The pains of operatic
labour by Michael
Michael Ellison spoke with Kaija
Saariaho backstage over a freshly opened box of Istanbul
Turkish delight, minutes before the fourth performance
of her opera premiere, Adriana Mater..
Could you talk about the genesis of Adriana Mater,
and particularly your collaborative efforts with Amin
Maalouf and Peter Sellars -the process of your working
Kaija Saariaho: I was very happy and impressed after
L'Amour de Loin. I had known Peter for a long time
already and I like very much his methods of working -
I was often in his rehearsals - but still, it was very
different and very inspiring to see how he was with my
music. So one motivation really for writing another opera
was to continue collaborating with him. And then of course
with Amin, because I only learned to know Amin when we
were working together on L'Amour de Loin. Amin
and I both felt that we wanted to do something more personal,
and since we had already done L'Amour de Loin,
which had great success and worked very well, we wanted
to do something very different. We were not so worried
anymore how the piece would be defined - is it opera or
not - but we really wanted to do something very personal.
So the personal experience for me was my experience as
a mother. And, for him, the experience of the war.
That's how, then, these two subjects became the starting
point for the whole project. And we spoke a lot, we met
as the three of us. We spoke about many aspects. We discussed
what sort of inter-relationships we'd like to have: two
sisters, and how interesting it would be to see the same
reality through two different people. The violence around
us and how it changes us…all of these things we discussed
a lot, and then Amin wrote the first version.
When we read the first version together, I realized that
it was quite difficult, and asked him to make the material
richer by adding dreams. I wanted to have a different
kind of interpretation of the same material, maybe less
linear, less tied to that reality. So we inserted some
dream sequences. We don't always know who is dreaming:
they are dreams, but they are also not so far from the
material. Then, for all of us, it was important to find
some element of hope, also - to deal with the problems,
somehow. So from the beginning it was something very personal.
Finally, I got the text, when
the first act was completely written, and I started to
compose. I realized quite soon that, in fact, it wasn't
easy to compose the text, because it was not much less
poetic than L'Amour de Loin. But a very important,
meaningful text. I had very different problems in L'Amour
de Loin, even if my starting point was similar. So
I created musical material for every person and so on.
During the composition process, which was nearly three
years, I didn't see Peter much, he's always on some different
part of the planet doing different productions, and when
he is working on something it is always difficult to reach
him because he's always so concentrated on his current
work. With Amin, every now and then I found places that
I felt I could not use, or we needed to modify. But he
has always been ready to modify things as I needed them
to be modified. So, in the beginning we had a lot of discussions,
then Amin goes to write his first version, we read it
together…but he's modified it, several times.
ME: How does it help you musically when the text
is less linear?
KS: You mean the dreams?
ME: Yes, the dream insertions you mentioned.
KS: It just keeps a certain freedom. It gives a
different freedom, I feel, musically. I cannot really
explain it, but I often work with ideas concerning dreams.
I like the idea of how thoughts are hidden or are presented
differently in our dreams. The same way, then, you can
somehow modify more freely [your approach to] the musical
material, or take it to some extreme, and it seems justified.
ME: Right. The fact that you would prefer having
material which supports such excursions instead of it
having to be too literal makes a lot of sense, and many
writers have remarked on the dream aspect in your work.
But this is a difficult subject to do that with.
KS: It really is very difficult. And I felt that
I couldn't really be adventurous with the voice, with
the vocal expression. Because the text is so meaningful
- it's not exactly realistic but it's not poetic often,
either. The vocal expression, then, needed to be quite
syllabic. It didn't make sense when you speak about such
concrete things to start writing weird vocal melismas
or trills and things like that. So that, then, brought
me to create very detailed orchestra writing, which is
much more developed than in L'Amour de Loin. And
that, then, brought me to a completely different situation
concerning the balance between orchestra and voice, because
in L'Amour de Loin it is very clear that the voice
is always in evidence, and here (in Adriana Mater).
The relationship is much more in-depth, and maybe much
ME: I wanted to ask you about something you mentioned
already: musical characterization. Do you have a process
where you sit down and sketch out the characters musically?
KS: Yes, yes.
ME: In L'Amour de Loin it was very clear
that Clémence had these swooping melismas - they made
me think of Hildegard, actually-whereas Jaufré is very
different. Did you attempt something similar with the
characters in Adriana Mater as well? That is, with
the vocal lines themselves, or did you go more into the
KS: In fact, it concerns all musical parameters.
But the big difference here with L'Amour de Loin
was that in L'Amour de Loin it was very natural
to go beyond my music with this pretext of a Medieval
[setting]. I went in a kind of modal direction. There
was the contrast between West and East, so I had a certain
orchestration with the octaves and so on. In Adriana
Mater, I had no pretext to go outside of my syntax,
really. So yes, everybody has their own orchestration,
they have their own harmony, they have their own scales
or modes, and they have their own tempi and their own
rhythmic behavior. But then it's superimposed or alternated.
And yet, maybe it is more coherent, because it is all
within my music.
ME: Was there more of a separation in L'Amour
de Loin between voices and orchestra?
ME: How do you see the chorus's dramatic role in
KS: Well, the chorus isn't on the stage. In this
production, we don't see them at all. They don't need
to be seen - on the other hand, they could be seen. But
they don't have a role. In L'Amour de Loin it was
already a bit at the limit. In certain tableaux or acts
it was the Tripolitaines, or Jaufré's Compagnons. Here,
they have no role at all. They are mostly really an extension
both of the orchestra and of the feelings, or echoes of
the soloists. So their role is very abstract.
ME: When you generate musical material, do you
concentrate more on characters and blending them together,
or more on dramatic situations, or more on creating an
atmosphere, or is it a mix of all these?
KS: I think in this kind of opera context, it's
a mix of all that. When I started to create the material,
first I imagined every person's…maybe their atmosphere.
You know, dolce nervoso for Refka, dream sections misterioso…and
from that, then the orchestration. And then from that,
for example the tessitura or how the orchestra is [spaced].
You will hear when Refka, Adriana's sister, is singing,
she is inside a big space, there are always high instruments
and then low. All persons are defined that way. So I think
it started, maybe, from the instrumental colors…combined
with the voice, with the vocal colors, of course, because
every voice invited different orchestration and then different
registers. And from that, I think I went to the detail:
the harmonic structures and harmonic behavior, then from
that I imagined the tempi and tempi relations and so on.
ME: So it sounds like material comes from inside
out, forming the characters first, and their sounds, and
then making a more…in the end there has to be some kind
of linear musical form.
KS: Yes, well also, before I really started to
write, I planned the whole piece. This is how I always
ME: Could you talk about that?
KS: Well, I draw, sometimes I have millimeter paper
or sometimes just white paper, and I just really imagine
the relations, the approximate durations of each section.
Already at that stage I imagine if there are some symmetrical
elements, if… So I draw it. I draw the whole work in front
of me. And quite often it's really quite precise, timewise.
I really need to imagine the duration for each [statement
of] material, what kind if material I need for it to develop
a certain amount of time. And then when I have the totality
somehow solved, I go to the detail and I take, for example,
the First Tableau, I imagine its duration, I analyze the
text, and where I need more space for orchestra and so
on. So I plan the first section more in detail, and then
I start writing.
Does it always work out that the text will fit in the
amount of time you have already in your mind for it?
KS: Often quite well, yes.
ME: Are your durations very precise? Do you measure
the exact amount of time, or close to it?
KS: I imagine it, and then - I don't care so much
after…I imagine it, and then, in the end, when everything
is finished, I read it through and really try to time
the music, and it's quite precise, I think it's really
ME: I will hear Adriana Mater for the first
time tonight, but L'Amour de Loin to the listener
sounds like a whole, which is not true of a lot of operas,
KS: Yes. Well, this is different and then some
people say that the text is not as successful or there
is too much text, but the text is what it is. I think
it's always horrible that when you do something that works,
then people expect that you do the same thing again.
ME: The same thing twice…
KS: The same thing, but somehow better. But why
would you like to do the same thing? Its very strange,
people have a hard time accepting that you are doing something
ME: I've been teaching a history course in 20th
century opera, and it's amazing how many pieces that were
not well-received at the very beginning later found a
permanent place in the repertoire. I think it's so exciting
to have, though, so much sheer interest in new opera.
I read that you were covered on French television, with
interviews with all the major figures involved in the
KS: That's true, yes.
ME: That's amazing. And then people are coming
from great distances…
KS: Isn't that the strange thing about the opera.
Because you get together artists from different fields,
so somehow, it creates interest. I just thought when I
was on a bus coming here that, "Oh! Happily, my next thing
is a cello concerto (laughs) and it is like a secret thing;
it will be just one piece played at one concert, and not
with the whole earth coming to see it!" Because, that
was horrible, when the premiere was cancelled. [March
30.] That was very tough. Because really so many people
came, and couldn't see it.
ME: It was at the last moment, I heard.
KS: Yes, the same day, at four o'clock, when eight
o'clock was the premiere. That was so sad. And this could
happen only in opera, you know! Who cares if your cello
concerto is cancelled? It's nothing at all…
ME: I had some other questions on your composition
process. You've described some of this already. Do you
use computer-aided means of working out the whole form,
or at any point in composition, and do you use specific
programs at all to help in the process of manipulating
KS: I've used many different things over the years.
I stopped using nearly everything. When it comes to the
global form, it's purely the result of thinking and imagination,
I don't use anything there. Sometimes, when I feel like
it I analyze some sounds, some instrumental or vocal sounds,
to give me fresh harmonic structures. But I never, even
since beginning…it is for me a very clear starting point.
It's maybe even a kind of laziness that I analyze and
I get the structures, which then take me a little bit
away from my normal ways of working. But then I have these
structures and I want to make them sound really as I want.
So, I'm afraid I'm taking them back to my solutions! But
this I do every now and then, but many things I used to
do a lot, like to generate rhythmic interpolations, I
don't do much at all.
ME: So, when you say you don't do it, are you not
going through that stage anymore but still doing something
like that intuitively, or do you not think that way anymore?
KS: A little bit of both. That's one way of treating
material, and then there are other ways. And that one
way I know very well. I don't need to make these calculations
anymore. I know quite well how it works. It's as if I
have been filled with that information, and for that I
don't need a computer anymore. Also, I spent a lot of
time trying to define in a computer language certain musical
ideas. And I learned that if I purely realize an idea
with the computer, the result is extremely boring. Certainly
my ideas are too simple, to work with a computer. So there
is always the interaction with the intuitive feeling.
What do you do to break the process of something, and
make it really musically interesting? That's the most
important thing that I learned about my composing: that
my thinking is very poor! (laughs)
ME: I understand very well…
KS: That's something so complex, isn't it, that
in fact we don't know ourselves what is going on.
ME: We can try so hard for something, try to make
it go the way we want it to go, but the next day the solution
is in a totally different direction, from nowhere, without
effort...it's a mystery of composing.
KS: Right. Which is fantastic.
ME: You've talked about the importance of tension-and-release
patterns (or perhaps I should say dynamics) in your music.
Could you talk about this a little bit? Perhaps one way
to approach a vast subject is to ask whether this is something
that happens from moment to moment, or something that
happens gradually over time?
KS: I think there are different scales, different
levels (things) that are superimposed. And whereas I need
to know where I'm going in my mind in lengths of five
minutes, I need to always assure that every second is
interesting. That means it needs to be realized in different
scales, the tension and release and how you balance between
the two. And that's of course the interesting thing in
composing. That's it. That's why the formal design is
so important. And the way you choose your material, that
it has profile. Because you really need to have material
with profile in order to have something contrasting. If
you don't see that something is round, how can you put
something square next to it? So I think a lot in those
terms. But I'm little bit worried of my somewhat obsessive
tendency to reduce the material. I want to work with very
reduced material. And I would not like my music to be
minimal or minimalistic, because that, often, for me,
is thinness. And I never look for thinness, I really look
for depth. I don't know. I think these are big problems.
a side question here concerning your melodic style,
the emergence of which in the last ten years or so much
has been written about. In L'Amour de Loin I felt
that there was a certain melodiousness, but there also
wasn't too much melody either, with parts grabbing attention
from one another. I also almost felt as though you were
taking great care to not have a melody within one part
be too "sing-songy," either.
ME: Are those factors you are thinking about with
melody, a restraint you are putting on yourself?
KS: Well, I think I am putting limits on myself.
I always try to avoid everything that is really not needed.
You know, I rarely speak if I haven't anything to say.
It's not in my character to. Rather, not having enough
is my problem, rather than to have too many notes. I think
it's really something that comes from me, to clarify,
to purify. But in the case of Adriana Mater this
is very different because I needed to create an orchestral
texture that is much heavier. So that's something else.
ME: If you could imagine being an outside observer
to your music, say, someone who doesn't know anything
about spectral music at all, but a musician who wants
to look at your music and its tension and release in such
a way that they would really gain an understanding of
how your music works, which musical parameters would they
KS: First of all, I don't think my music is "spectral
music" in the same sense as Gérard [Grisey]'s or Tristan
[Murail]'s music. If I think about which parameters at
which one would look, certainly orchestration, certainly
harmony, and I'm not sure which one comes first, because
tension is often…even if I don't use scratch sounds or
things like that, I do use spectra which are more complex,
and I do use percussion which are unpitched and so on.
But I think there is another element in the tempo, also.
Maybe those, and ambitus.
ME: I actually have a student who is trying to
write something on both your music and Tristan's, and
trying to create a graph showing the tension level, but
it's very tricky because on the one hand you have contrary
ME: …and you have to decide what is tension-producing
and what not, for example I think sul ponticello
would be more tense than sul tasto
KS: Yes. But then it depends on texture, yes.
ME: With your harmony is it more the density of
that harmony, like we see in a spectrogram, which is important?
Or is it the actual notes themselves?
KS: Density, maybe, but ambitus…because the notes
are always the same. I mean, my harmonic material is very
limited, always. Very limited. So the first chord, well,
there is often a harmonic structure which is like the
basic structure. I have certain harmonic structures to
which we always return, and that gives us the feeling
of relaxation. We come through different processes to
this. But it's not something that's constant. And in music
as complex as Adriana Mater, where every person
[character] has their own harmonic structures, there are
often things that are superimposed. [softly] I was always
very bad in analyzing any music, so you won't get much
ME: There's of course a danger in analyzing too
ME: What is the role of electronics in this piece?
KS: Well, it's very limited, because there are
no electronic sounds. It's only the spatialization-the
choir which is brought to the hall. And that doesn't come
originally from the libretto, that comes from this hall,
because this hall is enormous. I've experienced so many
pieces here and I felt like they always stay far, on the
stage, and never reach us really. So really one of my
first musical ideas was to bring the choir sound to the
hall, to somehow really surround us. So there is something
coming from the orchestral sound which is extended and
brought to the audience. That's the only thing.
and I think of L'Amour de Loin here, there is a
marvelous, what I will call "blurring of edges" in your
music. Oftentimes one thing doesn't seem to go directly
into something else; there's a kind of transformation
that happens in the sound. Is that something you hear
from the beginning, generally, in your music, or do you
have more clear ideas about where you are starting and
where you are going to, and then create these "blurred"
or dreamlike transition passages?
KS: The beginning and the end are the clear things,
and then what happens in between, it's perhaps more intuitive,
or then I have a clearer idea. You know, I think that
this is the whole challenge, to go again from "A" to "B."
I think that's something that we are thinking constantly,
ME: It becomes more and more perhaps the most interesting
KS: Sometimes it comes so easily and sometimes
it's so impossible to find.
ME: What was the most difficult part of Adriana
Mater to compose, once the libretto was finalized?
KS: The Second Tableau, the rape. Because that's
unbelievably violent music, and it took me a horrible
effort to write it, and to imagine that violence. That
was very hard.
ME: Did that stretch you in unexpected ways? You
had probably never conceived of passages like that before.
KS: Yes, that's true. And the end was also very
difficult to imagine, very difficult. That, I couldn't
imagine beforehand, and it took a very long time.
ME: The themes of ideal beauty, forgiveness, and
hope in the face of suffering are central to your operas.
Is one of the reasons you are writing opera to give a
voice to these themes?
KS: Well, I think the reason is, yes, to think
about these themes, and to penetrate into some of them
with music. Because music is so secret. Our feelings are
so secret and multi-faced and impossible to analyze often,
at least very deeply. The more important the feelings,
like love and hatred, the more important the mysteries,
like death, the less we can penetrate into them. There
is something about, you know it yourself when you…there
is so much music that we love and we listen to it…how
strangely wonderful it is. Humanity and its relation to
music is an unbelievably vast field, and I have more and
more feeling that music is vast, limitless... And when
it is refined and sensitive it can penetrate to secret
places. Of course you work with your intellect and experience
and you try to communicate something with it, but what
do you really want to communicate with art? Many people
ask, "Is this a political opera?" I think it's reducing
it to say it's political. Of course I'm trying to communicate
with other humans, but what do I really exactly communicate?
What I'm looking for is the way out from this horrible
violence and suffering. Of course I cannot pretend that
my opera can bring really anything. So maybe I'm just
inviting others to really think about these things. And
yet, it's not even that! Of course, I'm a composer, and
I want to write music. I think its very complex. I don't
know, but I don't defend my operas as dramatic works.
I maybe define them like meeting points, with Amin and
Peter, and the beautiful musicians who are so dedicated
and who perform the music. And then we all hope that this
result will be rich, and bring us things we cannot analyze
or expect. That is how art, at its best, would be. In
a way, then, the mystery is there.
ME: It sounds like you are very unconcerned whether
you finished an opera, or not…
KS: The genre, as such, I couldn't care less.
ME: Is that also true in your instrumental music,
for example your new 'cello concerto?
KS: I really realize that writing "abstract music"
is something very different from writing stage works.
Because stage works, with text, and characters, there
is something that people relate to, and me, in the first
person. I relate to these characters. Me, my life, my
life experience, all my feelings relate very differently
to these stage works than to this "abstract" 'cello concerto.
They are two very different things, that's for sure. OK,
they are different. So I do one, and then I decide to
do the other one. It's not easier or more difficult, but
surely very different.
© 2006 Michael Ellison
(top to bottom):
(© Ralph and Kara Mecke)
Adriana Mater, Opéra national de Paris:
1. Patricia Bardon (Adriana), Stephen Milling (Tsargo)
2. Patricia Bardon (Adriana), Solveig Kringelborn (Refka),
Gordon Gietz (Yonas), Stephen Milling (Tsargo)
3. General Scene
(© Ruth Walz / Opéra national de Paris)