Kaija Saariaho: Laterna Magica


Kaija Saariaho was born on October 14th, 1952 in Helsinki. Her serious studies within music began with her enrolling into the Sibelius Academy. Her contemporaries include the likes of Paavo Heininen and Magnus Lindberg. She continued studying under Ferneyhough and Huber, whilst also attending summer courses in composition in Darmstadt. From 1982, Saariaho has researched at the Institute for Research and Coordination Acoustic (IRCAM), which is based in Paris and this is now the city that she has based herself in.

Saariaho’s style changed significantly whilst researching at IRCAM, and her music moved away from serialism and into the modern idea of spectralism (computer-assisted compositions). She has worked extensively with live electronics, and this approach to music has affected the way she writes for orchestras. Instead of writing melodic structures, she expressed dense sounds and ties them up through sound structures and expression. 

Gradual progressions are a common link between a lot of Saariaho’s orchestral works, and this is no different for Laterna Magica. With the use of spectralist composers, Saariaho created her own analytical approach to create and develop harmonic structures and also to pull apart sounds so that she could use microtonality. She has created a detailed continuum of sounds which extend from pure tones to unpitched noises.

As well as orchestral works, Saariaho has also written vocal music, including solo works and operas, both of which have been successful. Her style for vocal writing has been developed twofold over her fruitful career, with both her orchestral and vocal writing style merging together to create this incredibly unique musical force in every composition that Saariaho writes. Over the course of her career, Saariaho has won a wealth of awards for her compositions including the Prix Ars Italia (1988), Musical America ‘Musician of the Year’ (2008) and the Léonie Sonning Music Prize (2011). 

Saariaho has also written about having synaesthesia, to which all of her senses are stimulated when listening to music. She writes that her visual and musical worlds collide, and this allows her to access different senses and sound worlds which she uses within her compositions. Her blending of textures and sounds makes her a contemporary composer who stands out of the crowd.


The Music

Laterna Magica was composed in 2009 from a commission by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the prestigious Lucerne Festival. The piece lasts for approximately 20 minutes and is one single movement. It is scored for a large orchestra with added harps, celeste and piano. The title of the piece comes from the autobiography by Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman.  Here is an extract from the program notes written by Saariaho:


“In time, as I read the book, the variation of musical motifs at different tempos emerged as one of the basic ideas behind the orchestral piece on which I was beginning to work. Symbolizing this was the Laterna Magica, the first machine to create the illusion of a moving image: as the handle turns faster and faster, the individual images disappear and instead the eyes see continuous movement.” 


Saariaho comments on using the speed of the images from the Laterna Magica as inspiration for tempo markings and how we can receive musical sounds, as the author receives moving images. As well as this, Saariaho was also inspired by the way that Bergman had described his favorite cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. Throughout the piece, German members of the orchestra whisper the words that Bergman used to describe Nykvist, which translated are the words:

  • Gentle
  • Dangerous
  • Dream-like
  • Lively
  • Dead
  • Clear
  • Hazy
  • Hot
  • Strong
  • Naked
  • Sudden
  • Dark
  • Spring-like
  • Penetrating
  • Pressing
  • Direct
  • Oblique
  • Sensuous
  • Overpowering
  • Restricting
  • Poisonous
  • Pacifying
  • Bright light
  • Light

With all of these juxtapositions that Saariaho had to play with, it creates a different way to interpret the composition. Although usually abstract in her style, Saariaho uses this narrative to show a different dimension to her musical style. Below are some extracts from her extensive program notes on the work:

“Musically speaking, different tempos underline different parameters: the rhythmic continuity is accentuated at relatively fast tempos, whereas delicate shades require more time and space for the ear to interpret and appreciate them.

While I was working with tempos, rhythms with different characters became a major part of the piece’s identity: fiery dance-rhythm inspired by flamenco, a shifting, asymmetrical rhythm provided by speech and an accelerating ostinato that ultimately loses its rhythmic character and becomes a texture.

In contrast to this, there emerged music without a clear rhythm or pulse. This material is dominated by strongly sensed colourful planes and airy textures, such as the unified colour of six horns, which divides the orchestral phrases. This use of horns points to Bergman’s film Cries and Whispers, in which the scenes are often changing through sequences of plain red colour.”


Saariaho uses a range of different extended techniques throughout the piece to create different emotions, and to also heighten the tension. The dramatic points of the composition hit a peak that is indeed magical and her use of movement through microtonal sounds is astonishing. 

Her use of percussion accentuates the ideas that are portrayed throughout the work. Extremities of range also play into the overall atmosphere of the piece, where lower strings often play in their lowest octaves, especially when the upper strings are in their highest ranges, creating a dichotomy between the parts. Strange interventions of sound are littered throughout the music, meaning nothing is predictable – making Laterna Magica very exciting.

Saariaho’s attention to timbral detail shines through in this composition as some of the sounds heard are very unique and not often used. This work has been described as nearly cinematographic and her use of light and shade brings out the juxtaposing ideas that are listed above in the word list. Acoustically, her use of tone colours are set to reverberate the concert hall and create a series of colours (which feeds into her synaesthesia). 

It has been commented that her extensive use of wind chimes and tuned percussion created a halo around the orchestra, which speaks volumes for the narrative of the piece. The sonic beauty created in this work leaves a dichotomy of ideas that leaves you wanting more, which is how Saariaho absorbs her listeners into her world.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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