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The Ballet MAA, choreographed by Carolyn Carlson with music composed by Kaija Saariaho, was the response to a commission from the ballet of the Finnish National Opera. Mixing and manipulation of sounds was carried out in the Finnish Radio Experimental Studio. The work's first performance took place on the 31st October 1991 in Helsinki. The ballet does not have a plot as such, rather it is built around thematic archetypes such as doors, gates, stepping into new worlds, journeys and the crossing of waters. Both scenography and music are shrouded by deliberate mystery and characterised by a lucidity and minimalism of gesture. MAA is Kaija Saariaho's most major work to its date. Its openess and approachability made it an ideal introduction to the poetry and poeticism of Saariaho's music.
The work's abstract, non-narrative plot is fertile soil for Saariaho's musical thinking. Also in her earlier radiophonic work STILLEBEN (Finlandia FACD 374), she avoids telling a story, choosing instead to handle the germinal themes of travelling, remoteness, yearning and communication in a dream-like way through the medium of association. Number symbolism also plays its own role in injecting significance into MAA: the group of players numbers seven, and each of the work's seven main movements divides further into seven subsections.
The second movement of MAA is written for three instrumentalists, while the fourth is for five players and the sixth is for harp solo. The finale brings together all the musicians. The first and fifth movements are tape music sections which make use of modifications of instrumental sounds and natural sounds such as footsteps, wind and water. The third movement is for solo violin with electronics, and, according to the composer, it also acts as the wellspring for the work's overall musical material. Its character as an emotive and intense monologue serves to stress the nucleic role it plays in the work as a whole.
Looking at Saariaho's music in terms of its individual contributive parameters, it is probably timbre which stands out as the most important dimension of her music. But in actual fact her language attempts precisely to break down the type of cerebral compartmentalism caused by parametrisation. As with the French composers of 'spectral music', the boundaries between harmony and timbre and between pitch and noise are tested to breaking point. Indeed, the most typical feature of the way her music progresses is to manoeuvre along the continua stretched out between these extremes.
A look at a couple of bars from the score - a single note for one stringed instrument - provides us with a view of Saariaho's music as seen through a microscope: as the pitch continues, the bow travels from its position above the fingerboard towards the bridge and gives rise to a tautening of the timbre; the vibrato stiffens into an unembellished straightness of sound and finally, as excessive bow pressure is applied and intensifies, the pitch dissolves into lacerating noise. The sonic surfaces changes its character at a discrete pace but the effect of the transformation is nevertheless unremitting. The composer also calls upon mysterious hummings and whisperings, flute passages rising like birds into flight and irrepressible filigrees from the harp and harpsichord in conjuring up her captivating musical dreamworld.
Two important new elements made their appearance in Saariaho's music in the later 1980s. On the one hand there is repeated, decorative motivic material in which a subtle and gradual transformation of the melodic and rhythmic substance is brought about by the application of computer interpolation; on the other one finds even rhythmic pulsations which may be considered one extremity on that scale of rhythmic figurations produced by computer-controlled transformation. These two elements, in their many guises, can be heard in their fullest clarity in MAA..
The approach taken by Carlson and Saariaho when producing MAA was not one of close collaboration, rather they chose to let their differing artistic personalities encounter one another and spark off tensions and syntheses. Carlson's methods rely heavily on improvisation and the development of ideas whose outcome cannot be known a priori, while Saariaho's conceptional process makes active use of deterministic solutions and carefully planned temporal frameworks. In no sense did these contrasting, if not conflicting approaches lead Saariaho to neglect the dramatic requirements of the different sections of the ballet. In working a weave of textures which progress and change at a leisurely and gradual, almost minimalistic pace, she has clearly been attentive to finding a balance for the whole work which takes the listener into account. Saariaho's compositions are laid out in such a way that they encourage us to imbibe and dwell in the timbral detail. The sensous calm which perveates the music for MAA inevitably affects our mood and senses, turning them to higher levels of sensitivity and awareness.
(MAA: note on the title. The word "maa" in Finnish language can mean "earth", "land" or "country", possibly even "world".)