At the end of last week, the Finnish label Ondine released its latest recording of the music of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. The title of the album is Let the wind speak, and it presents performances of seven compositions featuring flutist Camilla Hoitenga. In addition to giving solo performances, Hoitenga gives one performance with baritone Daniel Belcher and the Da Camera of Houston and one with harpist Héloïse Dautry. Most interesting, however, is her work with cellist Anssi Karttunen.
This last is the most interesting, since Saariaho explicitly composed it for Hoitenga and Karttunen performing as a duo. Entitled “Mirrors,” the score consists basically of a set of modules that may be assembled in different orders and combinations. In other words it is an exercise in indeterminacy, which may be more appropriately described as a “meta-composition.” To provide the listener with a sense of where this indeterminacy can lead, this new recording devotes three tracks to the piece, each a different realized version of the score.
Curiously, about three weeks ago I was fortunate enough to experience a performance of “Mirrors” at which Saariaho was present, having been invited for a residency at the University of California at Berkeley. On that occasion I could appreciate the extent to which the composition was an exercise in the concepts of reflection and symmetry, but I certainly did not come away with a sense of what the component modules were. This would have been due to the fact that the performance was only about four minutes in duration, leading me to suspect that any of the modules that had been performed had made a unique appearance.
On Let the wind speak “Mirrors” is given three realizations, each of which is about three and one-half minutes in duration. Once again, it was not particularly easy to appreciate the music in terms of its component building blocks, particularly since the three performances were separated by performances of other Saariaho compositions. As had been the case with the concert experience, it was possible to appreciate Saariaho’s capacity for evoking unique sonorities; but any sense of overall structure tended to be obscured by opacity.
Far more interesting were the selections for solo flute on this new album. In order of composition, these were “Laconisme de l’aile” (laconism of the wing), composed in 1982, the 1998 “Couleurs du vent” (colors of the wind), and, most recently, “Dolce tormento” (sweet torment), composed in 2004. Of particular interest are the ways in which Saariaho requires the soloist to vocalize as part of the performance, basically dealing with the voice as if it were an extension of the flute and/or as a distinct “wind instrument.” The most extended of these is “Couleurs du vent;” and it clearly has provided Saariaho with a new dimension along which she can explore variations in sonority.
Two of the selections are arrangements. “Tocar” was originally composed for violin and piano; and on this recording it is performed by flute and harp. The original violin part explored a variety of different ways in which the instrument departs for the reference points of the equal-tempered scale through portamento and glissando effects. What is particularly striking on this recording is how Hoitenga has achieved the same effects through breath control, while the harp emerges as a source of more conducive accompanying sonorities.
“Oi Kuu” (for a moon), on the other hand, was originally scored for bass clarinet and cello. In this case the bass clarinet is replaced by a bass flute. This is a more challenging situation, since the bass clarinet exhibits distinctively different sonorities in its different registers. However, Saariaho’s score calls for multiphonic blowing; and, in many respects, the multiphonic effects on the bass flute are just as compelling as those on the bass clarinet.
The longest selection on the album is “Sombre” (somber). It was commissioned by the Da Camera of Houston to be performed during the group’s 25th Anniversary Season, with the performance taking place in the Rothko Chapel. This piece also required bass flute, joined with harp, bass, and percussion, all accompanying a baritone singing texts from the very last cantos by Ezra Pound. The music establishes a plane of abstraction the fits with Rothko’s large masses of color as effectively as with the multilingual fragmented Pound texts.
Taken as a whole, the album provides valuable insight into Saariaho’s work in chamber music, which differs significantly from her large orchestral compositions; but the listener may still be left puzzled over both the theory and practice behind the performances of “Mirrors.”