The Confluence of Sound and Technology

Finish composer Kaija Saariaho appears at The Phillips Collection tonight, Thursday, February 21, as part of the Leading European Composers series. She presents a selection of her chamber music with members of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio.  For more information and to make a reservation please visit

Kaija Saariaho Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

Kaija Saariaho Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

In today’s world we are surrounded by artificial sounds–from the blips and beeps of computers to amplified and synthesized sounds in music. When almost any sound is possible, how do you choose the right ones to create something expressive, beautiful, and within reach? Kaija Saariaho is one composer whose experiments in electronic sound have rendered something unique.

For Saariaho, her discovery of computers in music unlocked the potential to explore the sounds that she heard in her head as a child. She uses electronics as both an enabler and a tool of inspiration, but her music is never subservient to technology. Saariaho employs it as a form or orchestration, building colors, tones, and timbres just as Brahms or Mahler might employ brass, woodwind, and strings.

In the works to be presented in tonight’s program, all but one take inspiration from poetry and literature. Her work Lonh for soprano and electronics uses a poem attributed to medieval French troubadour Jaufré Rudel. Extracts of the poem are recorded in three languages in male and female voices and channeled through electronic process. The soprano triggers these recorded samples at moments in the score, and thus Saariaho creates a dialogue between live and recorded sounds that blends the worlds of real and artifice, past and present. Within this fragmented aural world, Saariaho maintains a feeling of deep human connection–the soprano’s almost plainchant singing conveys a profound sense of spirituality.

Another work on tonight’s program, From the Grammar of Dreams, explores the contrasts of the conscious and subconscious. Saariaho generates a musical collage from two extracts of Sylvia Plath, the poem Paralytic and quotations from The Bell Jar. The piece is scored for soprano and mezzo soprano, and the two voices weave in and out of each text in such a way as they become one single voice inhabiting different interior, psychological states.

What makes Saariaho unique in the field of contemporary music is her ability to convey the intensely personal. Her musical colors, whether rich and complex or simple and clear, are always luminescent in their beauty. Whether or not you engage with the metaphorical, spiritual, or even theatrical elements of her music, it speaks to us first and foremost through its sound.  However just as with contemporary art or literature, the deeper one chooses to participate, examine, and question, the more the music will reveal of itself.

Jeremy Ney, Music Consultant

Facing the Music

Rachel Barton Pine with her violin in the Music Room

Rachel Barton Pine with her violin in the Music Room, Paganini over her shoulder. Photo: Margaret Rajic

For her performance here in January, violinist Rachel Barton Pine set herself a formidable challenge: performing the 24 Caprices for solo Violin, Op. 1, by Nicolò Paganini, one of history’s most sensational virtuosos. For her performance of the first 12 Caprices at the Phillips (the concluding set played later that evening at the National Gallery of Art) Barton Pine shared the stage with Eugène Delacroix’s haunting portrait of Paganini, looming over her shoulder and casting a frightening eye on proceedings.

There is an enduring mystique in the man and his music that still fascinates today. Paganini’s astonishing and revolutionary developments in violin playing were in his day only equaled by his notoriety-–he cancelled concerts on a whim, frequented brothels, brushed up against the law, and despite his gaunt and ghostly appearance, was surrounded by groupies. Truly he was the musical enfant terrible of the 19th century. However, stories of his life emerge with more than a shade of byronesque fascination, and the wild-man persona was all part of an image, as Barton Pine explained: “When people saw him doing all these seemingly impossible feats they said: ‘Well to be able to play like that he must have had to sell his soul.’ Well Paganini being a great showman as well as a great artist realized that a devilish reputation might help to sell tickets, so he didn’t always protest these accusations.”

Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix,  Paganini, 1831

Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, Paganini, 1831. Oil on cardboard on wood panel, 17 5/8 x 11 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1922.

Delacroix captures Paganini’s enigma well; shades of light are clawing their way out of predominant darkness, and those we can see–his pale haunted visage, unkempt shirt, and long spidery fingers–are peculiar and unsettling. The portrait also reveals some illuminating technical aspects of Paganini’s playing style. Barton Pine explained that the physical feats he was able to achieve, indicated in the painting by his posture and position of his left arm, were most likely a symptom of Marfan syndrome, a disorder that affects the body’s ligaments and makes the joints more flexible. This condition likely helped Paganini to reach the interval of a 13th, at the very upper limit of what is possible for violinists today. It’s easy to see why superstitious audiences of the 19th century thought Paganini was in league with the devil, “But not to worry” Barton Pine explained, “I didn’t sell my soul, I just practiced a lot.”

For all the wizardry and pyrotechnics of the Caprices, what shines through in these captivating pieces is a wonderful sense of melody and musical line. Paganini was an underestimated composer with a unique affinity with the Italian Bel canto style. Barton Pine, whose commentary between pieces shed revealing light on the intricacies of the music, continued: “By expanding the technical capabilities of the instrument he really expanded the range of colors and expression that are possible from the instrument.” Throughout the myriad difficulties of triple stops, awkward octaves, and fiendish upward staccato, this expanded expressiveness is what stood out in her immaculate performance. Her sheer joy in the music was self-evident, and in the hands of such a fine and dedicated musician the seemingly impossible technical feats dissolved away, revealing the beauties and melodies beneath.

Jeremy Ney, Music Consultant

Matthias Pintscher: Pathways between Sight and Sound

Matthias Pintscher’s music will be performed at The Phillips Collection by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble tomorrow, Thursday, December 13 at 6:30 pm. Click through for program details and reservations.

Can the painter’s brush strokes ever become the composer’s notes? Can the canvas ever produce echoes of sound, and can music echo the subtleties of painting? The many-layered connections between visual art and music provide huge creative scope to experiment with the hypothesis, and indeed many artists from both fields have spent lifetimes investigating the possibilities. However the dichotomy remains: is there any true, and collectively meaningful way to unite the aural and visual senses through a synthesis of art and music?

For German composer Matthias Pintscher, who appears at the Phillips on Thursday as part of the Leading European Composers series, it is a question of how the connections between the two are made. Pintscher has made explicit reference to his inspiration from visual art. Many of his compositions take their names from painting and sculpture, and he is particularly drawn to art of the American minimalist tradition: Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, and Mark Rothko among others.

Pintscher has been quick to acknowledge the contradictions that music and art can present. In his notes for a work that appears on Thursday’s program, dernier espace avec introspecteur, he writes:

“It goes without saying that visual impressions cannot be composed, or ‘set to music’–there is no genuine, interdisciplinary way to translate between forms that are heard and those that are seen.”

This recognition is implicit in Pintscher’s approach. His music does not force an impossibility, it creates a pathway, a vessel between the two worlds that is more subtle and nuanced. Dernier espace avec introspecteur is Pintscher’s musical reaction and dialogue with a sculpture by the German artist Joseph Beuys.

The connections are gestural, formal, and even painterly; Pintscher consciously uses sound as a brush, and instrumental timbre becomes his canvas.

Each of the four pieces on Thursday’s Leading European Composers program have a connection to visual art.  Studies II and III for Treatise on the Veil are informed by a large work of the same name by the American artist Cy Twombly. Pintscher created a cycle of four works that interpret the themes of Twombly’s canvas: elasticity of time, the ephemeral nature of creation, and most prominently, silence. Pintscher’s music emerges from silence, and maintains a whispering, hovering, distance from it. The performance instructions for the studies are “floating, overcast, and very unreal” and the thin, almost precarious threads of Pintscher’s sound echo the fragility of Twombly’s painting. It is as if the sound—as the image—were on the very brink of collapse

The solo piano piece, on a clear day, to be performed by pianist Phyllis Chen, takes its inspiration from a piece by the American/Canadian artist Agnes Martin. The work consists of 30 silk screens with horizontal and vertical lines lightly drawn on each screen to form grids. Martin’s use of restraint—of means, color, and movement—creates a state of vulnerability and the unequal lines and unpredictable variations suggest an uncertain visual world. In musical terms, it is neither a loud forte nor quiet pianissimo. It sits somewhere between sound and silence. Pintscher’s musical landscape elicits the same pathos; musical lines are scattered imperceptibly, faintly woven together in a shifting world of tonal ambiguity. There are points of return and departure throughout; it begins on a lone E flat harmonic, instructed to sound as strange and mystical as possible. This single utterance establishes the uncertain fabric of the piece, and we hear its distant cry throughout, suggestive of a faint memory of the past, but still resonating in the acoustic present, leading toward an unknown end. This question of the unknown and the limits of what language—musical or otherwise—can express, gets to the very heart of Pintscher’s aesthetic. The composer creates worlds of veiled sound that paradoxically inhabit states of movement and stasis. His goal is to seek out the space in-between.

Jeremy Ney, Music Consultant