June 30, 2009 / 11:22 AM / 10 years ago

Finland's Saariaho: "Music is mystery - like love"

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s music has taken the opera houses, concert halls and audiences of the world by storm. Just don’t ask her why.

“I think music is really one of the big mysteries in our life and for me it’s in the same category as love,” Saariaho, who is 56 and whose music has been described as “dreamlike” and haunting, told Reuters in an interview.

“Music has enormous powers and it’s part of everybody’s life in some form — so I cannot answer that question, really.”

The slender, bright-eyed, elfin Saariaho spoke on the eve of the London premiere of “L’Amour de Loin” (Love from afar), an opera for three singers and chorus based on a true story about an unconsummated “courtly” love affair between the pining troubadour Jaufre Rudel from France and Clemence, the Countess of Tripoli, in whose arms he dies after a voyage to see her.

The opera had its premiere in Salzburg in 2000 and has had many productions since, but the version at the English National Opera is one Saariaho admits she would not have permitted nine years ago. It will be sung in English, instead of the original French, and will have acrobats from Cirque du Soleil on stage.

“Well, yes, there seem to be people who are quite acrobatic...but this thing about the director’s view, I’ve gotten used to it because this is the seventh production so there have been...very different kinds of ‘L’Amour de Loins’.

“It is living its own life so I told myself, ‘Why not?’” Here’s what else she had to say about her music, her influences, and why living in France is good therapy for a Finn.

Q: Your music is described as a “dreamscape” or as having an “icy beauty.” Would you subscribe to any of that?

A: “When one says ‘dreamlike’ it’s often like ‘dreamy’ and if that’s a description I don’t like it because there is so much more. If you think about your dreams, they can be very violent and they can be very sweet and they can be painful and if you think about all these characteristics and you say, ‘Your music is like that’, then I like it. It depends on definitions.”

Q: You once said you would never write an opera but there will be three soon — or four, if you count your oratorio about the French Jewish philosopher Simone Weil. Do you see yourself as an opera composer, and if so, with a feminist viewpoint?

A: “Why not? I’m a woman and of course I choose the subjects that interest me...and I pick different things than some of my male colleagues. But no, I don’t consider myself to be an opera composer, I love to do different kinds of things. But opera is interesting because...it’s like a meeting point with other artists. Plus the other thing is that the musicians must stay with your music a long time and the singers need to learn the music by heart, so it takes the music to another level.”

Q: You’ve said of “L’Amour de Loin” that the writing of it somehow allowed you to reconcile being a woman with being a composer — that you joined two parts. How so?

A: “At one point I understood why I was so intrigued by this story because there is (the troubadour) and the lady Clemence who has left her country and there is the destiny of the pilgrim who wants to bring them together and I had a feeling that I was drawn into that story because I wanted to be both — I wanted to bring them together too.”

Q: When you were young and realized what Mozart had done by the time he was your age, you almost gave up — but you didn’t. What are the big influences on your musical palette?

A: “Mozart, Debussy, Messiaen’s (opera) ‘St. Francois d’Assise’ — that and one billion other pieces. Stravinsky, Sibelius, Berlioz...Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday...There is Bach...Is there any composer or musician who doesn’t love Bach? It’s unfair to pick out one or two because there’s so much.”

Q: You and your husband have two children and live in France. Isn’t the French mentality different from the Finnish?

A: “It’s so far from my character that it’s good for me. I have a tendency to be a very strict and ascetic person and they are sometimes so superficial and sensual and there is the lunch which takes two hours and all that and I think it’s good for my strictness. It rarely happens to me, still, but it’s good for me to see that life around me.”

(Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin” open on Friday at the ENO with additional performances on July 7, 9 and 11 www.eno.org; the latest recording of her music, including “Mirage” for cello, orchestra and soprano, with singer Karita Mattila, is on the Ondine label, ODE 1130-2)

Writing by Michael Roddy, editing by Paul Casciato

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