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In 1989 Kaija Saariaho found herself in the unusual position of receiving two commissions for large orchestral pieces to fulfil within as many years, without having written a large-scale orchestral work before (her Verblendungen of 1982 had been scored for large chamber orchestra). Not daunted by such a task, she decided to link the two works together so that they would form an orchestral diptych totalling some thirty-eight minutes of music entitled Du Cristal … à la fumée (‘From Crystal … into smoke’). Thus the last sound of Du Cristal – a cello trill played sul ponticello – becomes retrospectively the first sound of its successor, … à la fumée, which features solo parts for cello and amplified alto flute in addition to large orchestra. Saariaho has commented that ‘to my way of thinking, Du Cristal … à la fumée is a single work, two facets of the same image, but both fully drawn in, living and independent’; so the pieces may either be played together or on their own.
Saariaho took her title from a book by the French writer Henri Atlan, "Entre le cristal et la fumée", and for her it signifies the way the same acoustic material is developed in sharply different ways in the two pieces, the turbulent energy and almost expressionist outbursts of Du Cristal subsiding into the capricious, playful double concerto of...à la fumée.
Du Cristal was commissioned jointly by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Helsinki Festival, and it was first performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen in September 1990. It is scored for a standard large symphony orchestra with the assition of an important part for synthesizer, and featuring a highly prominent percussion section. None of Saariaho's major works to date is without some kind of electroniv element, and the presence of the synthesizer is significant in the light of Saariaho's remark that she tends to the orchestra itself 'as if it was a huge synthesizer'. The standard form of electronic synthesis is 'additive' - htat is, each sound is created by piling innumerable pure tones upon each other. Transferred to the medium of the orchestra, this means that it is as if each individual instrument were analogous to a pure tone in a synthesizer, merely a tiny part of a large, slowly evolving mass of sound. Thus there is no polyphony, nor any melody in the conventional sense, although the music is frequently lyrical in its gestures and the activity within the textures may momentarily suggest polyphony; the important thing to follow is the overall drift of the orchestral mass, and to relate the individual details to that. It's an approach which oews something to the dense, multi-layered orchestral works of György Ligeti, such as "Atmosphères and Lontano", as well as to the so-called 'spectral-music' of French composers Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey, all of whom Saariaho has acknowledged as influences on her music; but her won style is nevertheless thoroughly personal and has distinctly brooding, 'Northern' character quite distinct from any of the afore-mentioned.
The harmonic character of Du Cristal is especially focused and clearly defined as the work is dominated by the bell-chord with which it opens. During the first seven minutes, this chord is slowly and methodically dissected: all its internal components are highlighted as its orchestration is progressively shaded and softened, although the basic character of the chord remains essentially unchanged. There follows an eruption of some violence which breaks up the harmonic sontinuity of the music; a dialogue ensuesbetween onslaughts of unpitched percussion and further bell sounds from tuned percussion and synthesizer. After this the texture thins somewhat and the rate of harmonic change increases; melodic tissues briefly emerge on the violins and the woodwind. The increased rate of change precipitates the principal climax of the work, again featuring untuned percussion prominently: chaotic, irregular rhythms gradually merge into a hammeringly regular series of ostinatos for the full orchestra - the simplest and clearest music in the piece - and out of these the sound spectrum is gradually narrowed until a single note (a unison A flat) is heard. As this fades into filigree passages for solo strings, the music drifts closer to the harmonic world of the opening, and the original chord is itself twice restated; far from subsiding, however, the music suddenly veers back to the hammering ostinato of the climax - as if the form of the whole piece thus far had been telescoped into some two minutes. Only now can the music progress to the coda, underpinned by a series of wave-like crescendos on bass drum and synthesizer as the textures dwindle to a single cello trill.