Introduction by Roger Reynolds to the SEARCH Project


Kaija Saariaho

Copyright © 2001 Kaija Saariaho
and the Composition Area, Department of Music, University of California, San Diego

Published by Permission
Edited by Roger Reynolds and Karen Reynolds

Online publishing and editing by Karen Reynolds
All Rights Reserved.

SEARCH EVENT II, 17 February 2001, University of California, San Diego

The following TEXT was commissioned by the Composition Area, Department of Music, University of California, San Diego for its SEARCH initiative. The TEXT / TALK is copyrighted and appears in its original presentation here. While links TO this TEXT or recording from other sites are welcome, no part of this TEXT may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic storage or retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the copyright holders [Please contact Roger Reynolds: to facilitate this.].

I feel myself uncertain in considering such a large and philosophically demanding subject as we have today, since I am just a gardener who for several years now has been staying in her garden, cultivating her flowers. And whenever I have stepped out to speak about something in public, it has always been speaking only of these flowers, of my own music. This time, I decided to leave my music outside of the discussion – except for one little example. I had to realize that what was left was not much, and some of the little I have to say here has been said here already by others.


Henri Dutilleux: Section Three of The Shadows of Time: "Memoire des Ombres"
'Why us? Why the stars?', Anne Frank

The future of music depends directly on the development of humanity. The future of music is directly connected with the problems of pollution and the destruction of our planet, and, above all, the ever-increasing tendency to evaluate all aspects of human life in economic terms. One can only hope that soon we will have reached the peak of this global materialism, and that there still would be a way to step back, to re-evaluate our society. Sometimes, I feel that this is possible.

In spite of globalization today, there are still major differences in the conditions under which musicians live and the esteem in which they are held. It depends upon the culture in which they live. When comparing the conditions of an average American composer and a Finnish composer, one can remark that materially, and also when it comes to social position, the composers in Finland have many advantages. An American journalist mentioned this during an interview, and explained to a concert audience that, in Finland, composers have state support, and that is why there are so many good composers there. It is typical of our time that the whole phenomena of "the Finnish wonder – what comes of producing so many high level musicians - was reduced, purely, to a matter of money. Personally,I think that education and the already mentioned social respect for music and musicians form a fruitful soil in which to grow new musicians and cultivate their talents. This at least as much as the fact that in certain cases they profit from a grant from the state for a period of time.

It is interesting to note that the central position of music now in Finland is not a long tradition there. It came about mostly thanks to Sibelius, who at the beginning of this century, when Finland fought for its independence, became a real symbol for this young country. All the development concerning new methods for music education and also the grant system were achieved after the Second World War, and the results were seen quite soon thereafter. I wanted to mention this to remind you that this kind of recent, positive development was possible at a time where Finland was still a poor country.

More generally, speaking about the cultural differences in Western societies, in Europe there still is a certain respect for artists and their intellectual property, independent of the economic interest that they may have. So, as one thinks about it, there are many directions in which society could evolve in relation to the arts. Nevertheless, some slogans are valid everywhere:

New is valuable.
Unheard is valuable.
Young is valuable.

These slogans, as such, are very old, and reflect human curiosity for the new. They are only exploited more efficiently today. But the thinking-in-terms-of-fashion that has been brought to the contemporary music scene, is not doing any service to music, of course. The first performance – which is often the worst – is supposed to be the most important one just because of its publicity value.

Interlude 1:

Sur Marie Keyrouz Axion esti
(From the Greek Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, 4th Century AD)

The future of music – which music?

On lullabies

One of my composition teachers warned me about having children; according to him, a woman would lose her intellectual view of composition and finally only be able to compose lullabies. "And I've seen it happen!" he said frighteningly. For years I laughed at this story, even though it somehow bothered me, and sometimes when the work didn't quite advance as I thought it should, I secretly asked myself whether this was the beginning of the lullaby syndrome.

Many years later, I did finish a piece which was a sort of lullaby. This piece was written in memory of my grandmother, and I imagined singing her to a peaceful sleep with this music. Still, I had the feeling that I was doing something dangerous. Thinking of the words of my teacher, I told myself that I was still master of my mind, not mindlessly humming lullabies, but intelligently composing them.

Interlude 2:

Saariaho: the end of Nuits: "adieux"

But recently I have started to think that in one sense my teacher was actually right. The lullaby is the first love song we hear and sometimes the only love song we ever sing, and after having sung lullabies to my children and having understood how rare a musical communication that is – how satisfying and complete – I feel more strongly than before that music must be living and breathing, and that there is no place for paper music. I had felt this before, but my own experience has now convinced me of this.

And it is also true that – much more than before – music is communication for me: a tool for meditation rather than a tool for building intellectual structures. But, I need to add here very quickly (especially because many composition students are listening to me today, and a too early detachment from the study of craftsmanship is really dangerous), that I do not neglect the intellectual side of my compositional work. It is, of course, an essential part of things when one is defining compositional strategies, creating material, and planning formal structures. But I am not discussing that aspect of things today. I try to guide the material and my verbal thoughts toward the real needs of music, and those needs cannot be found or resolved intellectually.

Nevertheless, lullabies are surely one of the first kinds of music that was born, probably, very early in the development of humanity. I imagine the early musics to have been functional: lullabies, war songs, working songs. Ever since, these sorts of musics have accompanied humans and most likely they will be the last musics to survive, because they are inseparable from life.

For each of us, music has a different importance, we hear more or less of it, but this music lives somewhere in all of us, and we all have heard and sung these songs. No education is needed here because they are made always of the simplest elements in the surrounding music culture and are easy to memorize. This music has survived in oral cultures from one generation to another. But, even if it is built of simple elements, such initial music can be very rich, and when seen from the perspective of other cultures it is not even necessarily simple. Here I think, for example, of the polyphonies of some African music, which, for us is seemingly so complex.

Interlude 3:

Lullaby sung by two young mothers of the Aka Pygmies

Today we are, nevertheless, surrounded by many other kinds of musics as well. How to classify all these musics? If we continue putting them into different categories depending on their function, we find dance music, film music, religious music, children's music, etc. What is the function of the music that surrounds us nearly day and night, wherever we go today? And what is the function of our own so called contemporary music, that of the professionals of music now? Sometimes I feel that contemporary music is very far from what I have called initial music: impossible to memorize, impossible to follow for most of us, requiring hard intellectual effort, and, mostly, not surviving to be heard more than once, if even that!

As we all know, as boring as some music for the masses can be, so also can contemporary music be. When we invent over and over again so many aspects of music, the resulting work is incomprehensible for anybody other than its author (and even here I may be optimistic). In many types of popular music the basic rhythm of a mother's heartbeat is the most apparent musical message, but in much contemporary art music, rhythm has disappeared. In some other popular music the only important element is a simple melody repeated over and over again so that it stays in our minds and we find ourselves humming it whether we want to or not. What kind of impressions, thoughts, and feelings do we leave for others with our music? Too seldom are we able to enter into a coherent musical universe; but they exist, of course.

As we know, Messiaen formalized his musical language at a relatively early stage and then used it for the rest of his life. His language is immediately recognizable. And still, his last orchestral work, Éclairs sur l'au-delà (Illuminations of the Beyond) sounds fresh in my ears. I felt a bit troubled when I realized that I could not find any satisfying musical extracts from young composers for this talk concerning the future. And to have chosen Dutilleux and Messiaen was not risky, of course; a composer develops his language during his whole life, and often the most beautiful music is written in old age. That also makes the profession of the composer an interesting one: we can deepen and develop until the end of our lives. The reason I want to play this particular section of Messiaen's piece is the fact that I was so impressed to hear how the "wiping" gesture has been integrated into the music.

Interlude 4:

Messiaen: Illuminations of the Beyond
"VII: 'And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes'"

What is music?

It is perhaps time to ask now, finally, what is music. For me one possible – even if purely technical – definition can be "organized sound". I like this definition because from my viewpoint all sounds can be part of music; it all depends in fact on the actual composition, the way the material is used. And even if we just follow this simple definition, we understand that many times in contemporary music concerts we are not dealing with music: there are no audible structures, no audibly structured musical experiences that have been lived by the composer. I see the musical score as a memory of the composer. The music exists only when we hear it.

All music gives intellectual and physical sensations. We receive sound with our whole bodies, and part of the problem of our time is that we are forced to receive, all of the time, sounds and musics of all kinds. In order not to see something we can still close our eyes, not to hear we can put our hands over our ears, but our body continues to receive the sounds. We are terribly mistreated all the time by sound pollution, and most of us are so used to it that we really don't even notice it. When you hear music all day long, you really must have a special reason to go to concert to hear some more.

But hearing music in a concert is not only listening, it is really communication – at least it can be. This exceptional communication has its roots in nature. Bird song is communication as are many other natural sounds. I read recently a book on the Australian aborigines and their relationship with nature. In their world, nature is communicating all the time with us, only we don't really have time anymore to hear and to understand the messages, or do not feel the necessity of doing so. But I liked the idea that flowers are sending their messages with smells, and that they might have other things to say than only to invite bees to land on them, to assure new generations.

When it comes to music, we are losing communication there just as we are loosing it with nature: we don't have time to really understand it beyond the practical aspects, and the materialistic aspects take most of our time and attention. I often focus on nature when starting to work on a new piece. Here I think of the symmetrical structures of leaves or snow flakes, for example. Some of the sounds of nature are also among the most beautiful kinds of music we can hear, and they are most often also well structured. Here I would like to listen with you to one of my favorite tracks. This is the Siberian Rubythroat, and I like the motivic variation of its singing.

Interlude 5:

The Song of the Siberian Rubythroat

Composer/ Interpreter

In our specialized society, performing musicians rarely compose, and composers are rarely interpreters. I am myself a good example of a composer who would never dare to step onto a podium and play my own, or anybody else's music! The competition is too hard. Little by little there has grown up a gap between composers and interpreters, as if they were specialists in different domains and could hardly speak the same language. The composer needs to attach a dictionary of his/her language to the score so that the interpreter can read it and even superficially understand. Some composers want to spend hours with interpreters to explain the meaning of their notation. How will this music survive when the composer is not there anymore? Should it survive anyway?

Personally, I rarely ask questions like this concerning my own music. But should they be asked? Why these days do so many composers need to invent so many new kinds of notations? Is it really necessary to express their music, or is it a part of the tendency to believe that everything needs to be reinvented? And in speaking about invention, I come to the domain of technology. Technology is, of course, part of music as it is part of any field of modern life, but it isn't the decisive part, at least not in my mind. But technology can not only help us to realize things which we couldn't realize before, it also helps us to analyze and understand sound and our perception of it, or on a larger scale, our ability to perceive musical textures and structures.

With technology we capture music played and sung by people around the world in all kinds of venues and bring it to people who could not previously even have dreamed about it. But, concerning technology, my dream for the future starts with machines which would clean the air of sounds we do not want to hear. How much easier it would be to listen to music if you could choose yourself when to do it! On a practical level, technology can also be a source of great frustration for many reasons, for example, because of its rapid development. Jarek Kapuscinski mentioned here, yesterday, that he would not be able to use the same technology in two years, and thus could not perform his piece anymore. Happily, updating does exist. Some of my first pieces with electronics date from 1985, and have been updated now several times.

Future and tradition

We are still using much time to absorb our tradition if we want to study music today. We study an instrument for years, but only a few of us can say s/he has mastered an instrument after all those years. And we study composition for years only to master and understand the music written before us. We use historical instruments, we work with historical institutions (which have a hard time already even to stay alive). And at some point these institutions also will have to disappear. Will some or all of our traditional instruments gradually disappear, will there be one day (maybe soon) a person who is the last violinist on earth? Will, also, Mendelssohn's violin concerto disappear in that case, or will there be another instrument in place of the violin to play it with? In that case, how will composition evolve? If a composer's mind is not nourished with the music of the past and its structures, can new kinds of structures still be developed? If classical music slowly fades from our life into forgetfulness, will another tradition replace it? There have existed many musics before our cultures that we don't know anything about anymore. We will never know the answers to these questions.

What is the music we want to defend and bring into the future?

You have heard some excerpts of music that I would like to be heard also in the future. Some music is timeless, the language is so clear that when listening to it we don't need a particular cultural context to enter into it. But more generally, as I have been thinking about the above matters, I have not been able to find many very positive things to say. I cannot see the positive future which I would like to paint in front of the eyes of young people. It is impossible to say with honesty that things are going in a good direction, it is even impossible to imagine right now how we can avoid a disaster.

But still I continue composing my music, not thinking even for one moment about stopping composing. Something in me believes, against my reasoning, in the future and in the meaning of music. At its best, music is a language which allows us to communicate knowledge and feelings which cannot be communicated otherwise. If I know this, there must be many other people who know it as well, and there will be others in the future also.

I am not a social visionary, and my thinking is limited. I simply cannot imagine the future. All I am able to do is to draw some simple conclusions based on some of the present facts of our cultural situation. But as life is always full of surprises (at least mine has been) many unexpected turns will certainly happen also in the development of culture in future societies. Several things concerning ourselves and the life around us will be understood again, after some centuries of confusion, with the help of our ever developing science. We need to have proof of facts which where known by ancient people, long ago. And here I realize that I am coming back to the beginning of my monologue and I will close the circle. For me the question of the future, in life as well as in art, is a question of the human being and his relation to the environment. We are part of the earth and will die or survive with it.

But to have a more happy end, I would like to play you a little song sung by future adults; this one comes again from the Aka Pygmies, and is a singing game which reminds us all how we got involved in music in the first place.


Aka Pygmy children singing Kulu Kulu

END of Talk