In conversation with Kaija Saariaho

Kaija Saariaho. Credit: Andrew Campbell.
Credit: Andrew Campbell.

Ahead of the UK Premiere of Trans on Wednesday 27 September, we caught up with composer Kaija Saariaho to talk all things inspiration, composing for the harp, working with Xavier de Maistre, and listening to her music being played for the first time.

We’re very excited to be giving the UK premiere of your piece Trans. Are you looking forward to working with the CBSO and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla?

I’m very happy to have the CBSO playing my music again, and especially excited to have Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting it!

How much of a hands-on approach do you have to premieres? Do you like to attend rehearsals or work with the conductor before-hand, or do you prefer to see how the orchestra interprets the piece?

I try to balance my life between composing periods and travels.

As my music is played much these days, I cannot travel to all events dedicated to my music. But I want to be always present in world premieres of new works, because that is a very important moment for a composer to verify that the piece is as it was imagined. This is special moment and nobody can replace me in that.

How would you describe the piece in one sentence?

Trans is a contemplation based on the features I love in harp, such as the many possibilities of glissandi, being able to hear so clearly the fingers plucking the strings, the generous resonance and the large register of the instrument.

Why did you decide to write a piece for harp with orchestra? What are the challenges involved with this?

I have always used harp in my orchestral music, so the idea of a concerto has come to my mind every now and then. But the initiator of this work is Xavier de Maistre, who proposed this idea to me with such enthusiasm that I decided to compose the piece for him.

There are many difficulties in composing for harp and orchestra, concerning the combination and also concerning the instrument itself. One problem is simply the audibility of the instrument, and that is why my orchestra is relatively small, there are only double wood winds and not many brasses. For the same reason, passages with the full orchestra playing are rare, and the music explores rather different kinds of dialogues between the solo instrument and the various instrumental groups.

Harp is also a very particular instrument to compose for: one has to take in account the pedal system (to change the tunings), for example, or the fact that the lowest register is reachable only with the left hand, or that the players use only four fingers for playing.

The piece was premiered in Tokyo last year, with Xavier de Maistre on harp. He’s will also be giving the UK premier with the CBSO – what’s it been like to work with him from the beginning? Did you ever workshop the piece with him?

Xavier is a great soloist, who travels very much. So I didn’t want to bother him much during the composition, but wrote the music as I imagined it, of course trying to use the harp in a rich yet idiomatic way.

When we met for the first time to work together, we went through the tempi and the different playing techniques. After that we met only in Tokyo for the rehearsals, and Xavier made some propositions and myself some others for several details. But generally speaking he had learned to play the piece beautifully already for that first performance.

What challenges do you face when composing a new piece of music?

The challenges are changing over the years!

As a young composer, the problem was how to bring together the conscious thinking and the feelings and dreams which are the driving force to any creative work. Today I feel that there is a constant interaction between different brain activities, and I am also more confident to take intuitive decisions. But composing is never easy for me, and today the difficulty is to start a work always with fresh ideas and new challenges.

How do you write your music? What tools do you use?

I first sketch on paper general ideas concerning the dramaturgy and the global form of the piece, as that often is where I start a new work. I then imagine the music more in detail: what is the duration, how is the instrumentation or tempi, and how it can evolve into smaller units. I have also ideas of specific musical situations and start connecting them to the totality.

Finding a title during the compositional process is important for me. Concerning this piece, I was imagining an idea of passing messages (from harp to orchestra) or transforming the material in different ways when passed from one instrument to another.

«Trans » a prefix used in loanwords from Latin (transcend; transfix). It is used in words with the meanings “across,” “beyond,” “through,” “changing thoroughly,” “transverse”. All those suited my ideas, and the title gave me a common nominator for the material of this concerto.

My working environment is quite simple, I sketch a lot with pencil and music paper, and then type the music into my computer, print the pages out when ready, and complete them by hand.

If a piece includes an electronic element, I of course then work in a studio for that separately, often dividing my time between the score and studio periods.

And right now I am composing an opera, for which I am generating material by analysing sounds with a computer. I then use the results of those analyses quite freely in rhythmic writing for example. This is something I used to do a lot, but today I turn to those programs only for special needs and ideas.

What’s it like to hear your composition performed by an orchestra for the first time?

The first time is always confusing, because until then I have only imagined the music in my mind, and now it is actually performed by musicians and I hear it in acoustic space.

There are moments of panic and some others of sudden pleasure and happiness. Hearing the music actually performed is when the music is finally really born and breathing. But after that first time, normally first rehearsal, when musicians are often sight reading, it takes some days to check possible misprints in the score, adjust dynamics and maybe some other details, while the orchestra also gets to know the music better. Meanwhile the composer also gets accustomed to the idea that the music exists now and starts living its own life. And if all goes well, it is a great relief for a composer, and gives also inspiration for future work.

Which composers (dead or living) do you find most inspirational. What would you like to ask them?

There are very many composers I admire and have admired - Johann Sebastian Bach is the one above all others, since my childhood. He was born as a musical genius, and he also developed his insurmountable technique with huge work and inextinguishable passion for music.

But I don’t think he could tell us why his music is so perfect and touching. That is part of the miracle of his music, and all music: the deep power we can experience as a result of great handicraft and love for music.

More generally, I find it inspiring and always astonishing that we composers use the same basic elements - pitches, rhythms, instrumental colours -throughout the centuries and succeed in creating always new, contemporary music with those same elements.

Find out more about Kaija Saariaho on her website.