Back in the summer of 2013, the Finnish string quartet Meta4 (violinists Antti Tikkanen and Minna Pensola, violist Atte Kilpeläinen, and cellist Tomas Djupsjöbacka) released an album on the Finnish Ondine label. The recording was devoted to chamber works for strings by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. It identified itself as the first volume of a projected two-volume series. Almost exactly a month ago, the second volume was released; but, because Saariaho continues to be an impressively active composer, one has to wonder whether or not there will be further recordings of chamber music not yet composed.
To be fair, however, all of the compositions on this second volume were completed before the first volume was released; so there is a good chance that the both volumes had been planned at the same time. Furthermore, the two volumes are not, strictly speaking, “consecutive.” The works on the first volume were completed between 1987 and 2010, while those on the second volume were completed between 1982 and 2011.
Rather, the two volumes are distinguished by “additional resources.” The first volume began with “Tocar,” a 2010 duo for violin and piano with pianist Anna Laakso joining Pensola. The second volume, on the other hand, features soprano Pia Freund. She sings with the entire quartet on only one selection, a setting of Friederich Hölderlin’s poem (in German) “Die Aussicht” (the perspective), composed in 1996. In addition, Freund is accompanied by cellist Djupsjöbacka in the 1982 “Du gick, flög” by Gunnar Björling, a Finnish poet who wrote in Swedish. Freund is then joined by violinist Tikkanen in a performance of “Changing Light” (2002), setting an English text by Rabbi Jules Harlow from his collection Siddur Sim Shalom. In addition Marko Myöhänen provides electronic accompaniment for two compositions on the first volume and one on two second.
For all of these different approaches to resources, there is a unifying factor across both of these volumes. That is Saariaho’s effort as a composer to develop and exercise an approach to musical expression based primarily on sonority. While there may be recognizable motifs, they seldom extend into what we would be willing to call “themes.” As a result, there is little attention to either harmonic (or dissonant) accompaniment of melody or the interactions among such themes through counterpoint. The one “traditional” element that remains in Saariaho’s toolbox is a sense of rhythm; and, even there, her rhythms define themselves compellingly without having to fall back on the orientation of an underlying pulse.
The attentive listener is thus confronted with a highly inventive approach to discourse. Saariaho is hardly the only composer to pursue such an approach. However, through her ability to deploy her sonorous resources in such a way as to establish some sense of journey in her work (even when, by virtue of short duration, the journey does not go very far), Saariaho has succeeded in putting her own personal stamp on this technique.
Now that both volumes are available, those encountering Saariaho for the first time might do well consider the second volume before the first. Beginning with her settings of text, the neophyte listener may have a better crack and developing some sense of “how time passes” (in the words of Karlheinz Stockhausen) in the flow of Saariaho’s sonorities. One can then move on to the more abstract instrumental works and ultimately take in her approach to the interplay between instruments and electronics. This is likely to be a rather lengthy process for establishing acquaintance, but personal experience has revealed that it can be a rewarding one.