Music From the Underworld
November 30, 2011
Ondine’s latest CD of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s music is a gloomy and otherworldly motel. Every track on it is a room with a sign chained to its doorknob: PLEASE DISTURB. This collection of three compositions written in the last five years finds Saariaho, the master orchestrator, concentrating on new ways to create deeply unsettling atmospheres without being blatant about it.
The major piece is her 31-minute clarinet concerto D’om le vrai Sens (The real sense of humanity), a suite of six movements inspired by the series of medieval Lady and the Unicorn tapestries displayed at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Five of them contain visual references to the five senses; the sixth “sense” is called A mon seul désir, the soul’s desire. The framework of the senses gives Saariaho opportunities for superficial aural equivalents, but beneath it all is nothing very sensual, and certainly not as colorful or as medieval as the tapestries. Instead, there is a subtle, varied, and profound angst that no sensual or spiritual device can ameliorate. The Real Sense of Humanity is Doom.
Listen To The MusicD'om Le Vrai Sens - II. La Vue
Leino Songs - II. Sydan
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Hearing is conveyed by very high soloist notes striving to re-create the “ringing in one’s ear” sounds. Sight, like the corresponding tapestry, which features a looking glass, is conveyed by mirror images of the notes. The movement is the most energized of the six, displaying shrill antics that prove Kari Kriikku’s clarinet virtuosity. Smell is difficult to convert to an aural equivalent — and I’ll resist the temptation to say that it stinks, since it doesn’t — but the movement, even more so than the other movements and works on the CD, is ballasted with low, quiet pedal points that perpetuate unease. Eventually, with gongs, the unease morphs to pure fright. Horror-film producers with decent soundtrack budgets: Take notice!
Touch and taste are more easily imitated by a brisk toccata, and lots of tongue-work on the reed, respectively. The final movement is a bit of a summary, again with a low, white-noise-sounding pedal point, plus gongs, glockenspiel rings, and distant chimes. Add in some squeaks on the clarinet that perhaps refer to the monkey that appears in most of the tapestries.
Throughout this perhaps overly long but nevertheless morosely fascinating opus, the orchestration amazes and the clarity is impressive, the mood Symbolist to Münch-like. The same goes for the 23-minute Laterna Magica, the scariest item of the lot, but with the least sense of formal completion.
Worth the investment of the entire CD are the last four tracks, the Leino Songs from 2007. Anu Komsi’s haunting soprano and details of Eino Leino’s poetry combine with Saariaho’s subterranean genius to create an intoxicating brew of despond. For example, in “Sydän” (The heart): “Heart, what are you sawing? Are you sawing four planks for me to lie down in?” Coffin sellers: Take notice! I’ve never heard as black a rainbow as the one in “Looking at You,” or as much a pre-suicide resignation as “Evening Prayer.”
Do not take this special set of downers in one sitting. Cherish each, to match and accompany multiple varieties of despair if they happen to occur in your life.
Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area.