundamentals.
As a tribute to Kaija Saariaho, who passed away on 2 June, the London Symphony Orchestra concert, conducted by Susanna Mälkki on Thursday 20 July 2023 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, will open with her piece Lumière et Pesanteur based on the “Eighth Station” of La Passion de Simone, of which she was particularly fond.
WHAT WERE THE CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH YOUR LONG ASSOCIATION WITH THE WORK AND THE PERSON OF KAIJA SAARIAHO ORIGINATED?
I don't exactly remember the circumstances in which this long friendship began. I saw L'Amour de loin in Salzburg in 2000 and found the production impressive - the music was like some kind of grand gesture. I was also drawn into this world by Amin Maalouf's libretto, which resonates with my origins and evokes the epoch of the Crusades: a subject to which I devoted my thesis, and which has remained very important to me. However, something was bothering me without me knowing exactly what it was; the musical fresco I had witnessed left me with a taste of unfinished business and something was eating away at me.
My arrival at the helm of the Holland Festival enabled me to find out more. I was able to take advantage of a revival of this production in Helsinki working with Susanna Mälkki and the second cast on another, much simpler staging, which would thus become the Dutch premiere of this opera. It was in staging it that I realised why I had felt so uncomfortable with Peter Sellars' Salzburg production, despite all the magnificent things about it - particularly the set design by George Tsypin, an artist with whom I had worked and who I knew very well. What was striking about this experience was the truly miraculous nature of Kaija's work on the libretto, which was much closer to the text and narrative than I had previously imagined - in Salzburg, on the contrary, I had had the impression that the music was drowning out the text - bringing me very close to what I had experienced with Monteverdi. If Kaija immediately struck me as a great composer, it is because it seemed to me that she was a direct descendant of the progenitor of opera. It was like a revelation for me, which led to a very different staging proposition.
From that point onwards, and realising that Kaija's work could easily fall prey to trompe-l'œil stagings that deflected it from its true essence, I managed to find my way towards it, enabling me to understand it better and to respect the heart of her work - which lies in this amazing proximity with the text. Her music is certainly an architecture that surrounds the text in the manner of a mobile that can rotate 360 degrees and from which one can bring out this or that detail but, above all, it starts from the text and comes back to the text. Peter Sellars was undoubtedly very aware of the direction he had taken; and if he came to see my proposition, it was because he knew it would be the one he hadn't made: that of Amin's text with Kaija's music. Curiously, Robert Lepage has continued in the same vein as Sellars at the Met: it was a production that was strong visually but which actually missed the point of the story. Having discovered that this work functioned very differently from the way in which the first productions seemed to have shown, led me to develop a very special relationship with it, both as a stage director and as a programmer. This, then, was the spearhead of our long friendship, which began with this critical re-reading of L'Amour de loin and came to an end with Innocence.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF INNOCENCE, HER LAST OPERA, WHICH WAS SUCCESSFULLY PREMIERED AT THE FESTIVAL D'AIX-EN-PROVENCE IN 2021?
A whole series of projects grew out of this first overwhelming experience, and after giving her first opera in the Netherlands, it seemed logical to me to commission her to write an opera for Amsterdam. The result was Only the Sound Remains, a completely different work based on a text by Ezra Pound and starring Philippe Jaroussky. Then, of course, Kaija had to be programmed in Aix: she and George Benjamin were the two composers I immediately thought of when I was appointed head of the festival. I then took over a project that had been engaged and then left in abeyance, and decided to programme it in 2020, which was the year of my second edition. But we had to get through the COVID crisis and advance it as far as possible in 2020 so that we could programme it in 2021.
This ordeal was more difficult than she and I would have thought, given our experience as seasoned artists and programmers: it would seem that several of the people we spoke to had not anticipated the full potential of this work before it was actually created. Kaija and I were surprised and saddened by this, and it opened up a new dimension in our relationship. She could see me even more as someone who unconditionally supported her music. I wasn't the only one, of course, but she could see at that moment that I was angry, that I wasn't going to accept that this project wasn't going to happen. I really fought for her and for the Festival; maybe I shouldn't have, but it was such a wonderful project; the success and the public reception later proved me right.
But going through this ordeal really moved her and me: we discovered that our friendship was extremely deep. I realise without exaggeration that Kaija has been one of the two or three most important people in my life – something I couldn't necessarily have predicted back in the early 2000s. We went through different forms of relationship over those 23 years; and, of course, I'm devastated by her passing.
And now, thinking back, for example, to the soirée that I semi-staged at Armory Park Avenue, which presented several of her works, put together with performers for whom she had written these pieces – a conductor who had been devoted to her work for decades, Esa-Pekka Salonen, her husband, Jean-Baptiste Barrière, from whom I commissioned a video (a dream she had hoped to realise one day and which therefore came true in New York with great success) –, I am aware that I very quickly became conscious – because I'm instinctive: everything for me involves the sensual dimension of things – that there was a real affinity between us.
And so, I also got to know her husband in this context: not just as the man she loved, but as an extraordinarily fine and sensitive artist; and her children too, Aleksi and Aliisa, both trained by her and very independent. And this family became important to me: I got to know them and understand them.
With Innocence, the Festival d'Aix received a gift that has left its mark on the quality of listening and artistic understanding on our teams. On the other hand, I think the festival has been a haven of friendship and human warmth for her over the last few years. This proves just how much an institution like this needs this kind of relational experience with an exceptional artist to show what he or she can offer that is unique as a translator, film director, conductor, producer, etc., of a creative desire. The adventure with Kaija certainly represented that for us.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE MOST STRIKING FEATURES OF THIS MOVING AND SINGULAR ARTISTIC PERSONALITY?
Over the last few years – especially the last two – I've thought a lot about her work. I've tried to understand exactly what she was doing. It was very personal work: she didn't behave like a composer: she served art. She talks about it a lot in her interviews and, sometimes, when people talk about it, it can sound very general or pretentious; it's something that seems hard to your finger on – especially today when art is not necessarily valued, when it can seem a thing of the past or unimportant. But she was absolutely committed to it, and I understand why: because she painted with her instinct, her heart, her soul, and that's what counted, that's what shaped her musical world. She was aware of everything, curious about everything, but she still trod a path of her own.
A fascinating feature of Kaija is that she constantly reinvented herself. Not for pleasure or by obligation of doing so, but because each time her method was to start from the text, which required different music. Of course, there is a sort of fragrance that comes back with each work, but with her operas, she has proved that each artistic experience has its own rules and requirements, and that her task as a poet of music was to find an alchemy, a tailor-made interpretation, and not to start from the work or the success of the previous piece in order to extrapolate the success of the next. This quality, evident in opera, is also to be found in all her music - even if there are of course intangible sources of inspiration such as nature, the cosmos or a certain awareness of the force of destiny.
The other constant is that she loved intimate adventures, writing for specific performers who could inspire her. I think that was the driving force: she did a lot of that in her life. Her final work, for example, was written for a trumpeter.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THE FORCE OF DESTINY?
There is something inexorable at work in L'Amour de loin or Innocence which, through a labyrinthine path, leads to a dramatic climax that she has been able to express without didacticism or compromising her language. In so doing, she is implicitly saying something about her own mortality. Artists are more sensitive to mortality than we give them credit for; to express this force of destiny through her work is, for her, to formulate the hypothesis that she could continue to exist beyond her "mathematical existence", without having the slightest certainty that this work will survive her.
I was reminded of this sense of the power of destiny when, at the very moment that Innocence was commissioned, she told me that it would be her last opera. And this was long before she fell ill. I wondered why she said that and, at the time, I interpreted it in these terms: on the one hand, the effort required was too great for her; on the other hand, the theme and what she was going to do with it were sufficiently satisfying in her eyes to feel that with this work she could say adieu, not perhaps to music in general but at least to opera.
I never discussed religion with Kaija; I would have liked to but I didn't. Perhaps precisely because she emanated such spirituality and serenity that I didn't need to talk about beliefs – about life and death – with her. From the first note I heard of her music, I sensed someone who was naturally at a very high altitude – without being detached from reality, to which she gave a universal dimension. That was her instinct, and it's not possible to work like that if you don't have a serene nature: you have to be born with this serenity, to be inhabited by this gift of remaining naturally above things while behaving in an extremely humble way.
Inevitably, you could hear it in her music, in the way she talked about projects, in her relationships with other artists. It could have been boring – bland and disembodied; with her, on the contrary, it was rich and brilliant: she loved colour. She was never bored as an artist; she took great pleasure in her art, and it showed. It was a serenity that was very much alive, very active, not at all static.
SERENITY SEEMS A VERY APT WORD TO DESCRIBE HER – AT THE CROSSROADS BETWEEN THE AESTHETIC, THE ETHICAL AND THE SPIRITUAL...
Her work is deeply personal. She did not set out to revolutionise the history of music. She was not a theoretician seeking to demonstrate hypotheses or defend a political point of view. There is always something Shakespearean and mysterious in her work, as in that of Monteverdi. Mystery is very important. Firstly, in the medieval sense of a dramatic or musical gesture akin to a ritual: this is very strong in her music. But also, in the sense of the mystery of life and death - without it ever being pessimistic or macabre. On the contrary, it can be joyful: There are even works by Kaija that have a sense of humour. She considered art as a license to express the mystery of oneself, of relationships with loved ones, of our lives, or of a world that, since the beginning of humanity, has been made up of equal parts of love and hate and does not work: a world that cannot control its destiny.
I admire her for having been able to constantly transcend all kinds of pressure and sculpt her career as an artist out of a mass of criteria imposed by the outside world that didn't necessarily correspond to her way of dreaming and expressing herself. I hope that her example will have helped a new generation of artists beset by parameters that seem to impose themselves on them as the only means of existing as an artist today. Kaija didn't need to: she showed that it's within yourself that, while listening to the outside world, you must search for your own voice/path; and perhaps that manifests itself differently from the material you express as an artist, and that the distinction between the two is important.
There have been artists who, like Luigi Nono, "put themselves on the railway tracks": they defended a political point of view but reconciled it with poetry. There are very few of them. Luigi Nono is perhaps the greatest example of this in the twentieth century: he put his role as a sound poet before his commitment, he juxtaposed the two, but he remained true to himself, and the result of this work is a body of work imbued with great humanity – proof that it is possible. The great composers have passed on to us different lessons. Kaija's magic lies in the fact that she also found her own way of existing in her relationship with nature and society – without that being the main factor in the making of her music. The creative process takes place elsewhere, in the soul of the person, in their instincts: that's why I think she's a great composer.
AND HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE HER MUSICAL LANGUAGE?
If I had to characterise her music by referring to another discipline, I'd say that she's not someone who paints in oils. They're watercolours; they're gouaches with accents and surprises. She's not someone who makes sculpture, but who needs to express music through a layered architecture. She has developed an expertise that has enabled her to build a world of her own, which she then enriched by going to IRCAM, where she discovered electronic music.
I didn't have a chance to hear Innocence again for a whole year after the premiere. So, I went to Covent Garden for the revival. Beforehand, I wanted to say goodbye to Kaija because I knew it was the end. I was moved to see her again: she wasn't speaking any more, but it was still very much her. Listening to the work again, I realised something that hadn't struck me as much in Aix: the importance of the choir. I was very interested to discover that the chorus was an important sounding board for the drama.
Kaija's music requires you to make decisions about what should be in the foreground, what should fade away, what should come back to the fore. That's what's so beautiful and original about this music. Innocence will travel the world – musically too. The Helsinki version was different from the London version, not because the performers are better or worse, but because this music 'is moving'. It has its own way of existing in three dimensions. So much so that the work can be rediscovered each time from different perspectives: a highly original trait that can be found in all her operas. And it's something Simon Stone has understood perfectly in his staging – with this set that constantly rotates.
What's more, there's nothing 'high-tech' about this music. She and Jean-Baptiste worked "by hand": they kept their way of doing things very craftsman like, so that it remained "human". They avoided turning it into an adventure where electronics would be on the artificial side of things.
Generally speaking, we don't understand composers. With other types of artist, you can actually see what they do. A composer – that person who writes hieroglyphics down on a sheet of paper that others then interpret – we don't know exactly what that is; it can be frightening. A composer works with sound and text, creating a mysterious amalgam that catches the ear to a greater or lesser extent. Sometimes not, because it's difficult and not necessarily beautiful. Or the ear picks it up because it's beautiful, but you don't necessarily know why. Being a composer – of 'classical' music: I wouldn't say the same for mass-market music – being an artist who works on commissions from a freely-expressed creative desire is a difficult job for most people to understand.
Kaija's magic – she wasn't anticipating it because she didn't produce it deliberately – was that the musical world she created, the world she instinctively moved towards, was certainly contemporary music but was at the same time understandable, in such a way that she fascinated a wider audience than the one this music habitually attracts. Her way of doing things helped her to gradually establish her vocabulary, her reputation, and I think that in opera she discovered a lever that allowed her musical instinct to be even more useful. She put it at the service of a text and realised that theatre was of enormous importance to her; she then devoted herself to it with great integrity and enthusiasm. In this way, she has invented something: she has given us a unique and uncommon world – the result of her way of doing things by hand, of being independent in her way of dreaming.
WHAT KIND OF FUTURE DO YOU SEE FOR HER WORK, AND HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO CONTRIBUTE TO IT?
The posterity of an artist's work is something that unfortunately cannot be predicted; the destiny of contemporary music in general has, for that matter, become more complex. Recent signs, such as the reorientation of the Met's programming in favour of contemporary creation, give the impression that suddenly a great veil will be lifted: that the present will be freed from the weight of the past, and that today's composers will finally be given the recognition they deserve. But this impression is false and dangerous. Of course, it may seem fortunate that there are more operas being premiered today; but in reality, it is the composer's greater or lesser degree of freedom, his/her mastery of the trajectory that his/her deepest aspirations will lead him/her to follow, that will determine his/her posterity. Just because someone composes in response to a commission, in reaction to, or following the tide of a fashion, or even by successfully passing through the marketing mill, doesn't mean that the history of music will be durably marked by it or that it will see a new beginning. On the contrary, it may even affect the appreciation of composers who are no longer with us, and who should be listened to – especially when some of them have not been listened to enough.
Kaija has certainly had some dazzling successes, but she now deserves to be anchored in the repertoire: to be present through productions commissioned from artists capable of conveying the beauty and mysterious relevance of what she dared to do. This question remains open: now that she has departed - beyond the fact that she is no longer here - I'm questioning my position as a programmer and as an artist in relation to such an important and singular oeuvre.
Interview on 3 June 2023 by Timothée Picard,
Dramaturge and Artistic Advisor to the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence
Translation: Christopher Bayton
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