Kaija Saariaho's violin concerto, “Graal théâtre,” is titled after the book that inspired it, a series of texts by French writers Florence Delay and Jacques Roubaud, in which the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and that of the Grail are combined. The following piece, which appears in Music & Literature no. 5, is a response to this collaborative project.
Galehaut: I am a character.
Violin: Perhaps I am too. I have no physical existence. I am not an object, though I need a certain class of objects—wooden boxes with strings and a bow—to be heard in the real world. I am represented, bodied forth, by these objects, just as you are by a voice, even a silently reading voice. I am not to be identified with the object that renders me, nor with the musician, any more than you are with the voice relating your words, or the reader or actor whose voice this is.
When Kaija Saariaho describes her 1994 composition Graal théâtre as being “for violin and orchestra,” or as a “violin concerto,” we may imagine her to have had in mind a musical instrument in its actuality, including its tuning and its responses, and we may suppose her to have been considering also Gidon Kremer, her destined performer, but she will have been thinking not only of but through these manifest conditions of her work, to me, to an entity whose features are not materials and dimensions, not personality and technique, but sound, and a design for sound, and experiences of that sound through time.
The note she places in the score is almost explicit about this, where she remarks that “the title expresses the tension I feel between the efforts of the composer when writing music and the theatrical aspect of a performance, especially in the case of a concerto where the soloist is playing a major role, both physically and musically.” On the one side, then, the graal of as-yet-unrealized music, where the action is that of the imagining mind and the traveling pen, moving in a world where instruments and performers are all still in the future; on the other, the théâtre of a concert hall, a show, a virtuoso converting difficulty into astonishment, an audience in attendance and attention. Tension, however, implies communication. I feel within me the stirrings of this imminent théâtre, even though I belong to the domain of the graal.
We are virtual beings, you and I, living out our lives in a world as impalpable—and as vivid—as that of dreams or memory. The analogy may be supported by how Saariaho, thinking back to the book by Florence Delay and Jacques Roubaud from which she took her title, remembers an episode of dream interpretation.¹
Galehaut: I dream, but even in dreaming I am dreamt.
Violin: Exactly so.
Galehaut: Is that why my great love—not just the object of my love, but the feeling itself, in all its strength and multiplicity—remains out of my reach?²
Violin: No. Our deeds and our hesitations, our enlightenments and our incomprehensions, are all written for us.
Galehaut: Not entirely. Galehaut cannot be forced by any poet or romance writer into the shape of Galahad or Gawain, of Merlin or of Morgan. Galehaut cannot be made twin to Lancelot. I know this.
Violin: You are right. I cannot be Harp, cannot be Trombone, cannot be Cello. We are defined, and then redefined in each telling of our story.
Galehaut: What is your story?
Violin: I have many, but one is perhaps not so unlike yours, of being placed with another, Orchestra, in a striving for union that can never be achieved. It is a story that has been told by Bach, by Mozart, by Beethoven and by Mendelssohn, by Tchaikovsky and Brahms and Sibelius and Elgar, by Berg and Bartók and Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and then by countless more in recent times. It is always the same story. It is always a different story.
Saariaho’s telling, perhaps more than any other, has me aware of these predecessors, and even of concertos that were, twenty years ago, yet to come. Again, her note says something of this, when she speaks of how she wanted “to bring an idea of the violin concerto, a genre with so many moving and skillful examples, into my musical framework and language” and of how she was encouraged to achieve this by the example of “Roubaud’s interpretation of the old legend.”
So there is another union here, of a venerable story, authorless for having had so many authors, and a new redaction, personal for being the work of an individual. It is the same for my story as for yours.
Galehaut: It is, indeed, but let us be clear that for neither of us is there an original version. A child gathers dew-wetted spider webs in a looped twig, until eventually the layers of silk and water cohere into a mirror. Such is my story, and yours: an image created by many tellings, not to be found in any one of them. Once again we have a graal, unfindable, partially realized in so many théâtres, which together are responsible for the mysterious existence of the graal.
Violin: I accept what you say. By the time my concerto story was being told by Antonio Vivaldi, by J.S. Bach, and by Giuseppe Tartini, it had already been circulating for two or more generations.
Galehaut: How does it begin, this story of yours?
Violin: It begins when I speak. Or it begins when Orchestra is preparing for me to speak, inviting me to speak, waiting for me to speak. And, always, I speak. I have to do so. I want to do so. There can be no concerto story unless I take part in its telling.
Galehaut: You see, it is different for me. My story could be told without my participation—even, perhaps, in such a work as the Delay-Roubaud Graal théâtre, which has the form of a playscript, though these authors do indeed give me much to say (as well as much to hold in silence).
Violin: It might be possible to imagine a violin concerto without me—or, rather, with me as an absent protagonist, evoked, gestured toward, even partly imitated by Orchestra. However, no such work yet exists. Always I am there. And in the Saariaho Graal théâtre, I am there from the start.
The work opens with one of my fundamental sounds, the A on the treble staff, the note to which my second string is tuned, and it is this string that produces the note, an “open string,” unstopped by the violinist’s left hand. This note oscillates with harmonics played on my next string down, tuned to D: the A an octave higher, and then the D a fourth above that. At this initiating moment, both strings are bowed close to the bridge, to produce a constricted tone—“nasal” is the word commonly used—suggestive of a coarser instrument: a folk fiddle or perhaps a medieval vielle. The whole sound—tremulous, emanating directly from my tuning, here in the present, but sounding out also from a distant past, with the A stationary and harmonics flickering above it, the sound level, having risen from inaudibility to modest volume—conveys a sense of “once upon a time.”
Galehaut: Or of you becoming yourself, testing yourself, beginning to feel for the center and the limits of yourself. As we all do, when our stories begin.
Violin: Indeed. Then I start to spin a fragment of melody—a scalewise ascent from A to B flat to C sharp—over and around a drone D, conforming to a scale remote from the concert hall in which this théâtre will be taking place: the “double harmonic scale,” also known as the “Arabic scale.”
This first step, from raw sound to incipient melody, is significant in its direction, for it may remind us that bowed string instruments probably entered European culture by way of the Islamic world. From telling of my sound, I have moved on to tell of my history. And as I develop this story, the story of my arrival from the East, I gain echo and encouragement from Orchestra. This, my companion, has been there from the beginning, but almost unnoticeable: a silver fizz of triangle when I started, an antique cymbal chiming with my A. Now Orchestra comes forward, its harp concurring with me, its drums pressing me on. At the same time, the exotic reference is dissolving. It will always be there, right to the end. This music remembers everything, and most certainly it remembers itself. But the quasi-oriental pattern becomes transformed, and extended into something larger, no longer a more or less specific cultural marker.
A tendency to rise, also there from the beginning, finds its endpoint in a high F sharp, a note that had been picked out by an antique cymbal within the music’s first minute. On that note I am now joined by glockenspiel and piano, for still Orchestra is putting forward only resonant percussive instruments and drums, joined recently, and almost imperceptibly, by low strings. This F sharp is a point of brilliance to which I keep returning all through the piece, finding it in this register and also an octave higher, as a destination that can be only glimpsed, caught for a fleeting instant, not fully attained.
Galehaut: A desire that cannot properly be felt, so much the less consummated.
Violin: It may be, but other metaphors are possible, or other understandings of the metaphor that is music. You encounter my story through the doorway of your own. Others will do so as well, but all of them differently. Music welcomes this, especially Saariaho’s, rooted as it is in basic elements of sound quality, melodic motif, and regular pulse, and moving through a time whose depth is measured in centuries.
Rotation, from the first, has been crucial to how this music proceeds, repeating an idea with progressive change, and so moving from one harmony to another—from a pure octave at the beginning to an “Arabic” motif with four notes in play and now to a melody that, repeatedly touching on that high F sharp, is formed from a six-note scale that includes the notes of the F sharp major triad (F sharp—A sharp—C sharp) but has a minor sixth (D) as well as the appropriate second degree (G sharp) and fourth (B). This is a scale from no known location, and residual elements of the major-minor system are placed in question partly by the shape of the melody, holding the notional keynote high, and partly by the accompaniment, which, in reiterations that include an echo of the “Arabic” figment on glockenspiel, adds five more notes to the harmony. We are in Saariaholand, an iridescent world, where streaks of the familiar are destabilized in shimmer. I find myself unsettled here, and at home.
Galehaut: So it is with me, in my Graal théâtre, where the Age of Chivalry has all the conveniences of high-speed travel and psychoanalysis.
Violin: And the resemblance is even stronger, for my Graal théâtre, while reverberating with the immemorial, profits from advances one might judge scientific. Saariaho moved from her native Helsinki to Paris in 1982, principally to work at the computer-music studio Pierre Boulez had set up shortly before, though the French capital was also alive at this time with the new scintillating sounds of spectral music, as it was being developed by Gérard Grisey (the original version of whose Les Espaces acoustiques was performed for the first time in 1981), Tristan Murail, Hugues Dufourt, and other composers just a few years older than the new arrival from Finland. Spectral music had to do with using the harmonic spectra of real sounds—the spectra of frequencies constituting those sounds—as models for harmonies, which, each related to one source, would have wholeness as well as complexity. For example, the many instruments of an orchestra could be given diverse frequencies across a range of six octaves or more, imitating a wide spectrum and so creating sounds of imposing singularity.
For Saariaho, as for the pioneer spectralists, this principle tied in with work in the studio. Computers provided means for analyzing sound spectra, and the analysis could then be adapted to compositional needs. Moreover, some of the basic techniques of electroacoustic music—notably ring modulation, which, from two frequencies x and y yields sum and difference tones (x + y, x - y, 2y + x, 2y - x, etc), often creating a clangorous result—could be imitated orchestrally by using the spectral method of assigning specified frequencies to instruments. Some approximation might be inevitable, but the use of quarter-tones, such as Saariaho occasionally introduces in her Graal théâtre, would reduce this.
One might say that spectral thinking, like so much else in this work, has been there from the beginning, where the harmonics on the D string reinforce harmonics naturally present in the sound of the open A string. However, adherence to spectral models has been limited up to this point by the music’s relatively narrow range of just under three octaves, from the G of my fourth string to the F sharp so much mentioned, and by the restricted instrumentation. All this changes with the coming of the strings, followed soon, in the dissolving of the F-sharp passage, by the first woodwind instruments. Bell-like sounds are created a little later by a fusion of piano, tuned percussion, and high strings. Later still, when the brass section has finally been mobilized, after six minutes or so, strong spectral harmonies become possible. This late entry of the brass introduces another element: an unexpected alter ego for me in a solo trumpet with which I am in a dialogue of imitation and counter-imitation.
But we are not yet halfway through this sixteen-minute movement, and there is a second still to come, a finale that continues the story partly by contrast. Where the first movement drifts by way of allusion, around a solo line that is almost continuous, the second is at once more dynamic and more dramatic, often cutting between its two principals, Violin and Orchestra, in vigorous dialogue.
At the same time, however, this second movement is a reliving of the first. Its unaccompanied opening, which serves as the solo cadenza any concerto should have, is initiated by intensive repetitions of a four-note descending pattern, a kind of driving-rain music that has appeared in the first movement—except that here in the second the pattern is directly in keeping with the first movement’s harmonic material, descending from F sharp through the “Arabic” motif reversed (C sharp—B flat—A). Later, among other cross-references, a decelerated cascade through the orchestral registers from the high treble to the far bass is repeated in varied form. The high F sharp remains a feature, too.
The two movements are like two tellings of the same story, or perhaps more like two stories in which some of the same characters and events appear. One may be indeed a story of unassuageable desire, the other a record of combat: a love song and a ballad of war.
Galehaut: These may not be such different categories.
Violin: Indeed, they are not in this case. Both movements end with the kind of delicately excited tremolo from which the work was born. In doing so they bring forward different notes, the first movement closing into F sharp, the second into D, but the difference is also a sameness, for these notes join with the originating A to create the triad of D major, the key in which my concerto story was told by Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. The whole work is thus bordered by these wisps of great predecessors.
Galehaut: In my Graal théâtre it is as if modernity is a wisp, as if time were proceeding backwards, from an indistinctly defined contemporaneity toward the fullness of the epoch of legend.
Violin: I might rather say that in my Graal théâtre time has no fixed direction, but rather wavers in an abundance of presence. However, perhaps we could continue our conversation in the language I know as my own.
¹ The episode is from “La Science des rêves,” the opening section of “L’Enlèvement de la reine,” last of the four tales included in the first version of Graal théâtre (Gallimard, 1977). Four more tales were published in 1981, and a further four added in the definitive edition, of 2005.
² “Lancelot is in love with Queen Guinevere, but he is at the same time the object of the love of the knight Galehaut” —Jacques Roubaud, interview on the Gallimard site.
Banner image: Verdure with Deer and Shields, accompaniment to the Holy Grail tapestries woven by Morris & Co. for Stanmore Hall. This version woven by Morris & Co. 1900 for Mrs. J. T. Middlemore. Wool and silk on cotton warp. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
Paul Griffiths was born in Wales in 1947. A music critic for thirty years, he has published several books on music, as well as librettos and novels.