Lichtbogen, Kaija Saariaho

by tacet

Lichtbogen opens with the smallest of musical gestures; the flow of air moving across a mouthpiece, a tentative exhalation of breath producing the faintest hint of a tone. From this trembling nucleus of sound, the flute note steadily gains in weight and force, establishing itself within the aural space as its articulation becomes ever more assured. Yet, as soon as the tone appears to have settled into equilibrium it is transformed; its pastel colouration is imbued with a metallic shimmer as bowed strings furtively rise from the periphery, fusing to the flute’s timbre whilst simultaneously altering it. Next, a stuttering piano enters and what was once a pure, unified sound is gradually frayed as the string bowing becomes increasingly erratic, punctuated by the shiver of pitched percussion. Beginning with the intimate, barely audible sound of a breath, this elegant morphing of musical textures serves as a microcosm for the intoxicating soundscapes of the piece to come.

Composed in 1986, Lichtbogen is one of Kaija Saariaho’s earliest successes, scored for a small chamber orchestra including live electronics. Although she would later explore even more mysterious sound-worlds in her larger scale orchestral works, Lichtbogen conjures a stunning array of iridescent, tactile textures with a relatively limited sound palette. The seductive mystique common to all of Saariaho’s music is ever-present throughout Lichtbogen: this music is dream-like and ephemeral, a spectral web of sound that is as evocative as it is elusive. The piece hovers in an elegant stasis, hanging motionless in time and space even as its surface is texturally animated and vibrantly coloured; as such, Lichtbogen is at once welcoming yet subtly nuanced, revealing its vast multidimensionality under increased scrutiny.

As opposed to the pungent, occasionally claustrophobic, atmospheres of some of Saariaho’s orchestral music, Lichtbogen’s modest means affords generous space to the soundscape: this music is transparent and airy without ever becoming anaemic or insubstantial. As in the striking opening of the piece, Saariaho’s orchestration, as well as her subtle use of live electronics, perpetually blurs the lines between the individual instruments of the ensemble until they appear to melt into a single entity; independent voices are subsumed into the unified musical texture, coalescing into a sparkling cloud of sound. Lichtbogen’s abstract nature is balanced by its graceful luminosity: this piece is neither reticent nor austere, only reserved and refined, indulging in the sensuality of musical sound whilst simultaneously retaining a delicate poise.

Below is a recording of Lichtbogen accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Lichtbogen does not demand attentive listening, although it does greatly reward it; its subtlety is belied by its façade of simplicity. Following the majestic opening section described above, a gently lilting texture enters at 1:35 as arpeggios on piano and percussion rustle beneath an amorphous fog of strings and flute. This passage gradually disintegrates and at 4:09 a graceful flute melody rises above the mist. A particularly striking passage begins at around 7:10 as fragments of falling melodies are traced atop a contorting mass of strings, steadily becoming more insistent and culminating at 7:28 when a melody is passed between strings, piano and flute. Having passed through a variety of musical textures, Lichtbogen culminates in a stunning closing section (beginning at around 14:13) as a low throb of sound enters the soundscape. The live electronics are particularly prominent in this section, blurring aural perspectives as exasperated gestures on the flute are cloaked in a shimmer of pitched percussion and electronically manipulated sound.

The above recording is played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen; it is available on the Ondine label, as part of a comprehensive set of Saariaho’s orchestral works.

To delve further into Saariaho’s orchestral sound-world both Graal Théâtre (1997) and D’Om Le Vrai Sens (2010), a violin concerto and a clarinet concerto respectively, are highly recommended. Saariaho’s works for solo cello, in particular Sept Papillons (2000), maintain the same mystique even with a vastly diminished sound palette. Saariaho’s works are occasionally reminiscent of György Ligeti‘s orchestral pieces of the 60s and 70s, in particular the luminous Lontano (1967) and Clocks and Clouds (1972).

Artwork: Hero and Leandro, Cy Twombly

by Thomas May