by Alex Ross [New Yorker, 24 April 2006]
Kaija Saariaho, whose new opera, ìAdriana Mater,î had its premiËre in Paris earlier this month, once said that she likes to explore the boundary between music and noise. Many of her large-scale works, ìAdrianaî included, begin with a great, heaving expanse of intermingled timbres, like a landscape turned molten, or an ocean boiling. Instruments cry out at high or low extremes; pitches are bent or broken apart; violins are bowed with such intensity that they groan; flutes are blown until they emit an asthmatic rasp. Itís the kind of sound that boxes the ears and maxes out the brain; information pours in on all frequencies. But Saariaho is something other than a sonic terrorist out to shock whatever remains of the bourgeoisie. She makes her eruptions of noise seem like natural phenomena, the aftermath of some seismic break. Shapes emerge from the chaos, and the shapes begin to sing. The latter sections of her pieces often bring apparitions of rare, pure beautyóplain intervals that sound like harmony reborn, liminal melodies that disappear the moment they are heard. They are like the wildflowers that bloom in Death Valley, their colors intensified by the nothingness around them.
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