Kaija Saariaho’s Lohn – an appreciation

by Jocelyn Morlock

I first encountered the luminous music of Kaija Saariaho as a student in the late 1990s. Having come to composition from a background as a pianist, (and being decidedly underwhelmed by integral serialism) I was fascinated by the new music I was hearing that lived and breathed in the area between those twelve chromatic pitches.

My introduction to this music was by way of Giacinto Scelsi (1905 – 1988); much of his music is focused on a single pitch, and the variations of colour, timbre, and width (from senza vibrato through quarter-tone trills) that can be found there. Listening to Scelsi for the first time was analogous to looking at microscopic images of porcelain, and seeing all the detailed texture and variation that comprised the apparently smooth surface.

Spectralism – sound colour as arbiter of form

Having told them of my newfound love for Scelsi, my enthusiastic fellow composers helpfully directed me to music of the spectralists, a group of composers working out of IRCAM – L’Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris – from the 1970s onwards. Dissatisfied with the constraints of serialism, these composers, notably Gerard Grisey, Tristan Murail and later (ca. 1982) Kaija Saariaho, sought ways to combine scientific inquiry into the components of sound with a more intuitive means of pitch generation. Spectral analysis of sounds could be used to generate pitch material by determining the individual frequencies that make up a more complex instrumental sound.

Frequently analyzed sounds include gong and bell notes; Saariaho has based several early works on analyses of cello trills, and also the changing shape of a cello note subject to increasing bow pressure. [The significant and rather enthralling piece to listen to here is Lichtbogen from 1986.] The resulting material more closely resembles a harmonic series* than a division into twelve chromatic pitches.

*The ratios 1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, 1/6, etc., as expressed in terms of pitch.


Analyzing sound spectra, while a significant method of generating pitch material in the earlier days of spectralism, is not a necessity; the concept of spectral music has become more generalized. As of the early 2000s, the primary focus of music that can be considered spectral is timbre, timbre being defined as the colour of a sound – its tonal quality or character, as opposed to its pitch, volume, or duration. Long-term changes in timbre, and timbral structure and variation, could be used analogously to the way that large-scale harmonic motion provided structure in music of the 18th and 19th centuries. [Those looking for a detailed essay on this should consult Saariaho’s own article Timbre and harmony: interpolations of timbral structures, from Contemporary Music Review, 1987, pp. 93-133, a copy of which can be purchased here.]

What is apparent to the listener in pieces such as Oi Kuu, (1990), on Music on Main’s 2012 Modulus Festival, is the incredible range of sound colours that can be produced by just two instruments, and the way that musical tension and interest can be created by non-traditional melodic shaping; each note has its own continuum of colour and texture, such that a single note or trill may function as an entire melodic gesture. The effect is a form of melodic minimalism, where the listener’s concentration is on the ever-changing colours of the cello and the bass flute as they mimic and amplify each other.

Saariaho’s early output was almost exclusively songs for soprano voice; not until 1976 did her instructor, Paavo Heininen, convince her to explore other genres. Her focus in the subsequent two decades was on instrumental music, frequently with electronics, but she returned to her first compositional love in the late 1990s.

Rather surprisingly for one coming out of the spectral tradition, Saariaho has of late become known as a composer of operas, winning the Grawemeyer prize in 2003 for L’amour de loin (premiered in 2000) and writing three subsequent operas in the early twentieth century: Adriana Mater, La Passion de Simone, and Émilie, all with librettos by author Amin Maalouf.

Lonh, her 1996 piece for soprano and electronics, is a watershed work and a significant precursor to L’amour de loin. The opera was based on a fictionalized account of the life of Jaufré Rudel, whom Saariaho first learned about while reading a text on medieval legends by Jacques Roubaud. Lonh takes its text from one of Rudel’s few surviving songs texts, Laqand li jorn son lonc en mai – “when the days are long in May.” Roubaud’s translation of the original Occitan text into French is heard in the electronic component of the work, as is his reading of the original text.

Medieval modes and modern lyricism

Saariaho’s writing in Lonh juxtaposes several techniques. Aspects of spectralism coincide with more modal, lyrical passages that are audibly influenced by medieval vocal music. The pre-recorded electronics are comprised of glistening, gamelan-like percussion (synthesized gong and bell sounds), as well as music-concrete-influenced atmospheric sounds including wind, rain, birdsong, speech, whispering, and pre-recorded singing. The combination of live electronic processing (primarily very long reverb and also some filtering) with pre-recorded soprano singing gives the impression that the live singer is accompanying herself – it is possible to hear her sung notes fading off into oblivion while she sings or whispers more text. The ingenious use of pre-recorded and live electronic processing creates a wide variety of accompanimental textures which give lie to the economy of a single-performer work.

Saariaho’s use of text in Lonh is appealingly innovative. At times she uses an entire section of text, but she is unafraid to focus on specific, particularly suggestive words, or to use fragmentation to create dialogue. She incorporates text in three languages (Occitan, French, and English), thus ensuring that the text is comprehensible while maintaining the distant flavour of the medieval Occitan. Fragmentation of the text is used to create a sense of disorder and distance, but also to produce a dialogue between live and pre-recorded voices.

Lonh is written in nine through-composed sections – a Prologue, seven verses, and a Tornada (a final commentary on the preceding work). Most of the sections are discrete and have distinct moods and textural identities. The entire text of the first verse is spoken in the prologue, which may be performed in either English or French. The mood of the piece is set by the electronics; the rain, whispering, distant birds, and hypnotic percussion are ruminative and mysterious.

Whispers from afar, fragmented ecstasy

The seminal melodic material of Lonh was written to follow the contours of Rudel’s song, without actually quoting it. Like the Prologue, it takes as its text the first verse of Laqand li jorn, this time in the original Occitan. The material of this lyrically written, modal song is used throughout the rest of Lonh in a more fragmented and disjunct manner.

Grace-note figures, trills, semitone glissandi and variations between regular vocal tone, breathy tone, and whispering comprise a variety of live vocal timbres. The stepwise melodies occupy a relatively small area of the soprano’s range, and center around the D-Dorian mode scale with an intriguing alternation between B-flat and B-natural. [A particularly beautiful moment occurs at m. 74 where the first instance of B-natural coincides with the text “vauc de talan enbroncs” – “I go bent and bowed with desire.”] The most unusual feature of the vocal material is that nearly every line creates a rising motion. Those that fall generally do so by only a semitone, like a musical representation of sighing.

Saariaho sets the second verse as a rather disjunct dialogue – the soprano alternately sings and speaks small phrases of the text, with the taped male voice whispering other phrases.

The setting of the third verse is very short, simple and fragmentary – only a few words are chosen [“separate…see…but not…for too many passages and paths…and for God’s will…”] The whispering continues here, though the individual words are no longer audible. The final phrase of this verse marks the first time that a wide leap occurs in the vocal melody, and the transition to the fourth verse. This leaping, ecstatic music is centred on the text fragments “Bem para jois” and “l’amor de loing” [“I will feel joy”, “love from afar.”] The electronics become increasingly sparse in this section, emphasizing the lonely passion of the solo singer.

The fifth and third verses are closely related. Both discuss seeing; in the fifth verse, the focus is “could be seen by her lovely eyes.” The rapid motion and energy in the electronic percussion contrasts with the slower and gentler vocal lines. The vocal lines of the third and fifth verses are closely related; the fifth starts with a long trill on E, where the third left off; each is comprised of fragments, all of which begin with grace notes or other very short notes and rise to a single long, high note. The larger structure of the vocal parts of the third and fifth verses are arch forms which begin and end with particularly short phrases, that lengthen and become more elaborate to the middle of each section and then taper off towards the end.

Verse six contrasts strongly with the previous four verses; it may be seen as an amplification of verse one due to its calm, serious mood. It is comprised of the most long, slow and solemn vocal lines. These cover a large range, the largest thus far, frequently floating on a high A. The electronics are very simple and avoid all rhythmic pulse; bells punctuate certain words, and there is a lingering background hum created from filtered and processed whispering.

The live soprano sound is also subjected to a long reverb, adding to the surreal effect. When writing for the voice, a composer will tend to save the highest notes for the most significant text. Combining the use of these dramatically high notes with a radical change in texture and tempo is a striking way for the composer to draw the listener’s attention, and mark this verse as the climax of the piece.

The text fragments Saariaho has chosen here [“Dieus fetz tot et fermet cest’amor…”, or “God who made everything and formed this love…”] are very simple, and could perhaps be taken as a statement of fact, but they are set as if they are an unfinished plea for intervention. As the music fades off into the distance, and the live soprano’s sound is swallowed up by the electronics, Saariaho’s music suggests for the first time a certain despair and powerlessness. The protagonist can’t change her situation, she can’t be with her distant love, nor be free of her desire.

“No other joy pleases me”

The music of the seventh verse resembles that of the fourth, but the tone is now restless and searching, rather than ecstatic. The vocal lines are similarly athletic, but the sole text used is “no other joy pleases me.”

The Tornada returns to the bird-filled, whispering garden of the Prologue, sounding more ominous and forlorn than previously. The final text is used ambiguously: the whole text set here is “but what I want…is forbidden to me…not to be loved…” The ghostly duet between the whispering male voice and the live soprano repeats “amatz, amatz” (“loved”) over and over, creating a sense of eternal longing. The very long reverb on the sustained soprano notes allows for the live soprano vocalise to continue even while she is whispering “amatz.”

Lonh, a work scored only for voice and electronics, creates a remarkable atmosphere, full of colour. From birdsong, languid whispering and barely-audible percussive flutterings to operatic melismas and fierce, rhythmic gong melodies, Saariaho creates a sound-world that the listener could never expect, and yet ideally captures all the changing emotions of the distant lover. This synthesis of sophisticated timbral textures with clear, virtuosic and lyrical writing has led her to produce some of the most fascinating music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Jocelyn Morlock. August 2012. Vancouver, Canada.
Jocelyn Morlock is Music on Main’s Composer In Residence. You can learn more about her work at jocelynmorlock.com.