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Kaija Saariaho

Publisher: Chester Music

Amers (1992)
commissioned by IRCAM and the Barbican Centre
Work Notes
dedicated to Anssi Kartunnen
Chester Music Ltd
Soloist(s) and Large Ensemble (7 or more players)
Year Composed
20 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)

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Programme Note
Kaija Saariaho Amers (1992)

Amers is the title of a book of poems by Saint-John Perse, dedicated to the sea. It is also the title chosen by Kaija Saariaho, born in Finland in 1952, for a work completed in the studios of IRCAM in Paris.

Amers is the French word for 'navigation beacons', strategically spaced along the coast for sailors. One of the earliest ideas about the piece was the effect of a solo cello "as a sailor charting a course through a sea of sounds", but his journey, scattered with phrases defined by the existing sound material, is hampered by the surroundings. To a certain extent Amers is a concerto, even though the composer has tried to avoid the usual duel between orchestra and soloist. Instead the piece divides naturally on three levels - each with a certain independence. The cello, juxtaposed with the instrumental ensemble and with computer generated sounds, cannot reach its scheduled ports of call directly and is often pulled off course.

IRCAM developed a microphone specially for this piece which permits each of the four strings of the cello to be amplified separately, and the sound projected to four different loud speakers; in this way this instrumental theatre loses its accustomed unity of time and place as each string can be given a different delay, thus achieving new depths.

The denial of a straightforward sonic image, simplistically bi-dimensional also characterises the way in which Saariaho presents the musical material of the piece: a three dimensional space with its heart made up of delicate layers, almost transparent, resting one upon the other.

Metaphors drawn from the plastic arts play an important part in the sound world of a composer who has always found visible structures to be "a major source of inspiration". The first sketches of Saariaho's Verblendungen (1982-1984) were simple outlines, tracings that gradually show through the whiteness of the paper. The language of Amers seems to break with the earlier works and also denies the almost pictorial distinction of background and foreground: melodic lines rise from the texture, dissolve into the clarity of unison only to become lost once again.

This clarity confronts the mystery and polysemia of the particular harmonies of Saariaho's musical universe. Harmonies that are willingly dispersed as the composer ploughs happily through the flexible boundaries surrounding pitches and their eventual re-absorption into the colourful whole.

Saariaho uncovers these boundaries within the microscopic interior world of sound, accessible and able to be reproduced by computer processes. These also make it possible to control the extent to which the different elements of sound are fused together, or alternatively cast apart, scattered as separate sound elements.

In her diptych, Jardin Secret, Saariaho has explored with the computer the extent of the changing states that move imperceptibly through the texture. By defining an initial state and a final state the composer leaves the operator to devise a strand which lines the one to the other - a strand through which the continuity and disruption can be controlled to a minute degree.

In this way Amers can be divided into two parts: gradual interruptions occur in the first part, brutal ones in the second.

In Amers, the composer has also though about the internal structure of certain cello sounds and these have served as a starting point for the piece. The synthesis, as well as the instrumental harmonies, are conceived freely along the lines of these standard patterns and can approach or retreat, creating layer upon layer. The electronic element, in contrast with the macroscopic world of the instruments, often creates a 'zoom effect' which focuses attention onto the microscopic world of the internal life of sound.

"Music is made to be listened to". For Saariaho, observation of infinitesimal aspects of sound and their perception is very much more than an analytical exercise. The challenge is above all to composer "a more attentive listening".

©Peter Szenby
Translated by Louise Mitchell

Preview the score

  • Ensemble
    Avanti! Orchestra / Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra / BBC Symphony Orchestra
    Anssi Kattunen, cello / Dawn Upshaw, sorprano / Gidon Kremer, violin
    Esa-Pekka Salonen
    Sony Music:
  • 27 JAN 2018
    Hrím Country Premiere
    Two Inger Christensen Songs Country Premiere
    NJORD Biennale 2018
    Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen, Denmark
    Avanti! Chamber Orchestra
    Jakob Kullberg, cello; Caroline Wettergreen, soprano; Clement Mao-Takacs, conductor
  • 04 OCT 2013
    Oberlin, OH
    Oberlin College
    Nicholas Photinos; Timothy Weiss, conductor
  • 08 OCT 2011
    Saariaho Festival Den Haag
    Korzo Theatre, Den Haag, The Netherlands
    New European Ensemble
    Willem Stab, cello / Roswotja Bergmann, soprano / Tomoko Mukaiyama, piano / cellists from the Royal Conservatory; Christian Karlsen, conductor
  • 06 MAY 2011
    DKDM Studiescenen, København, Denmark
    Ensemble Ernst
  • 16 APR 2010
    Evanston, IL
    Northwestern University
    Ryan Nelson, conductor
  • 16 APR 2010
    Evanston, IL
    Austin Wuliman, violin; Russel Rolen, cello; Ryan T. Nelson, conductor
  • 23 AUG 2009
    Lucerne Festival
    Lucerne, Switzerland
    Ensemble InterContemporain
    Susanna Mälkki, conductor

    Other Dates:
    23 October - Paris, France
  • 13 DEC 2007
    The Music Room, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Center, Saint Paul, USA
    Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
    Brad Lubman, conductor

    Other Dates:
    15 December - The Music Room, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Center, Saint Paul, USA
  • 15 SEP 2006
    Auftakt Festival 2006
    Mozart Hall, Alte Oper, Frankfurt
    Ensemble Modern
    Ernest Martinez-Izquierdo, conductor
  • 27 MAR 2006
    Opéra de Paris, France
    Ensemble L'Itinéraire
  • 09 NOV 2005
    Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York
    Eastman School of Music
    Brad Lubman, conductor
  • 05 AUG 2004
    Ekenäs Summer Concert Festival 2004
    Church of Ekenäs, Ekenäs,Finland
    Finnish Chamber Orchestra
    Anssi Karttunen, cello; Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor
  • 16 JUN 2004
    'Music 04'
    University of Cincinnati, USA
    University of Cincinnati Orchestra
    Philippe Grafin, violin; Toby Hoffman, conductor
  • 30 MAY 2003
    Musik im 21. Jahrhundert
    Funkhaus Halberg, Saarbrücken, Germany
    Klangforum Wien
    Anssi Karttunen, cello; Diego Masson, conductor
  • 28 MAY 2003
    Musik im 21. Jahrhundert
    Saarbrücken, Germany
    Saarländisches Rundfunk Symphonie Orchester

    Other Dates:
    29-31 May; 1 June - Saarbrücken, Germany
  • 06 APR 2003
    Chicago, IL
    members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
    Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
  • 24 NOV 2002
    Barcelona, Spain
    Barcelona 216
    Anssi Karttunen, cello; Ernest Martinez-Izquierdo, conductor
  • 10 NOV 2002
    Composer Festival
    Konserthuset, Stockholm
    Avanti! Chamber Orchestra
    John Storgårds, violin / Anssi Karttunen, cello; Hannu Lintu, conductor
  • 04 OCT 2002
    International Contemporary Music Festival Alicante
    Alicante, Spain
    Barcelona 216
    Anssi Karttunen, cello / David Albet, flute; Ernest Martinez-Izquierdo, conductor
  • 05 JUN 2000
    Centre Pompidou, Paris
    London Sinfonietta
    Dawn Upshaw, sorpano / Anssi Karttunen, cello; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

    Other Dates:
    6 June - Cité de la Musique, Paris
  • 11 DEC 1999
    Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
    London Sinfonietta
    Laura Claycomb, soprano; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
  • 16 SEP 1994
    Amers Country Premiere
    Copenhagen, Denmark
    Athelas Sinfonietta

"Amers…shows a move towards bigger, bolder musical gestures and towards a more strongly defined sense of forward motion. The sound here [is] saturated with bright, keyboard-activated electronics"
Gavin Thomas, The Musical Times,01/02/1993
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