Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Saariaho’s L’amour de loin: First Woman Composer in a Century at the Metropolitan Opera

by Ronit Seter

Kaija Saariaho was in an understandably anxious mood when I interviewed her on Saturday morning, 14 November 2015. It was the third day of the AMS Louisville meeting, which coincided with the University of Louisville New Music Festival, where Saariaho and composer and visual artist Jean-Baptiste Barrière were featured. Overwhelmed by the previous night’s horrific news of the ISIS attack in Paris, her adopted home for over thirty years and the home of her children, she seemed to channel earlier interviews in answering several of my introductory questions. Only when I asked her about her stylistic development did our session begin to unfold into something more distinctive. Perhaps annoyed, she declared that she is not a spectralist, in an attempt to avoid being tagged and lumped together with other musical spectralists, or with any given “-ism,” yet again.

This allegro agitato introduction aside, Saariaho (pronounced Sàariaho, b. 1952) , is one of the greatest composers of her generation. Her works are performed extensively and she has consequently assumed a solid position in the canon. Christopher Gibbs honored the composer by concluding the massive Taruskin-Gibbs 2013 Oxford History of Western Music, College Edition with a discussion of her opera, L’amour de loin (Love from afar, 2000). Indeed, L’amour de loin will be the first opera in a century by a woman composer to be produced by the Metropolitan Opera. Scheduled for December 2016, this production will follow a dozen previous productions on European and American major opera stages; a remarkable number for a contemporary opera produced in the last thirty years. Her professional finesse consistently impresses composers, musicologists, critics, and audiences. For the AMS readership, I find it hard to resist quoting David E. Schneider—a Bartók scholar with a great deal of experience performing new music—following her convocation lecture on Thursday, 12 November, “this [her music] is the real thing.”

The ascendance of a woman composer to the Met, second only to Ethel Smyth in 1903, invites a spirited examination of how gender shapes Saariaho’s art—a step that would enrage many women composers. Yet it is the emerging historical significance of Saariaho’s achievements that is of note here—as an influential composer for her achievements in timbre, style, and structure, first and foremost, but also as a woman composer. Saariaho’s gender is discussed most extensively by Pirkko Moisala, professor of musicology and gender studies at the University of Helsinki, in her 2009 biography Kaija Saariaho. Moisala worked intensively with the composer to produce a text that, on the one hand, describes her life and music and is approved by Saariaho (thus raising a question of critical distance); on the other, serves as the first in-depth study of the role of gender in her work and its reception—an essentialist theme that the composer took pains to avoid, skirt, dismiss, and suppress in interviews especially during the 1980s and into the 1990s. Being dubbed a “woman composer,” considering its heavy (we still cannot call it “past”) conceptual baggage, would undermine her reception. Her adamancy on the issue was such that during the 2015 AMS session “Women Composing Modern Opera,”[1] Susan McClary—who discussed the composer in her presence—commenced her presentation describing Saariaho’s resistance to the label, and criticized contemporary musicology’s preoccupation with essentialism.[2] Culminating her presentation, McClary stated that “the policing of artistic content poses a greater threat than essentialism”. I contend that this is also true in policing musicological content. Indeed, I was deeply appreciative of one of her earlier presentations about Saariaho, during the 2012 Princeton conference entitled “After the End of Music History” honoring Taruskin, where McClary and Wendy Heller were the only presenters, among about thirty, who discussed works by female composers. I wrote to McClary soon after the conference, and in response, she shared with me not only her less-known “Different Drummers: Interpreting Music by Women Composers”[3] and her liner notes for Saariaho’s monodrama Emilie (2008), but she also memorably explained the conundrum of writing about current women composers, with which I could wholly sympathize:
To tell you the truth, I got such fiercely negative reactions to my ideas from women composers that I decided not to work in that area anymore. After Feminine Endings and “Different Drummers” (which upset many women), I just went back to doing my research on early music. After all, women composers have a hard enough time of it, and if I was contributing to their discomfort, I didn’t want to continue in that vein. I tried to exhort other musicologists to pay attention to the music written by women, but they seemed to think that this was an essentialist project. Very little happened as a consequence.[4]
Some things did change, however gradually and slowly, at least for Saariaho, even before Moisala’s book, culminating in the upcoming production. L’amour de loin looms as her tour de force. An opera about love and death—the eternal theme—it leads the listener through a spiritual-emotional journey. As opposed to most traditional operas, almost nothing happens, and the minimalism in action is mirrored in Peter Sellars’s atypically minimal approach in his staging of the premiere.[5] Still, the opera is mesmerizing, first and foremost for the sheer beauty of her musical language, inspired by spectralist techniques. L’amor de loin requires enormous ingenuity from its composer in that little action occurs in a traditional sense. The drama is almost entirely internal, occurring within the minds of the protagonists. Saariaho rises to the challenge with her travels through Western music, encompassing elements from Medieval tunes, which informed the undulating, secundal melodies, slightly modal in fractions of the lavish lines, through “Liebestod,” which is hinted at the end of the opera, where the protagonist, Jaufré Rudel dies after a long emotional journey, as he finally reaches Clémence, the faraway love of his life. A composition which references, however remotely, twelfth-century melodies (the original Rudel story is from that time), romantic lyricism, Pelléas et Mélisande quasi-parlando style in its recitatives, Messaien’s spirituality, shadows of Ligeti’s clusters, glimpses of both minimalist concept of time and spectral approach to orchestration, and additionally, encompassing a broad continuum between monophony, homophony, polyphony and heterophony, when textures are not juxtaposed but rather dissolve or metamorphose into one another—could easily fall into the nebulous category of “postmodern” works, or more recent pastiche and polystylistic movements. It does not. Saariaho’s careful sculpturing of these elements into her signature harmonic-orchestral-structural language (in a sharp contrast to, say, Schnittke’s or Rochberg’s third quartets) makes her seams natural, almost unnoticeable. New spirituality, if we may dare to add one more tag to our rhetorical foil, radiates from her music as she shares conceptual bases with later twentieth-century spiritualist composers, Pärt, Silvestrov, and Reich (think of his Tehillim, Proverb, WTC 9/11) among them—sharply distinguished from their divergent trends, for stylistic reasons. Now as an honorable scion of a certain thread of Western music, Saariaho returns, not only conceptually and not only in her opera, to our ancient roots: to music about love and death and the beauty of the cosmos and the divine.

Interview Index

I Kaija Saariaho in interview with Ronit Seter, Introduction
II Saariaho: Finnish and French Composer  1'03''
III Saariaho’s Stylistic Voyage: Cultural Transitions  3'59''
IV Saariaho’s Stylistic Voyage: Continuing the History of Western Music  6'58''
V Saariaho on Threads of Western Music, Spectralism  9'03''
VI Saariaho: the Sonic Result, First and Foremost  12'18''
VII Saariaho’s First Opera: L’amour de loin  14'00''
VIII Inspiring Saariaho’s Opera: Debussy and Messiaen  18'00''

IX Saariaho, a Woman Composer  20'24''-27'10''

[1] The AMS Louisville 2015 session “Women Composing Modern Opera” was organized by Daniel Goldmark and chaired by Suzanne Cusick.
[2] Susan McClary, “Kaija Saariaho and Peter Sellars: Staging Feminism,” a paper delivered at the annual conference of the AMS in Louisville, 2015, p. 4. I thank McClary for sharing this unpublished paper days after the conference.
[3] Susan McClary, “Different Drummers:  Interpreting Music by Women Composers,” Frauen- und Männerbilder in der Musik: Festschrift für Eva Rieger, ed. Freia Hoffmann, Jane Bowers, and Ruth Heckmann (Oldenburg:  Bibliotheks- und Informationsystem der Universität Oldenburg, 2000), 113-26.
[4] My email correspondence with Susan McClary, 1 March 2012, cited by permission. This encouraged me to keep writing about living women composers (Betty Olivero among them), despite similar responses from some of them. Writings about women composers do sprout faster than ever. [5] See, for instance, the University of Illinois Press’s women composers series, including two books by Amy Beal, on Carla Bley (2011) and Johana Beyer (2015); one of their first titles in this series was Pirkko Moisala, Kaija Saariaho (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009).
Kaija Saariaho: L’amour de loin (Finnish National Opera under Esa-Pekka Salonen, directed by Peter Sellars), Deutsche Grammophon 2005, DVD 00440 073 4026.

Ronit Seter has served on the faculties of the Peabody Conservatory, George Washington University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and American University (DC). A contributor to the Grove Music Online, she has published in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Encyclopedia Judaica, Tempo, Notes, Min-Ad, Journal of the American Musicological Society, and Musical Quarterly. Her book in progress on Israeli composers, supported by an NEH Fellowship, is under contract with Oxford University Press. She is co-founder of the AMS study group Jewish Studies and Music. Seter earned her Ph.D. at Cornell University, and she lives in Fairfax, VA, where she also teaches piano privately. She is affiliated with the Jewish Music Research Centre, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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  2. Back to my work on Saariaho: yesterday, I gave a presentation on L'amour de loin at the AMS Capital Chapter, Shenandoah University. Here is a link to the longer blog:
    An article, too, is in progress.