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Io was composed for the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. It would seem to be located at something of a boundary-point in the composer's development: Io is a synthesis of earlier experiences, above all Lichtbogen and Jardin Secret II, and at the same time it points the way forward.
The greatest difference between this and many of Saariaho's earlier compositions lies in Io's complexity. Linear processes are no longer necessarily laid out only in sequence, but also in parallel. The simultaneous strata are built up as it were of transparencies placed one on top of the other, ultimately forming a new coherent figure.
The idea of treating timbre and harmony as two aspects of the same phenomenon is a clearly recognisable thread running through the music of this century, and particularly in the music coming out of France. Saariaho has not, however, embraced the thinking of such figures as L'Itinéraire school (Murail, Grisey, et al), concepts of timbral transformation by means of spectral analysis, but rather her approach is in this respect more intuitive, in spite of the fact that she has written a number of scientific articles on the relationship of timbre and harmony.
Just as in Lichtbogen, in Io harmony has been found from analysing the sounds of individual instruments. The nonharmonic sounds produced on the double bass and bass flute provide a model both for the chord structure and the tape. Complex and rich sounds are transformed when run through gates of screens of different sizes. Some of the frequencies pass through, others disappear. As and when the timbre changes, so too does the harmonic structure. The harmonic energy of the piece rests on the treatment of timbre as a system, which is formed from the categorisation of instruments and the sounds they produce. They are divided into different categories according to how and where they place themselves along an axis whose endpoints are either clear or noise-like sounds. In this approach, clear clean sounds are considered as consonances, noises as dissonances.
The use of tape as an extension of instrumental sounds is becoming almost obsolete with the advent of the means to allow real-time transformation of sounds. Saariaho has nevertheless used tape, despite the measure of rigidity it brings with it to the concert platform, since for all its drawbacks it does allow the production of extremely precise and subtle shades. To combine the worlds of tape and instruments in performance she has used live transformation - live electronics. For example, the surprising expressivo violin solo found here is subjected to a process of alienation by running it rapidly through a series of different acoustic landscapes.
It would be very tempting at this point to interpret the name of the composition as the Italian word for 'I' - to argue that this is Saariaho arriving at a turning point in her career, offering herself openly and directly to the listeners. Tempting, but not so: the name comes from the third largest of Jupiter's 14 moons. As a name it suits equally well: energy, and colours.
© Risto Nieminen