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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".
Translated by Louise Mitchell
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