New music mourns with a strange and violent passion. Each announcement of the death of a major composer sparks a river of public grief that is always torrential at its mouth—floods of tributes, letters, anecdotes, love notes, lessons, all offered in the reification of the dead. In the days that follow, the artist’s work receives a sentimental and overwhelming reappraisal. The catalog is combed for deep cuts that set the Internet awash in honorary playlists and fresh YouTube links, ensembles plan tribute concerts and portrait celebrations, festivals dig through archives for forgotten photos. Within this mass ritual are small selfish ripples, the eagerness to claim weight from the composer’s name in their newfound absence: Performers resurrect their own recordings of the artist’s music, writers call up old articles on the subject, composers cite favorite influential works, emphasizing a piece’s impact on their own music to reinforce the privileged path of aesthetic inheritance.
This ritual is a kind of social affirmation: a collective reminder that we’re either doing good work by continuing their legacy, or, just as often, an occasion to lament the changing times as we pine for the loss of one of the last true greats. It is a rare moment in the field when everyone weighs in, and so each time it surfaces it carries a distinctive, regal potency. In fact, new music needs to mourn like this, far more than any of its sibling arts whose critical standing is historically secure: Collective grief is a cog in the mechanism of mythology-making by which the field transfers its preferred composers into the pantheon, an operation in institutional reinforcement staged on the grave of the newly deceased. Performed largely on social media and in discussions at schools and festivals, this international ritual can last for months.
But there will always come a point when the river curves back upon itself. The point, different for every death, is nevertheless inevitable when the waterfall of words begins slowly to bend away from the tributary and toward the alluring promise of completeness that death alone can provide. This riverbend is a treacherous place. In its shallow waters a new critical phase in the reception of the artist is inaugurated: biographies, analyses, portraits, retrospectives, all the accounts newly furnished with localizable endings. At the riverbend, mourning mobilizes itself as a vocation, which is what makes the curve so precarious: The critical discourse takes on heightened urgency now that the artist is no longer present to clarify the work. Their absence is the promise of safety to any author eager to tackle the big projects; that safety makes these projects dangerous exercises in the writing of history.
It has been three months since the death of Kaija Saariaho. The riverbend is not far off. Talks of legacy and impact have already begun—as they should, because few artists have left so indelible a footprint on a field as the Finnish composer on new music. But floating in the water is a lingering piece of jetsam that I want to fish out and examine under closer light. It has slipped by in the torrents: I’m worried about what it means.
Twice in her lifetime, Saariaho attended the five-and-a-half-hour Catholic marathon of Messiaen’s “Saint François d’Assise,” the only opera by the French composer and ornithologist. She was there for the 1983 Paris premiere, one of the most hotly anticipated opening nights in modern opera history, and again when the opera was remounted in a now-iconic staging by Peter Sellars for the 1992 Salzburg Festival. In the decade separating the two evenings, Saariaho ran a staunch opposition to the genre, verbally outspoken about opera’s anachronism and antagonistic to anyone who suggested she write her own.
In 1992, something changed. After the Salzburg “Saint François,” she professed a new openness to the form, a willingness to imagine the shape the genre would take in her own world of dazzling, synthetic light. Within the decade, she was headlining the same festival with “L’amour de loin,” her first of five works in the genre that would occupy her for the rest of her career.
Much has been made of this story, especially of the Salzburg part. In fact, it’s difficult to find a piece of writing on “L’amour de loin” that doesn’t mention Messiaen, who almost always figures in close proximity with the words “inspired” and “encouraged.” Across the body of literature dedicated to Saariaho’s work, Salzburg ’92 has become the de facto origin story for her entry to opera, not only for its seeming authenticity but also for its convenience. Because if “L’amour” is the descendant of “Saint François,” a whole host of ancestors unfurl in an instant: Debussy as her generic grandfather (“Pelléas et Mélisande” being the only French opera Messiaen ever truly admired), preceded by Wagner and his “Tristan und Isolde” (themes of love, death, and the unknown seemingly shared by all four). The Messiaen connection binds Saariaho nicely to the mantle of French opera, and from there to the more sedimented legacies of a genre that has otherwise struggled to save face in the modern century. As if to prove the point, “L’amour” makes an honorary appearance in the final pages of Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker’s A History of Opera (2012), one of several recent volumes to posit Saariaho near the end, in line (they even call it “genealogy”) with the grand tradition that comes before it. It is a comfortable narrative.
—but does it hold? Keep one hand held tight to Saariaho as she is—not as we want her to be—and turn again to the story. Is it really Messiaen, or something else, lingering there?
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It’s important to start with the fact that she saw the opera twice to different outcomes. In Paris—the first time—Saariaho had been utterly unmoved by the opera, an effect she credited largely to the constrained, Baroque patience with which director Sandro Sequi executed Messiaen’s prescriptive religious iconography (Christiane Eda-Pierre, costumed in the same quinticolor wings as the Angel in Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation” fresco; Kenneth Riegel’s leper, modeled after the Isenheim Altarpiece). Sequi deferred to the visual palate of Messiaen’s old-world Catholicism, and as a result tipped the piece on the dangerous edge of a realistic parable. The work’s first wave of critics took issue with the same tendencies, each dutifully lining up to accuse the 80-year-old Messiaen of embarrassing naiveté.
Spotting the risk, Peter Sellars staged a total overhaul in Salzburg nine years later. With a blinding wall of cross-stitched fluorescent tubing floating above the Felsenreitschule, slats and soaring beams of exposed wooden scaffolding, and great stacks of TV sets flickering footage of birds, he reoriented the work’s scenography toward the abstract field of light and texture, revealing the expressive possibilities of a visual language in tune to the spiritual dimensions and sonic scale of the musical work, rather than one married to the word-by-word symbolism of its libretto. Sequi had merely attempted to slot Messiaen neatly into a tradition; Sellars, with an eye-watering sensorial overload of endless blinding color, managed to capture something far more glorious: an evanescent image of the old genre’s great and fearsome eyes peering out from within “Saint François.”
What Saariaho discovered in Salzburg was not a theoretical pathway to opera in the footsteps of Messiaen: Had this been the case it would have happened in Paris. Instead, she began to understand the potential of long-form drama to concretize the syntactic mannerisms of a musical language when the visual field is unbidden by the needs of representation. Preceding from here, it begins to make more sense why, when we turn to the score, there is nothing musical or narrative in “L’amour” to reinforce even a tangential parentage with Messiaen. Saariaho’s opera belongs wholly and without compromise to the garden of sound which she so patiently tended, a world in which light and love are twinned with a brutal and dazzling force. Later in life, Saariaho would use the word synthesized to characterize the relationship that “L’amour” had with all the work she had done before it: The impulse of Messiaen left no traces of its language or dramaturgy, nothing except the simple possibility of “I can.” Taking score and story together, it becomes increasingly evident that “L’amour” rejects any comparisons to Messiaen, or even to Debussy or Wagner, except as what can be illuminated about opera in their differences.
Then why have we tried so hard to make it fit?
New music leans heavily on its genealogies. Schools, legacies, lines, and lineages are, like the monarchic pedigrees of the French royal blood, modalities of power. Contemporary classical music, which has increasingly found itself sidelined in international discourses of art and music, has seized on filiation to suggest a kind of historical authenticity and worth, even inevitability, out of a desperate need to reassert its cultural value. The “Complexity” broadband is the classic example: composers as disparate as Michael Finnissy, Brian Ferneyhough, Richard Barrett, Chris Dench, and James Dillon have been grouped together under that word, despite the total lack of shared internal sensibility. Grouping them does a disservice to the singularity of compositional voices that are far more tantalizing when scrutinized for the behaviors governing the material beneath the density of ink. When we insist on their unity, we unconsciously monumentalize a value judgment based on an external perception of the surface of the work, scrubbing all the nuance from the individual.
This insistence on situating Saariaho and her opera in a virtual legacy with Messiaen risks inflicting the same damage. Opera criticism, by nature of its genre, suffers from a knee-jerk retroflection, and its desperate need for genealogy has done considerable harm to the reception of contemporary works. Pieces like “L’amour,” which enter into a critical negotiation with all the baggage and danger of “opera” from within their own musical ecology, are met by canonic metrics that take no account of the conscious shifting in relation between “composer” and “genre” that makes them possible in the first place. An imposed genealogy wrests this power of autonomy from “L’amour” and forces it to be understood on borrowed terms; placing Messiaen in line with Debussy does the same. But the issue is more acute with Saariaho for how deeply disrespectful it is to a radical woman to drop her in a line of dead men like some genetic inevitability, as if her historical value depends on her work’s conformity with an established, ongoing tradition. Refusing the lineage does not strip her work of its power; it restores its integrity. “L’amour” deals with opera only on the terms which Saariaho set out from the beginning of her career. If we are to locate “opera” within the work—which is to say, within our own time—we must be prepared to meet it there.
While she was alive, Saariaho pushed hard against the instinct to pigeon-hole her into lineages (France/Finland) and schools (spectralism). She was, and in death remains, a singular artist who spent her career excavating a world apart from the world. Now, as she passes toward the pantheon-sepulcher whose imposing architecture governs so many of new music’s historical metrics, there is a risk that her singularity will be overwritten by a retroactive narrative which emphasizes only what conveniently positions her in the history books. Refusing the trap of the Messiaen myth is a small but forceful act in meeting her music on its own terms, because if “L’amour” is not expected to toe the line and is instead allowed a highly personal and idiosyncratic interpretation of the word opera from within the body of work that precedes it—the same kind that she discovered was possible in the meeting of Sellars and Messiaen—then that opera will have so much more to say to us that is provocative, relevant, and uniquely hers.
As the riverbend approaches, we must be prepared to grieve Kaija Saariaho without coopting her to the project of the pantheon. Doing so demands a rigorous deference to the work; but that deference is itself a radical act of love. Because it is only by and through this letting-go of the frames of genealogy that we stand a chance at mourning her in fidelity, at remembering her honestly, and at loving her as she is, which, in Rilke’s words is “as a whole and before an immense sky”—love, we might say, from afar. ¶
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