Elevate Difference

Kaija Saariaho and the International Contemporary Ensemble (11/19/2009)

Chicago, Illinois

In the LeGuin novel The Left Hand of Darkness a character notes the dearth of female composers. Thus, I was delighted to learn of the music of Kaija Saariaho. The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) performed four works by Finn composer Kaija Saariaho—Brad Lubman conducting—at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The Chicago MCA’s stage is generally a sure bet for an engaging or entertaining evening. Earlier this year I enjoyed the Hypocrites’ enthusiastic (albeit not entirely coherent) interpretation of Frankenstein, and other events have included Butoh set to Elvis, an Italian woman painting on the side of a live mare, a synchronized British insult troupe, and exquisitely formed performers executing German philosophy as verbal jujitsu.

The opening selection was “Terrestre” (2002), a flute-intensive chamber piece further enlivened by energetic percussive elements characteristic of the composer. Claire Chase’s flute solo garnered sincere and sustained applause. The composition’s inspiration is the poems of Saint-John Perse, a collection entitled Oiseaux (Birds) in particular, and perhaps it is a risk of reading the program notes, but it seemed inevitable that the flute’s song echo some ornithological element, reeds weaving amidst the percussion. “Six Japanese Gardens” followed, a sole percussionist incorporating electronic waves, as well as sampled natural sounds, song, and percussion recorded in Japan.

Saariaho was in attendance and answered questions from the audience mid-show prior to the intermission. One listener inquired on how the various elements were interwoven in the immediately previous piece, speculating that it must have been quite demanding to combine so many technical elements. The conductor immediately diminished such concerns: “He has a foot petal.” Another audience member recollected that a visiting Finnish conductor once reminisced that he and Saariaho gave a concert to an audience of two, one member of which was his mother. The composer conceded that this was indeed the case, and that her zeal to bring experimental music to new audiences once led to a performance in a kindergarten, and that on another occasion an orchestra was engaged for an event that they entirely forgot to publicize. But the arts persist.

“Solar” was the final piece performed, but no less engaging than the three previous. A high volume set of notes quickly bifurcates and then trifurcates and then again. Subsequent layers of sound soothed, but come back to the main theme, departing to return in a way that seemed almost flirtatious, but more vital. I look forward to further discovery of Kaija Saariaho’s music as well as performances by ICE.

ICE appears with the John Jaspere Company in “Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful thinking, and Flat Out Lies” at the Museum of Contemporary Art April 9 – 11, 2010

Written by: Erika Mikkalo, January 30th 2010