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The Uses of Electronics in Three Works by Kaija Saariaho

Paul Nelson - 5/10/2004

 

Introduction

 

The purpose of this paper is to analyze and discuss the use of electronics in three works by Kaija Saariaho written in the early to middle 1990's. All three works are for solo performer plus electronics. As such, all three works depend heavily on electronics to modify and complement the sound of the acoustic performer. The three works are:  Près (1992) for Cello and Electronics, Six Japanese Gardens (1993-5) for Percussion and Electronics, and Lonh (1996) for Soprano and Electronics.

 

This paper is organized by the musical effect achieved by Saariaho's use of electronics. For each effect, the purpose of the effect is discussed in terms of how it enhances the goals of the music overall.

 

In general, Saariaho uses electronics to enhance, rather than supplant, the music which is present in the acoustic performance. The electronic effects are always complementary to the sound of the instrument, never fighting or opposing the performer. Rather, the performer and the electronics work together to create an enhanced -- and quite beautiful -- sound world which would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve by a single performer alone.

How Electronics Are Used

Atmosphere

A primary use of electronics in these works is to place the music within an environment of sound which serves to create the atmosphere of the work. In these works, Saariaho is creating a fantasy environment. These are not gritty, urban, realist compositions. Rather, they are effervescent and dreamlike, and the electronics are used to build this world.

 

Of course, the total atmosphere of a work is the result of many factors, including the harmony, general activity, melodic lines, background lines, timbre, etc. (all of which is discussed later). But in addition Saariaho uses real-world sounds to help create the atmosphere.

 

For example, sounds of waves are used to place the music in a natural setting [Près/I/ending] and to round-out the composition. In Six Japanese Gardens, crickets evoke a magical twilight [SJG/I/Beginning], and chanting and the sounds of ringing prayer bowls evoke mystical eastern religious rituals [SJG/II/Beginning]. Although the atmosphere in Lohn is more the result of timbral choices than of specific quotes of real-world sounds, Saariaho does use recorded gongs and ghostly voices to achieve a "far off" and ethereal feeling [Lohn/Beginning].

Sound Objects

Tristan Murail, in his lecture to composers at Peabody, described a compositional method of creating "sound objects" which are then manipulated (stretched, deformed, etc.) and repeated to create a work of music. Much of the music (especially in Près) of Saariaho appears to work with similar objects in sound.

 

For Saariaho, electronics become an integral part of creating these sound objects. Often, a sound object will be initiated by the acoustic performer. Then, electronics will be used to emphasize the climax of the object -- to give the object more "bloom" or to increase the high point. Finally, electronics will be used to stretch out the object, adding an additional "resonance" or "echo" to the object which stretches out into time like waves in a pond.

 

In the first example of a sound object [Près/I/3:41], electronics are used to stretch out the trill at the end of the cello gesture. The second example [Près/I/6:27] is more complex, and if you listen carefully you can hear electronics used to subtly enforce the grittiness of the cello part at the climax of the object. These examples above blend in additional timbres to the sound and do so with long sustained notes. These might be called "pads" in pop-music nomenclature.

 

It is also possible to create objects with sounds that have sharp attacks. For example, in Près [Près/III/1:43], the cello does a tremolo glissando to a high note, and then electronics "react" to this gesture with a kind of skittery echo. In Lohn [Lohn/9:56], sound objects are created with the soprano's voice and a recorded vibraphone sound, which occur together. This sound object is especially interesting for the long resonance, which fades away in much the same way as a gong might fade, with interesting partials fading in and out.

 

Timbre

 

The first of the three works, Près, also appears to have the most amount of real-time processing of the solo instrument. This processing has the effect of making the instrument "wetter" and more sustained. It is as if the 'cello has additional sympathetic strings (such as with a viola d'amore) which are excited by the playing and ring well after the player has finished. [Près/I/0:35]

 

Similarly, Saariaho uses electronics to modify timbre by mixing additional sounds into the music. These can be used to create sound-objects (such as before), or it can be used to simply add some special quality to the performer's sound. For example, in Lohn, she uses high, shimmery sounds to add a bright "sheen" to the voice [Lohn/13:50].

 

Form

 

Many electronic compositions I've heard use electronics to merely set the mood or to create a new sound world. Saariaho rises above the ordinary by using electronics to help structure the composition as well. Unique electronic effects are saved and used to delineate sections, identify cadences, and to round out the composition as a whole.

 

Three specific examples show how Saariaho uses electronics to help shape the composition and to make the form clear to the ear. First, Lohn is based on a poem from the French middle ages and is roughly structured according to the stanzas of the poem. Several of these sections are identified by the introduction of new electronic sounds and effects. For example, the second section introduces the unison voice + recorded vibraphone to create a shimmering bell like effect [Lohn/2:54]. The third section introduces a scratchy mechanical effect [Lohn/5:32], and the fourth section [Lohn/8:06] uses fast repeated vibraphone notes blended with a slight hissing sound. What is important about these three sections is that these electronic effects are held back and used to introduce new sections when appropriate.

 

Electronics can also be used to round out sections or movements of the work. In Près, a high ringing tone is used (more than once) to help provide the cadence for a section [Près/I/2:39]. Similarly, the sounds of waves are used to end the first movement [Près/I/ending] as well as the last movement [Près/III/7:26]. Note that the waves at the end of the work are not literal recordings of waves, but rather "wave like" electronic effects.

 

Again, what is important about these examples is how Saariaho saves the effect for when it is needed. In all of these cases, the effects are held back and then used only when needed to help with form, rather than being a constant part of the sound world.

 

Commentary / Punctuations / Rhetoric

 

Saariaho uses electronics as an integral part of her rhetorical language. For example, she will use electronics to connect together phrases into larger utterances, to comment on the music, or to react/interact with the performer. Electronic sounds in these cases are used to punctuate rather than blend with the flow of music produced by the acoustic performer.

 

In the first example, electronics are used to sustain the cello sound. This serves to elide phrases together so that a new cello utterance can be heard as picking up and expounding on a previous one [Près/I/0:35]. These elisions make the music less 'blocky' and more continuous.

 

The next several examples show cases where the electronics punctuate the music. Electronic punctuations are used to add interest to the line and to point up climaxes or cadences in the music. In a sense, these punctuations serve as markers of the form, but on a local level [Près/II/0:45], [Près/III/2:59].  Similarly, electronics can be used to create larger phrase groupings within busy passages. In the second movement of Près, long electronic tones are played over a busy Cello ostinato, effectively creating longer lines which carry the ear forward [Près/II/0:32].

 

The last example shows how the performer interacts with the electronics. In Lohn, there are several cases where the singer appears to carry on a dialog with the recorded sounds (creating the effect of multiple performers). [Lohn/4:31]

 

Additional Instrumentalists

 

Electronics are also used by Saariaho to solve simple pragmatic concerns: to simply reduce the number of performers required. In all of the works studied, a second performer could have been used in place of many of the prerecorded sounds.

 

And this does point to the fact that Saariaho is careful to use "compatible" electronic sounds in her works. For example, in Près, she uses sounds which recall Cello pizzicato or col legno [Près/III/2:59].

 

Similarly, in Six Japanese Gardens, it is very difficult to tell the difference between the electronics and the percussion player. For the most part, I believe that this piece could have been written for two percussion players with no use of electronics at all. For example, in movement V, there is a background percussion sound which sounds like a very soft cymbal strike with a hard (triangle?) beater [SJG/V/0:56]. After listening to the movement carefully, however, it is clear that these notes are electronic tones.

 

When additional instruments are clearly apparent, they often are used to encourage forward motion by providing rhythms and patterns (i.e. drum loops). Since Lohn is for Soprano and electronics, the electronics are used as an entire percussion section, and many times this provides a background tempo upon which the singer can float [Lohn/3:13].

 

Additional Aspects of the Sound World:  Thickening, Spatial

Two additional uses of electronics help round out the overall sound world of these works.

 

The first is that electronics are used, in general, to achieve a "thickening" of the sound. In Près this is done with resonance and long sustained background tones [Près/I/0:52]. In Six Japanese Gardens it is done with additional lines of percussion instruments [SJG/V/0:56], and in Lohn, of course, the electronics provide a complete accompaniment to the soprano line [Lohn/3:13].

 

In rare cases, panning is used to add a spatial dimension to the music. This is usually done with quick "reactionary" gestures which briefly swirl around and then disappear [Près/III/0:22]. In Six Japanese Gardens, sometimes it is only the panning of the sound which distinguishes the electronics from the performer [SJG/II/0:55].

 

Pitch Centricity

 

In both Près and Six Japanese Gardens, the electronics do not appear to contribute to the overall harmonic structure of the work. In Près, the harmony is determined almost entirely by the solo cello player. In Six Japanese Gardens, there is really no harmony to speak of, the emphasis is really on atmosphere, percussion, and rhythmic modulation.

 

However, in Lohn, the electronics serve as the entire accompaniment for the singer. Very often the electronics will define a clear central pitch around which the singer will sing [Lohn/1:13].

 

Conclusions

In all three of these compositions, Kaija Saariaho is intent on creating otherworldly places. These worlds are constructed very carefully, so that all of the components work together and complement each other.

 

As a matter of taste, it is clear that she likes mystical, fantastic places. These are worlds that envelop the listener, using sounds that range from shimmery to thick and pungent, often using lots of sustain and resonance.

 

But these compositions are more than just soundscapes. Saariaho's musical craftsmanship is apparent in the way she uses the electronics -- saving up effects and textures to help delineate sections and form. Electronics are more than just atmosphere -- they also play a role in the rhetorical language of the work itself.

 

In general, these works show that Kaija Saariaho is intent on crafting a beautiful and appealing world to inhabit, and then using the full power of her musical language and craft to create satisfying works within these newly created worlds.