Program Notes

Laterna Magica

BORN: October 14, 1952. Helsinki, Finland. Resides in Paris, France


WORLD PREMIERE: August 28, 2009. Simon Rattle conducted the Berlin Philharmonic


INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling alto flute), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 sets of timpani, crotales, xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, tubular bells, glass chimes, bamboo chimes, small chimes, suspended cymbals, Chinese cymbal, 3 tamtams, tom-toms, mark tree, 2 triangles, tenor drum, 2 bass drums, harp, celesta, piano, and strings

DURATION: About 20 mins

THE BACKSTORY  “There was always one wise old guy with a bald head, the male authority whose aesthetics or politics ruled. . . I felt squeezed to be something I’m not,” Kaija Saariaho once remarked, referring to the culture of her native Finland—with the imposing, patriarchal figure of (the very bald) Jean Sibelius clearly in mind. Growing up in a family that was not particularly interested in music, she nevertheless found herself as a child drawn to the wondrous worlds that could be evoked by sounds and, despite a sexist environment, became the only woman in the class of Paavo Heininen at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. Heininen  belonged to the Modernist generation reacting against Sibelius, while, for her part, Saariaho joined up with fellow composers Esa-Pekka Salonen, Magnus Lindberg, and others in an experimental collective known as Korvat Auki! (“Ears Open!”)—a society intended to encourage experimentalism.

Like those compatriots, Saariaho chose a life of exile, resettling in Paris in the early 1980s and finding a new artistic home at Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM Institute for musical research after discovering the advances of the French “spectralists.” Spectralism refers to the processes developed by a loosely associated group of composers such as Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail. They devoted attention to the behavior of sonic spectra, using computer-assisted spectral analysis of sound. Some of Saariaho’s compositions also employ microtonality and electronic sources or “extensions” to create timbres that subtly mix with those produced by acoustic instruments.

This spectralist background, however, is only one dimension of a unique aesthetic that Saariaho has developed. “Rich timbral nuances, focused musical material evolving into unique musical forms, as well as works that call for careful listening remain her musical fingerprints,” writes the musicologist  Pirkko Moisala. Saariaho’s meticulous attention to textures and resonances, to the weight of sound itself, taps into a rich potential that involves a great deal more than “color,” pushing beyond conventional musical parameters. The result is very different from the sensuous qualities often attributed to French Impressionism. At times suggesting an austerity and sense of expansive spaces, Saariaho’s music can convey a sensation of hovering as it imbues sounds and their contexts with an uncanny and ghostlike tangibility—mesmerizing mirages that shift about the listener like mobile sculptures.

With her completely acoustic violin concerto titled Graal théâtre, written in 1997, Saariaho had a breakthrough by bringing the traditional genre of the violin concerto, as she notes, “into my musical framework and language.” Soon after that, under the prompting of the director Peter Sellars, she took on another traditional genre. Sellars’s production of Messiaen’s only opera Saint François d'Assise had made a profound impact on Saariaho, and she put aside her initial resistance to opera to compose L’amour de loin (Love from Afar) to a libretto by Amin Maalouf, initiating a collaboration that has produced several additional stage works.

Based on a medieval legend of love and loss involving one of the earliest troubadours, L’amour de loin proceeded to become one of the most successful contemporary operas since its premiere at the Salzburg Festival in 2000 in a production directed by Sellars. The Metropolitan Opera’s production in 2016 (conducted by Susanna Mälkki) marked the company’s first staging of an opera composed by a woman in more than a century. In 2003 Saariaho received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in music for L’amour—which also garnered a Grammy Award in 2011—and she became the first woman to win Northwestern University’s Neemers Award in 2008.

This turn toward the voice was another milestone in Saariaho’s development as a composer, leading to perhaps a greater, more overtly accessible emotional urgency in her music. Notes Moisala, she is “fascinated by the way the voice shares many characteristics with musical instruments, and how it can be blended into the overall orchestral sound.” Even orchestral works without voice show the influence of the perspectives Saariaho has gained from writing for voice—including Laterna Magica, composed on a commission from the Berlin Philharmonic and Lucerne Festival in 2008. With the operas and the rest of her music in general, this score shares Saariaho's guiding idea that a composition can offer an ear-opening, transformative experience.

THE MUSIC  Laterna Magica (The Magic Lantern) borrows its title from the autobiography that Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), the pioneering film director, published in 1987. The composer recalls that she came across her copy of the book “after many years while I was tidying my bookcases in the autumn of 2007.” As Moisala observes, “the inspiration for a work is often born from a strong momentum given by a natural phenomenon or an artistic work, painting, film, or poem.”

A voracious reader whose literary diet encompasses scientific journals and Proust, Saariaho became interested in her re-encounter with Bergman’s world in the intersection of memory, technology, and psychological illusion that characterize film. Bergman chose his title from an old name for an image projector. This meaning of laterna magica refers to the crank-operated image-projecting device developed in the late 19th century—the basic idea of the machine dates back still further—that was the forerunner of the slide projector. Bergman’s memoirs recount the excitement of receiving his magic lantern as a birthday gift when he was a child.

Saariaho began to sense a parallel between this manipulation of projected images and how music unfolding in real time in performance is perceived by the listener: “In time, as I read the book, the variation of musical motifs at different tempos emerged as one of the basic ideas behind the orchestral piece on which I was beginning to work,” writes the composer. “Symbolizing this was the laterna magica, the first machine to create the illusion of a moving image: as the handle turns faster and faster, the individual images disappear and instead the eye sees continuous movement.”

It should be noted that Laterna Magica relies on no musical “machinery” in the sense of the electronics that Saariaho seamlessly weaves into her earlier compositions. The large orchestra she calls for is entirely acoustic, though from its resources she elicits sonorities that surprise the ear, their origin ambivalent and mysterious. The unifying concept of the piece is the exploration of how changes in tempo affect the ways in which we perceive the same musical material as it is transformed. A straightforward, linear narrative trajectory is not the point. Beginning at a slow tempo marked “grave, calmo,” and then “doloroso,” the piece unfolds as a single movement, yet discrete areas of focus emerge.

“Different tempos underline different parameters,” Saariaho explains. “The rhythmic continuity is accentuated at relatively fast tempos, whereas delicate shades require more time and space for the ear to interpret and appreciate them. While I was working with tempos, rhythms with different characters became a major part of the piece’s identity: a fiery dance-rhythm inspired by flamenco; a shifting, asymmetrical rhythm provided by speech; and an accelerating ostinato that ultimately loses its rhythmic character and becomes a texture. In contrast to this, there emerged music without a clear rhythm or pulse. This material is dominated by strongly sensed, colorful planes and airy textures, such as the unified color of six horns, which divides the orchestral phrases.”

Saariaho’s particular sensitivity to color and visual experience—she studied fine arts before enrolling at the Sibelius Academy—figures significantly in Laterna Magica. She has described her own artistic perceptions in terms that suggest synesthesia. According to Moisala, Saariaho “perceives the world and makes associations—also musical thoughts—through several senses that blend together in the experience. ‘Different senses, shades of color, or textures and tones of light, even fragrances, and sounds, of course, blend in my mind. They form a complete world in itself, which calls me to enter into it, and where I can then focus on some details.’” This, incidentally, suggests some fascinating points of comparison with and contrast to the polar views of symphonic composition advocated by Mahler and Sibelius (embracing the entire world versus “profound logic and inner connection,” respectively).

Saariaho was especially intrigued by the ways in which Bergman uses light in his film Cries and Whispers (1972), employing a unique color scheme executed by his favorite cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. She compares her use of the combined horns in Laterna Magica “to divide the orchestral phrases” to the way scenes change through repeated plain-red sequences in Cries and Whispers.

For her composition, Saariaho extracted a list Bergman made of adjectives describing varying species of light. Using the German equivalents—since Laterna Magica was commissioned for the Berlin Philharmonic—she instructs the musicians at various points to recite these words, starting with the flutes speaking into their instruments: gentle, dangerous, dream-like, lively, dead, clear, hazy, hot, strong, naked, sudden, dark, spring-like, penetrating, pressing, direct, oblique, sensuous, overpowering, restricting, poisonous, pacifying, bright light. Light.

Thomas May

Thomas May is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book. He blogs about the arts at


Recordings: Juanjo Mena conducting the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms (YouTube)  |  Sakari Oramo conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, available as part of a single disc or as part of a five-disc compilation titled Suomi-Finland 100: A Century of Finnish Classics both on the Ondine label

Reading: Kaija Saariaho, by Pirkko Moisala (University of Illinois Press)  |  Kaija Saariaho: Visions, Narratives, Dialogues, edited by Tim Howell (Routledge)

(June 2018)

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