In 1982, Kaija Saariaho and I were participants at the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, Germany. We met in the first week while waiting in line for lunch at the canteen. I don’t know what we discussed, though Kaija remembers I spoke to her first. I recall her as a striking figure in a long black dress and long, flat, black shoes. (The rest of us were in shirts, jeans, and sandals.) Be that as it may, I learned that she was a composer, and she that I was a flutist. The composer-teachers that first week were what we called the “French Contingency,” notably Gérard Grisey, Tristan Murail, and Michaël Lévinas, and we enjoyed visiting their courses and concerts and socializing with them afterward. Kaija had just moved to Paris to study at IRCAM, and I was also a big fan of Paris, so already we had common interest in this city and French culture.
At this time, she gave me the flute solo Laconisme de l’aile, a piece she had just written in Freiburg, for a Finnish flutist friend of hers, Anne Raitio (now Eirola). I had just been working intensively with Karlheinz Stockhausen on a piece he had revised for me—Amour for flute—and Kaija’s score, by comparison, looked vague, and I remember asking her many questions about what this and that meant and how much time I should take here and there. Eventually, however, I not only played her piece, it became one of the most-performed solos of my repertoire. And I became her “muse” for all subsequent flute pieces!
But this happened gradually. After Darmstadt, we remained friends and in close contact, but it wasn’t until 1992 that she surprised me with a new piece. One day she phoned me in Cologne and said something like “I am afraid I must write you a piece”—almost as if it were bad news! For her, in a way, it was bad news, since contemporary repertoire was already crowded with music for solo flute and she was hesitant about adding to it. On the other hand, she had these gestures of ascending scales “flying around in her head, haunting her,” and she wanted to get rid of them, as it were, in order to be able to move into something else. Happily, her frustration with solo flute had already taken her into new territory for this piece, as she was determined to create a polyphony not only with extended techniques and added voice but also by using electronics in various ways. The result was NoaNoa, which also became a “classic” in the genre of flute/electronics.
The premiere in Darmstadt that year was definitely not a success. The signals from the flute to the computer didn’t work (we were working with next and pitch-following), so what the audience heard was less “complex polyphony” and more “melody-with-reverberation”—not exactly in keeping with the prevalent Darmstadt Aesthetic. Although I had played my part well, we were shocked that no one came backstage to greet us after the concert. Later, a journalist friend took me aside and advised me to maybe think twice about continuing to work with this composer. Saariaho had had a great start with Verblendungen and other works, but now that she’d had a baby, she seemed to be getting too “soft,” losing her cutting-edge aesthetic—not good for the career of an avant-garde flutist!
Not only did I disregard that advice, but a few years later, I decided to include Saariaho’s music in my doctoral project, “Twentieth-Century Classic and Exotic Music for Solo Flute,” dedicating one recital exclusively to her music and that of Karlheinz Stockhausen.
The next flute solo was Couleurs du vent for alto flute. Because it was written for the birthday of our flutist friend Mikael Helasvuo, I had to wait forever to perform it. Mikael kept putting off the premiere and finally performed it in Finland—but on the C flute instead of on the alto. I then went ahead and premiered the original version for alto flute in Wisconsin in February of 1999, and in Paris later that year. The piece was long and difficult, however, and wasn’t programmed by either of us much after that. Until one day…
One day I played Couleurs du vent and it was much shorter than usual. As I was nearing the end, I wondered what had happened to certain favorite passages of mine. It turns out that at some point I had turned two pages instead of one, thereby making a cut, apparently one which had been organic enough that I hadn’t noticed it right then. Nor had Kaija, who was listening in the audience, although she wondered at how short the piece seemed. Since it actually worked in that version, she set out to officially revise the piece. This is now the published edition, and since this revision, the work has been programmed more frequently!
Later in 1998, Kaija wrote a flute solo as another birthday present, this time for her flute-playing godchild Liisa, who was turning ten. The Finnish title, chosen by Kaija’s then nine-year-old son, is Liisan taikahuilu, or Liisa’s Magic Flute. Twenty-six measures long and limited to four or five pitches hardly extending beyond the first octave, this “simple” piece nevertheless employs some of Kaija’s favorite flute techniques such as air sounds, trills, and glissandi (and has proven to be a challenge even for some conservatory players).
Eventually, I also received a solo as a birthday present: the little piccolo piece, Dolce Tormento. About a month before my birthday I had been asked to introduce her orchestral piece Orion at the Beethovenfest in Bonn. Since the piccolo is quite prominent in one of the movements, I brought mine along and played excerpts for the audience. Certain gestures, especially the poignant “falling” pattern of the third octave Eb–D–B from the second movement “Winter Sky” then found their way into the piccolo solo.
Of course, Kaija added a text (Petrarch’s Sonnet 132 from his Il Canzoniere), thereby presenting me with two new challenges: how to speak/whisper Petrarch’s Italian, and how to somehow integrate the vocal sounds into the music without the help of a resonant flute. (The inside story of why she chose that particular text for me, well, that would be another one altogether!) In any case, I enjoyed premiering the piece at my “birthday concert” in the Finnish Institute in Paris, and continue to play it often.
Kaija Saariaho’s major work for flute, however, is her flute concerto, Aile du songe. As with NoaNoa, this was also a surprise for me, but this time she built up the suspense about some “news” and waited for one of my visits to her family in Paris. Then she announced it with a flourish and we promptly celebrated with champagne. A concerto with strings, harp, celeste, and percussion, Aile du songe was a joint commission by the orchestras of the Flanders Festival, London Philharmonic, and the Finnish Radio, so the first performances were already set.
An interesting note: one of the original commissioners was to be a major American orchestra, but since the contract with their solo flutist didn’t permit guest flutists, Kaija refused. In fact, most of the top American orchestras had (and still have) similar contracts with their wind soloists, making the scheduling of guest performers rather challenging. Apparently, I was finally allowed to make the U.S. premiere with the Chicago Symphony because it was “only” during their summer season at Ravinia, and they made special compensations for their own flutist as well. If only I played piano, violin, or cello, it would be a different story!
But no—I’m quite content playing the flute, I love this concerto, and, happily for me, I am still invited by dozens of orchestras to perform it with them!
I am now working with Kaija Saariaho at her country house, some hours south of Paris. Situated at the edge of a small village in the middle of vast cornﬁelds, this has been her preferred place to compose over the past twenty years. When I am able, I join her, whether for a new collaboration or if we’re each pursuing our own project, since this is one of our favorite places to meet and work. It was here, for example, that I ﬁnished the articles commissioned by Chester Music exploring Kaija’s ﬂute music and our collaborations.
We enjoy the routine of working without distraction in such a quiet, pastoral setting, taking breaks to bike-ride through the wheat ﬁelds or walk to the small cemetery down the road. “Without distraction” also means that there are no shops or restaurants for miles around, so preparing and enjoying meals at home are part of our peaceful routine. Conversation at these times is rarely about “shop” but rather about a wide variety of other topics, ranging from books and ideas to family matters to the current crop in the ﬁeld next door. And of course we always discuss our immediate personal concerns, since, besides being musical collaborators, we are also close friends. In the thirty-two years since our meeting at the International Vacation Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, we have spent so much time together under such diverse circumstances, that we know each other extremely well and can easily pick up wherever we left off. So these “work weeks” are always an inspiring combination of personal and professional interaction.
During this work week, Kaija is composing a commissioned song cycle for baritone and orchestra, while I am practicing for upcoming concerts and writing about our most recent collaborations, in particular that around Sombre. Currently we are discussing and editing versions for flute of her piece Tocar, originally for violin and piano, and now also in versions for ﬂute and piano and for ﬂute and harp. (The process of transcribing for these versions will eventually warrant a separate article.)
In between this work, I‘ve gotten to take a look at Tsunemasa, the ﬁrst part of her new opera, Only the Sound Remains (premiere in March 2016), the ﬁrst printed score of which has just arrived. I am particularly interested in the ﬂute part, which I will have the privilege of playing — on stage, even! — but a detailed examination will have to wait. I am happy to note, though, that in Tsunemasa, Kaija Saariaho is again featuring the bass ﬂute — for the second time in her compositional career.
The ﬁrst time was in 2012, when she wrote the above-mentioned Sombre, for bass ﬂute, baritone, harp, percussion, and contrabass. The commission was from the Da Camera Society of Houston, who had asked her to write a piece for the Rothko Chapel. She had already been thinking of writing for bass ﬂute and immediately associated this instrument with the dark colors of Rothko's paintings in this chapel. She started sketching her ideas and in March of 2012 we ﬂew to Houston to try them out in the chapel itself. The short hour or so we were allowed to work there turned out to be a very crucial session. We discovered that not only the acoustics but also the presence of the paintings and the unique atmosphere in the chapel had a direct impact on the composing process. As I played her sketches it became amazingly clear to us which music worked and which did not. I continued to play, improvising both on her motifs and according to my own impulses. Kaija would ask me to repeat certain things, noting pitches and techniques, suggesting variations and taking further notes. When we had to leave, I enjoyed wandering through the nearby Menil art collection while Kaija sat outside in the sun, reorganizing and expanding her musical ideas as well as noting her observations about the chapel space itself.
The resulting piece, Sombre, ﬁlls the chapel with a fantastic array of colors that parallel and reﬂect the depth of the Rothko paintings. The long opening solo by the bass ﬂute begins with a low, airy sound accompanied by a single stroke of a dark cymbal and continues with rhythmic and melodic gestures, which include the familiar “Saariaho scale” of sounds for the ﬂute (multiphonics, the ﬂutist’s voice, air sounds, etc.) and which create a particular atmosphere of musical space. Together with further sparse gestures from the percussion, the bass ﬂute sets the stage to be joined by the ensemble of likewise “darker” instruments: baritone voice, percussion, harp, and double bass.
Kaija’s comment for the program note is as follows:
Mark Rothko is an artist whose work I have felt close to for a long time. When Sarah Rothenberg proposed that I write a piece for the Da Camera ensemble, to be premiered at the Rothko Chapel, I immediately began to imagine a dark instrumentation which in my mind corresponded the paintings in the chapel. The color of the bass ﬂute sound became a center of this palette; it had in my mind a close connection to Rothko's work. I also wanted to include a baritone voice in the ensemble and I started to look for texts.
In my research I came across Ezra Pound's very last Cantos, or, more precisely, fragments of them. Their minimal form as well as their heartbreaking content seemed to suit perfectly for this piece. These three short texts deﬁned the overall structure of my piece, which is divided into three movements. All movements are then divided into two large sections, of which the ﬁrst one is a musical introduction with a prominent bass ﬂute part.
The second section introduces the texts:
The formal solutions were also inﬂuenced by my visit to the Rothko Chapel with Camilla Hoitenga in March 2012. We were able to spend some time alone in the chapel with the paintings, and I noticed that of the eight walls, three walls are hung with impressive triptychs. Furthermore, some of my favorite paintings by Rothko have an overall form of two superimposed ﬁelds of living color.
The title Sombre appeared naturally from the character of the instrumentation, the texts and above all these last paintings by Mark Rothko.
The piece has been written for Da Camera, Camilla Hoitenga, and Daniel Belcher.
In Paris, December 2012
The piece came to life in the Rothko Chapel in premiere performances on the 23rd and 24th of February, 2013, performances which were also broadcast by the radio. In our hand-picked and incredibly congenial ensemble were, besides dedicatees baritone Daniel Belcher and myself, the New York harpist Bridget Kibbey and the Houston-based musicians, Matthew Strauss on percussion and Paul Ellison on double bass. On the 25th, we cloistered ourselves in a Houston studio together with Kaija Saariaho and a team of sound engineers under the masterful ears of Tonmeister Judy Sherman to record the piece for CD (Ondine, scheduled release: 2015).
Since then we have received invitations from Stockholm, Bratislava, France, Norway, Mexico... Sombre (and the bass flute!) is on its way!
Camille Hoitenga is a widely traveled flute soloist who collaborates with composers, visual artists, and writers. Classically educated in Michigan and Illinois, she is based in Cologne, Germany.
Banner image: Kaija Saariaho and Camilla Hoitenga during a residency 1993 at Kunitachi College, near Tokyo, Japan. Courtesy Camilla Hoitenga.