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Love, death, nature and the mystery of life are themes that recur in Kaija Saariaho’s music every since her youthful works, and they maintain a strong presence today, in the 2010s. At the same time, the key element in her music – tonal colour – has become increasingly significant: the lucid is more lucid than ever, and the dark hues are darker still.

She has added the countertenor voice and the kantele to her palette for her most recent opera, Only the Sound Remains (2016). The opera is based on two Japanese Noh plays translated into English by American poet Ezra Pound.

The lucid is more lucid than ever, and the dark hues are darker still.

Why write an opera to a text in English?

 – In recent years, I have spent more time in the USA than before, and the language that surrounds me always rubs off on my music. In 2012, I was in New York finishing a work for the Rothko Chapel in Houston, a venue built to house the last works of painter Mark Rothko, a very curious space. I have admired Rothko’s work for years, and that work was important for me. It was later titled Sombre. I had a plan for the work and the ensemble, including a baritone voice.

– While in New York, I was busy trying to find a text that would suit the sombre mood of the music, and I found myself reading through Ezra Pound’s Cantos. In the very last poems in this collection, partly fragmented, I found the tragic tone that I was looking for, and I chose those texts. This introduced me to Pound’s language, which I found fascinating, and also to setting a text in English to music.

Only the Sound Remains is based on traditional Japanese Noh theatre. Why Noh plays in particular?

– I chose the plays because of Ezra Pound. He had adapted these plays in his youth from translations made by literary scholar Ernest Fennolosa. They are really beautiful. I always look for a new angle when beginning a new opera project, and these two plays gave me what I was looking for.”

I always look for a new angle when beginning a new opera projects.

What fascinates you about Noh plays?

Classic Noh plays are a cornerstone of Japanese culture. They are centuries old. The sub-genre that interests me is the one where humans encounter the supernatural. There is very little text, and the stories are simple on the surface, but they are charged with symbolism and hidden meanings. Every bird, plant and colour, for instance, has a rich tapestry of symbols and associations linked to it.

The sub-genre that interests me is the one where humans encounter the supernatural.

Only the Sound Remains was created together with director Peter Sellars, like L’amour de loin and Adriana Mater. How has he influenced your work?

– It is inspiring and interesting to share ideas with Peter. Of course, our collaboration has changed over the years, and every production is different. Generally, though, I have gained a lot of encouragement and inspiration from Peter’s work and world view. I chose the two Noh plays for Only the Sound Remains with him. He is also very familiar with the Japanese theatre tradition and already knew these plays.

You have expanded your palette in this work, including the kantele and the countertenor voice. Why these?

– I have been waiting to write for the kantele for a long time, and this seemed the appropriate context. Its sensitive, resonant sound fits the mood I had in mind before I even began writing the music. I had thought that the countertenor would only sing in the first part, but Philippe Jarousky himself suggested that the spirit character in the second part might also be written for his voice. That was a good idea, not only because the soloists are now the same in both parts, which lends the work unity. In both parts, the countertenor voice is processed in real time, making it in the space around the listener.

Text LIISAMAIJA HAUTSALO