The silence before the sound

An interview with Kaija Saariaho — By Simon Hatab

With Only the Sound Remains now playing at the Palais Garnier, the composer Kaija Saariaho talks about the creative process behind her new opera.

How did you come up with the idea of composing an opera based on two Noh plays adapted by Ezra Pound?

Kaija Saariaho: It was a long process. It often takes me several years to find all the right elements before reaching the point where I start to compose an opera. In 2011, I was in residence at Carnegie Hall in the United States. I was working on a project – Sombre, which was supposed to be staged in 2012 – and I was looking for a text to use as material. I finally decided to use some short extracts from The Cantos, the long unfinished poem by Ezra Pound. I liked his language. I said to myself that I’d like to continue to work with that author. I think that was the moment the name Ezra Pound entered into the project. Subsequently, I had a long discussion with Peter [Sellars]. I was looking for something original, something I’d never done before. When I embark on a major new project for which the writing may take years, it’s important for me to exclude everything I have done before. Peter remembered studying the plays Ezra Pound adapted from Noh theatre, a genre that interested me and which he knew well. And we decided on Tsunemasa and Hagoromo. Pound’s economy of style, which left considerable room for the music, seemed ideal to me.

Why exactly did you choose this diptych?

Tsunemasa and Hagoromo have some interesting connections. The broad lines of the story remain the same. To a certain degree, all the plays in Noh theatre recount the same narrative: the human meeting the supernatural. However, the fact remains that the two plays offer some striking contrasts. The first is sombre and harrowing, it ends in gloom and fire, whereas the second reaches towards the light, towards the Angel disappearing into the clouds.

Did you compose the two parts of Only the Sound Remains in the same movement?

No. When I’d finished composing Tsunemasa, I didn’t start work on Hagoromo immediately. First, I needed to clear my mind by composing my harp concerto. So a whole year went by before I went back to Only the Sound Remains. Composing the second piece proved to be much faster than the first because the music is more luminous and lighter than in the first part.

You said that to compose, you need to challenge yourself. What was the challenge in the case of Only the Sound Remains?

I gave myself the challenge of writing an intimate work for a large theatre with limited instrumentation that included flutes to prolong the human breathing and the song of the birds, a kantele – a traditional Finnish instrument for which I had been eager to write for a long time – which plays the role of the magic instrument in the first play, percussion, and a string quartet– a particularly rich music ensemble that allows us to cover a wide range. My aim was to write refined and well-defined music that could breathe in the acoustics of a large theatre.

Davóne Tines et Philippe Jaroussky, Only the Sound Remains (Always Strong)
Davóne Tines et Philippe Jaroussky, Only the Sound Remains (Always Strong) © Ruth Walz – De Nationale Opera - Alankomaiden ooppera

How does the music relate to the use of electronic sounds?

I used electronics to prolong the feeling of intimacy with the audience throughout the whole theatre. In Emilie, my previous opera, I had already used electronics to transform the voice of the soprano and to create voices for children, her father, and her lovers… Here, I wanted to continue that work but I wanted to do so by moving beyond the realms of realism: to transform the voice and make it more abstract, more supernatural. In the first play, the real-time processing of the countertenor voice creates deep, veiled textures, that travel through the theatre like a shadow; in the second, it gave rise to high-pitched bells.

“I have the feeling that when I try to verbalise it the music escapes me, that I’m losing some of the material I need in order to write the piece…”

Was Philippe Jaroussky present at the beginning of the creative process?

Yes. I’ve known and admired his voice for many years. His role was decisive in the composition process: I’d initially thought of a baritone and a countertenor for the first play and a baritone and a soprano for the second. However, when I spoke to him about the idea when we saw each other in New York during one of his concerts he suggested taking on the two roles – the role of the spirit and the role of the angel. That idea helped to unite the two plays in an interesting way. As we began to consider how the two roles could be characterised by different tessitura, he also suggested keeping the highest notes for the second part, when his voice would have warmed up. So, I used a deeper range and a dramatic composition for Tsunemasa, whereas for Hagoromo the writing is more high-pitched and ornamented.

The second singer, the incredible young bass-baritone Davóne Tines, has also been with the project since the outset, and his part was written for him.

You are used to working with Peter Sellars. How did that collaboration pan out on this project?

I like to say that if you want to spend time with Peter, you have to make plans with him [laughs]. During the composition process, we were often in contact with each other. I kept him informed about how the score was advancing and he kept me abreast of his research concerning the other artists for the sets, lights and costumes. The bulk of Peter’s work happens during rehearsals anyway. I took the plays as they were, and worked without a dramatist. When I edited out a few passages, it was a necessity imposed by the music. During the composition process, I really don’t share my work. I’m currently writing a grand opera. But I can’t talk about it. I have the feeling that when I try to verbalise it, the music escapes me, that I’m losing some of the material I need to have in order to write the piece… But to get back to Only the Sound Remains, I remember that Peter had the idea for the dancer. He wondered how to stage the final disappearance of the angel when the text evokes her dances. He had a hard time imagining I could compose dance music!... For me, the solution was clear, the musical material for the angel develops towards an ever-more rhythmic, increasingly rapid composition, because it concerns the dance of a magical creature who disappears into the clouds around Mount Fuji.

You live constantly with your music. Do you ever spend time when you’re not composing?

Not really. I’m so happy in my music. It’s my purpose in life. For a long time, having a family forced me every day to step out of that world and come back to reality. These days, I stay in contact with reality by helping young people. When I spend my days composing, I try to set aside a moment for me to do something concrete: talk with a young composer via Skype or take half an hour to read a score on which I was asked to comment on… After spending the day in your own private universe, you have to step out of it and look at the world.

Peter Sellars et Kaija Saariaho lors de la création d’Adriana Mater à l’Opéra de Paris, 2006
Peter Sellars et Kaija Saariaho lors de la création d’Adriana Mater à l’Opéra de Paris, 2006 © Eric Mahoudeau / OnP

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