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 www.phillipscollection.org/music

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

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