…à la fumée

Categories: Elettroacustica
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Published on: 12 May 2010

And this is the second pièce from the cycle Du Cristal…à la fumée, by Kaija Saariaho.

The last sound of Du Cristal – a cello trill played sul ponticello – becomes retrospectively the first sound of its successor, …à la fumée, which features solo parts for cello and amplified alto flute in addition to large orchestra. Saariaho has commented that

to my way of thinking, Du Cristal … à la fumée is a single work, two facets of the same image, but both fully drawn in, living and independent.

The difference between the two works is already manifest in the title: crystal is a classic example of repeated order, symmetrical, tense, stable mass. Smoke, on the other hand, changes its form constantly, an unpredictable, developing state. Crystal and smoke, like order and entropy, chaos. The title is inspired by a book by Henri Atlan, Entre le cristal et la fumée (Between the Crystal and the Smoke).

The single most important element in the music of Kaija Saariaho is tone colour, attached inseparably to harmony. In this sense she can be thought of as continuing the French orchestral tradition. Her music does not, however, only feast on beautiful sounds. The starting point of composition for her comes from a carefully studied theoretical basis. The origin of her music is a single sound which she penetrates, trying to uncover its structure and the laws that govern it. With these laws, just by changing the scale, the composer builds colours, harmonics, forms, rhythms – music. This starting-point ensures that all the works of Kaija Saariaho have a strong sense of unity. Elements that seem different fit together, because they are basically born from the same source.

Rather than associate Kaija Saariaho’s music with mathematical formulae or computer programs, it is more fruitful to compare it with nature – its biological and physical models. The composer herself has spoken of arctic lights, water-lilies, crystals, spirals: forms and materials which in themselves are perfect and beautiful and create aesthetic experiences, but which offer endless grounds for even scientific study. Observation of how the inner relations of organisms are built, how they change and multiply; how forms that seem simple and natural are of endless variety when examined closely: chaos and order can be closer to each other than we first suspect.

The tensions in Kaija Saariaho’s music, its dramaturgy, are built on pairs of contrasts. One important pair of contrasts is formed by sound and noise. This is manifested, for instance, in the sonority of the cello: when the bow is moved towards the bridge, adding bow pressure, the sound breaks and turns into noise. On the flute, when you blow into the tube you can create noise (which has its own tone colour) and which changes into a sound when the air hits the mouthpiece at the right angle. In rhythm, a simple pair of contrasts is created between repetitive and irregular patterns. Gradual movement between two opposites, interpolations, create and release tensions in the same way as do chordal functions in traditional tonal music.

It is no surprise that the soloists in …a la fumée are flute and cello. These would appear to be Saariaho’s favourite instruments given that many of her solo pieces have been written for them (for the flute, Canvas, Laconisme de l’aile, NoaNoa; for the cello, Petals and Près). …a la fumée however, is not a normal double concerto, in which the solo instruments are contrasted with the orchestra. In this work, flute and cello are like microscopes with which the composer penetrates deep into her material, shedding light from different angles and changing the scale.

György Ligeti, with whose earlier music Kaija Saariaho’s works have certain points in common, has spoken about a phenomenon familiar to most of us. When we go up in an aeroplane, we do not feel ourselves in motion. At the same time, details of the scenery disappear and merge into a whole. A meadow, swarming with inner energy, changes first into fields of colour, then into a bare point in the distance. The amplification of the alto flute and the cello serves this purpose: a whisper from the flute can grow to the scale of a big orchestra, a harmonic from the cello can be outlined above the whole landscape of sound. Is not one of the meanings of music, and all art, simply this? To create illusions, presentiments of a world that could be true.

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