Kaija Saariaho – Vista

by 5:4

i was deeply saddened recently to hear about the death, on 2 June, of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. In the days since then, i’ve been reflecting on my relationship with her music, which i’ve come to realise is similar to my relationship with Takemitsu’s music. Every time i encounter her work i find it ravishing and wondrous, a fantastical combination of complex energy and immediate beauty, and perhaps precisely for that reason i only listen to it occasionally; i guess i haven’t wanted to diminish its impact by allowing it to become too familiar, or cheapen its intrinsic value by going to it for a quick hit.

Saariaho’s death has led me to revisit the piece of hers that i got to know most recently, her orchestral work Vista, completed in 2019. Premièred, post-lockdown, in May 2021, Vista finally came to the UK last year, where it received no fewer than three performances by three different orchestras, beginning with the UK première given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Hannu Lintu in January. The other two performances came in fairly quick succession over the summer: by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Storgårds at the Proms, and, just three weeks later at the Edinburgh festival, by the Helsinki Philharmonic, who premièred the piece, conducted by its dedicatee, Susanna Mälkki. All three performances reveal Vista to be a work of enormous, startlingly radical power, and also a vivid example of that combination i referred to above, of complex energy and immediate beauty.

Kaija Saariaho

Vista is structured in two movements, ‘Horizons’, which occupies around two-thirds of the piece, and ‘Targets’. The work’s title was inspired by views of the scenery during a car journey, and as such one of the defining features of the first movement is a broad sense of perspective, with tangible notions of fore-, middle- and background. However, despite its title, ‘Horizons’, Saariaho initially puts emphasis on close proximity, with an intimate episode in the winds (who are emphasised throughout). Their lines mingle and microtonally blur, oboes passing to clarinets, and before long that deep sense of perspective starts to materialise, a mix of detail and vagueness. Saariaho’s trademark glitter soon appears alongside muted brass, before returning to the winds, who by now have developed their lyricality into a much more convoluted melée of melodies.

The movement’s progression is not so much in fits and starts as one that, remembering the work’s overall title, wants to pause periodically simply to admire the view. The first of these, around four minutes in, is balmy and transfixed, somewhat static and mysterious, over a deep drone. Such moments can be heard as a tangential manifestation of the detail and vagueness, occupying different quasi-distances from us. Coming out of this first gaze, Saariaho snaps back into certainty, moving into polarising registers before, around five minutes in, focus is fully restored with a mix of faster winds (close) and slower, semi-suspended strings (distant), the ear continually being drawn between them.

The push-pull tension leads to a buoyant lyrical sensibility, one moment suspended, the next pressing on, exhibiting a capricious unpredictability. There’s also a potent sense of power at the music’s core, though for the time being this is kept locked away, Saariaho preferring to revel in this erratic oscillation between activity and stillness. The latter continues as gorgeous moments of radiance, while the former features (at around nine minutes) a curious kind of emergent rhythmic busyness, leading to an agglomeration of behavioural actions with far too much detail to grasp. These fluid, free-wheeling alternations continue to the end of the movement, along the way including some exquisite overlapping counterpoint, answered by a sudden shift into the middle register, clustered such that all details are gone, before arriving in a dreamy atmosphere, tremulous and glittery, defocused and floating.

‘Targets’ is where Saariaho finally begins to unleash the energy only hinted at until now. Its opening moments are a mess of harsh accents and loud clustercries, before the percussion sets off at speed, establishing a momentum that persists more as a palpable undercurrent than an always actively driving pulse. Thus, when the music passes through less obviously driven passages the momentum surfaces occasionally, causing triumphant surges and demonstrating serious amounts of power below the surface. But these are nothing set against the movement’s subsequent climaxes. The first, at around 19 minutes, is a huge, quivering mass eruption; further cries and an intense transition impelled by timpani leads to the second, a simply massive plateaux of sustained intensity.

As in the first movement, here too there’s a comparable mix of clarity (rhythmic) and ambiguity (arhythmic), and, perhaps as an acknowledgement of, and partial return to, ‘Horizons’, this is especially apparent in Vista‘s closing minutes. The music gets caught in a tension between dying back, as if moving toward something mesmeric, and being continually pushed along, especially by the xylophone which hammers out as if its life depended on it. Saariaho clearly wants to look at the view one last time, though, and the work rises up and out into a soft infinity, caught as if spellbound by hovering blocks of sound with faint traces of line. Though relatively quiet, it nonetheless conveys an immensity that feels surprisingly overwhelming, a fitting testament to the sheer beauty of gazing out across the vastness of nature.

All three of these performances have their respective merits, though the BBC Philharmonic’s lacks a certain level of detail that the other two possess. The BBC Symphony Orchestra are especially lovely at the start, creating the strongest sense of intimacy, hypnotically mingling the wind lines into a wavering cluster, and the clarity of their performance makes the periods when there’s too much to grasp more tangible: we can at least hear everything that we can’t hear, if you get what i mean. Their rendition of the end of the piece is also marvellous, making those hanging blocks of sound, if not overwhelming, then quietly majestic. However, the Helsinki Philharmonic’s performance is simply amazing. They make that opening sound less microtonal, instead transforming into an exquisite shimmering, messy cluster, and the way Saariaho keeps ‘resetting’ the music – switching back into clarity from vagueness – is vividly conveyed. ‘Targets’ is astonishing in their hands; the climaxes are just intimidatingly enormous, yet somehow retain a sense that they’re not merely part of the exact same world and musical mindset that keeps pausing in rapture, but are themselves another form of rapture, where the coruscating glory is allowed to shine full force.

As its grandeur subsides, and Vista ends, i’m left feeling all the more bereft that the composer of this music is no longer with us. What incredible sights she has shown us.

BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu

BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Storgårds

Helsinki Philharmonic conducted by Susanna Mälkki

Programme note

In January 2019 I attended the US premiere performances of my harp concerto Trans with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, played by Xavier de Maistre, and conducted by Susanna Mälkki.

I had completed my latest opera Innocence before Christmas, just a month earlier, and letting my mind get fixed on the ideas that were rousing into my consciousness, planning to get into work after having returned home in Paris. My next piece was to be an orchestra piece for Susanna.

When driving after the last concert from Los Angeles to San Diego for some days, I was filled with joy after beautiful performances and enjoying the scenery on my right during the ride. We stopped every now and then to admire the view, and later I realized that most places were called vistas.

As I literally also felt that new music was flowing into my mind and opening new kinds of ideas for the piece, I started calling it simply Vista.

The score has two movements: Horizons and Targets. The excitement of writing for a full orchestra without soloists – after the many years I had used for opera composition – was inspiring, and obvious when hearing the piece.

Nevertheless, I also wanted to challenge myself, and deliberately left out some of my signature instruments in orchestral context, namely harp, piano and celesta. I also chose varied colors for the triple wood wind section and wanted to give them more place than usually.

These simple decisions made the composition process challenging, as they forced me to find new ways of expressing myself with orchestra. But after patient digging, I found a fresh sonority, that is more clearly defined without the unifying resonances of harp and piano, and the individual wind instrument lines and textures are prominent.

The two movements are using same musical material but are contrasting in their character.

Whereas Horizons is based on lines and abstract textures, Targets is more tense and dramatic, with much physical energy. The formal construction of the piece is based on the different ways of varying the – as such quite reduced – musical material. There are recognizable gestures that go through disparate transformations, and especially in Targets search restlessly new combinations of existence; the several energetic attempts to break out are finally solved into a slow coda section, during which the music returns to the calm confidence of the opening measures.

—Kaija Saariaho

Full score

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Wow! Thank you for this, Simon! I’ve been dying to hear this piece!

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