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DETAILS:

Composed:
1989-90

Length: 19 minutes

Orchestration: 4 flutes (1st = piccolo, 4th = piccolo and alto flute), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (3rd = E-flat clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drums, crotales, glockenspiel, low gong, marimba, roto-toms, tam-tam, tom-toms, triangles, tubular bells, xylophone, vibraphone), harp, piano, synthesizer, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 1, 1990, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting (U.S. premiere)

Kaija Saariaho’s music obviously inhabits a different sound world from that of Joseph Haydn. Composers of today have to wrestle with basic questions about music that were taken for granted in Haydn’s day. What should it sound like? What is it for? What should the rules, if any, be? The 20th century rejected the orthodoxy of the past, replacing it with a lot of new orthodoxies to be rejected in their turn. Saariaho has embraced eclecticism and a number of different styles and milieus. Not long ago she told an English journalist that she became fed up with the post-serialist tradition because of all the things that it prohibited. “You were not allowed to have pulse, or tonally oriented harmonies, or melodies,” she said. “I don’t want to write music through negations. Everything is permissible as long as it’s done in good taste.” On the other hand, she is resolutely modernist, and does not allow much in the way of the old and familiar into the mix. “I don’t believe in austerity,” she has said, “but I do [believe] in purity.”

Saariaho studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, where she was part of a group of young composers that called itself “Ears Open!.” That group is known now not so much for anything in particular that it did as for the number of its members, including Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, who have since become internationally prominent. In 1982, Saariaho went to the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), a research institute/think tank in Paris long associated with Pierre Boulez, where composers explore modern music and technology. There she developed an interest in electronics and the use of the computer in composition. She became known for music that contrasted and melded electronically generated sounds with traditional instrumental sounds. Her music, like that of Sibelius, is often described as coldly beautiful, like a dark northern landscape.

She wrote Du cristal (From crystal) for a joint commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Helsinki Festival, while spending a year in San Diego. It was premiered in Helsinki under the direction of Salonen, to whom Saariaho dedicated it, and recorded by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at UCLA in 1990. Saariaho paired it with a companion piece, …a la fumée (into smoke). The two titles suggest opposite states of being: crystal is ordered, organized, geometric and symmetrical, while smoke is formless and drifting. The titles were derived from biophysicist Henri Atlan’s 1979 book Entre le cristal et la fumée: Essai sur l’organisation du vivant (Between crystal and smoke: essay on the organisation of life). Cells, DNA, and other building blocks of life, exist in a state somewhere between crystal’s tightly organized rigidity and smoke’s chaos, which is to say that somewhere between crystal and smoke is us.

The first few minutes of Du cristal suggest crystal’s structure: notes and short melodic figures repeat insistently, but without much of a sense of motion, as if we are looking closely at the facets of a crystal. Motion comes as the piece progresses, as if it is thawing out of a crystalline state.

Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated program for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra, the Coleman Chamber Concerts, and the Salzburg Festival.