Saariaho X Koh / by Anne Lanzilotti

It was a pleasure getting to study Kaija Saariaho’s music and writings over the summer as I was working on the liner notes for Jennifer Koh’s new album, Saariaho X Koh. Cedille Records has kindly allowed me to publish my notes here in anticipation of the album release. Saariaho X Koh is out November 9th on Cedille Records! Pre-order the album here, and read on below.


Kaija Saariaho’s string writing is beautiful and compelling. At moments the sound seems to lose all its weight, the timbre brightening with flutters of harmonics, evaporating suddenly. Other times, the sound presses to the edge of force, breaking purposefully. While Saariaho is known for her ability to create incredible operatic, digitally enhanced soundscapes, her compositional voice is marked by its timbral colors. Her demand of formal structures is made powerful by her intimate knowledge of string technique, allowing for these wonderful details.

Violinist Jennifer Koh remembers hearing Saariaho’s music and knowing immediately that this was someone she related to. In an interview for Meet the Composer, Koh said, “I almost felt like I knew that I would be close to [Saariaho] when I heard her music. . . . I felt like I understood this person.”

Aside from her longstanding collaborations with string players such as Koh and Anssi Karttunen, Saariaho herself has a unique relationship with the violin. In our conversations about this album, Saariaho recalled:

I started playing violin at the age of six — it was my first instrument. I then started playing piano at the age of eight. My early memories of playing violin are filled with smells: I always liked a lot the smell of a rosin, and my first teacher smoked a lot, and in fact he left me during the lesson to play alone to go to smoke in another room.

The evocative sound world Saariaho creates draws from all these senses. In an interview for Music & Literature, Peter Sellars commented of Saariaho that:

. . . the music is there to remind you of the power of invisibility and that all of the things that are moving are actually invisible. But Kaija moves them imagistically. And so it takes you into this other world of visual art which is not about things as they appear but their secret existence shimmering in the dark. And that is where Kaija’s music lives.

Tocar (2010)

“Tocar” means “to touch” in Spanish, and is the verb used for “to play an instrument.” The playfulness and tactile aspect of the word is explored in this work for violin and piano. In her essay “In Music, of Music, toward Music” (2005), Saariaho commented of her own compositional process:

These last years, I’ve wanted to physically get closer to my music. So I’ve tried to find new aspects of my musical expression, aspects that I hadn’t known, like playfulness, joy, or movement.

Taking the physicality of the title as an entry point, Saariaho asks the listener to explore different translations and possibilities. In the composer’s program notes for the piece, she writes:

One of my first ideas for Tocar about the encounter of two instruments as different as the violin and piano, was the question: how could they touch each other? . . . In Tocar both instruments move forward independently, but also keep an eye on each other. I imagine a magnetism becoming stronger and stronger — the piano becomes more mobile — which draws the violin texture towards the piano writing culminating in an encounter in unison. After this short moment of symbiosis, the violin line is released from the measured piano motion, continuing its own life outside the laws of gravity.

Tocar asks the question, “how does an idea or a person touch us?” This album gives the listener a window into the answer that binds these two great artists, Koh and Saariaho.

Cloud Trio (2009)

In the morning, clouds come low into the mountains so that you can breathe them, touch them with your hands. Midday they rise, creating shelter from the relentless sun, or shift suddenly as a storm emerges. Saariaho told me of her time in the French Alps writing this piece:

When you are high in the mountains, one often sees many different layers of clouds, having all different forms, speeds and textures. They are all different, and yet we all know that they all are clouds. These notions turned into musical ideas in this trio.

As with clouds, Saariaho asks the performers to take on different roles in this piece, sometimes creating shadows, building new forms, or creating atmosphere around other objects. In her essay, “In Music, of Music, toward Music,” Saariaho elaborates:

Every instrument houses a rich and multidimensional world that the musician must awaken and breathe life into. It’s true that this world isn’t manifested in the same way for every person: “my cello” in particular makes use of the high register and the noise of a bow that glides from the bridge to the fingerboard . . . Stretching out its usual recognized and established sound broadens the range of colors and expressions; the musician produces a sound in a different way that isn’t used in classical repertoires.

Cloud Trio invites the listener into the changing soundscape built by the violin, viola, and cello. As they move and shift, they represent ourselves projected onto clouds: aware of our surroundings, weighed down by the shadow of past forms, or daydreaming of the future and what could be built.

Light and Matter (2014)

The most recent work on this album, Light and Matter draws on the landscape of a city park as it changes with the light. Saariaho told me in personal correspondence:

I composed this piece in New York when we lived next to the Morningside Park. I could see the park during the whole day, from sunrise until sunset, and that change of light modified constantly the park: the trunks changed colors, the shadows moved and reshaped the landscape. And I had these images in front of me from fall to spring. All that inspired me to compose Light and Matter so that I have very reduced musical material that is then varied constantly in different ways.

In the work, violin, cello, and piano trade the musical material across different textures, as though the light — as expressed by harmonic spectrum — is shifting between them. In her essay, “Earth and Air” (2005), Saariaho wrote:

Time is light: the light indicates the time, gives the rhythm, influences nature. I’ve always needed daylight when I work. I can’t compose at night. For me, each instrument’s sound has a different intensity of light. The whiter the light, the purer the spectrum.

The piece ends with all three instruments collecting on the note C, where the piece began. This pitch center from the opening of the piece returns, now viewed through a slightly different light, having traversed the path of the composition.

Aure (2011)

“Why us, why the star?”

This single line of text from Anne Frank’s diary is woven through the texture of Saariaho’s Aure for violin and cello. The piece takes this motive from the third movement of Dutilleux’s Mémoire des ombres (Shadows of Time), in which the phrase is sung by a single child’s voice. Dutilleux writes that his piece is “for Anne Frank and for all the children in the world, all innocent.” Saariaho’s work — originally written as an homage to Dutilleux for his 95th birthday — remembers this phrase, and in doing so echoes the former composer’s sentiment.

In Saariaho’s duo, the motive is first asked by the solo cello. It immediately begins to unravel and change as the two instruments pass the question back and forth. As the melodic memory of “Why us, why the star?” is stretched through time, it becomes more pleading. Saariaho marks in the score for the gesture to be “calm,” then “intense,” then “fragile,” as though the performer is turning the words around in her mind, trying to understand them. Perhaps unheard, the melody fades into memory in flickers of harmonics as the work comes to a close. The overheard phrase was just a breath or breeze — aure — now lost in time.

Graal théâtre (1994)

Saariaho’s violin concerto, Graal théâtre, takes its title from the Jacques Roubaud novel of the same name. The title itself inspired her to think about the theatricality of performance, and the tension between the composition as a fixed score and its realization by a soloist. When asked about the influence of the text, Saariaho said:

I was interested in the combination of the words Graal (Grail) and théâtre, thinking of an abstract search for the holy grail — whatever it would mean for each of us — and the concrete art form of the theatre. I imagined the violinist as the main character in a play. As with all my music, these were some of the ideas which then become abstract music, and the storyline and the imagined are left behind.

This violin concerto was originally written for soloist Gidon Kremer, but it is also the reason that Koh and Saariaho met. Recalling their first meeting, Saariaho wrote:

Jenny contacted me in 2006, telling me that she was going to play my concerto Graal théâtre with the LA Phil, and asked whether I would be in the US so that we could work together before the concert. I did visit NYC for concerts, and we met . . . she was full of energy and questions concerning details. I like Jenny’s willpower and intensity when she performs. She is a truly creative performer, and more generally has all kinds of ideas!

Koh has now performed the work many times, and her skillful interpretation draws out the raw pain inherent in the work. In conjunction with recording for this album, Koh commissioned pianist and filmmaker Yang Bao to create a work based on the concerto. In our interview, Bao said that he was drawn to the strong sense of duality in the piece, continuing:

We attract duality — the shadow of ourselves on a wall. There’s a struggle within my body, myself, my mind of all the possibilities. It’s a miracle that I am who I am, as there are infinite versions of who we could be. I wanted to bring out these variables in the visuals: the movement of nature, the body, and imagination. The reason I chose the shade of red was that it jumped out at me as the color, as though I had seen it before.

This chain of inspiration — from the Roubaud title, to Saariaho’s craft, to Bao’s visual rendering — shows the process of translating a creative work across mediums. In doing so, each artist reveals her own personal search: the complex theatricality of performing one’s intimate thoughts in order to express oneself.