Words of music

Issue 2/1993 | Archives online, Authors

Pentti Saaritsa believes that the perfect line of poetry is one from which all possible internal uncertainty has been honed away, which is based on lived reality, which stands up for the weak against injustice, which does not play games with words, whose strength lies in its rhythmic logic, above which spreads the sky and below which hell resounds. That is also the nature of his poetry. Resounding language.

In 1984 an ‘experimental’ group of musicians and composers, Toimii!, whose members included Esa-Pekka Salonen, currently principal conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and the composer Magnus Lindberg, commissioned from a work from Saaritsa. The result was Ascensus, a composition – at least in the sense that it is performed in concerts, and that Saaritsa receives the relevant copyright fees. On the other hand, it is also poetry – it has, after all, been published as part of a collection of poetry.

In 1989 Saaritsa wrote a sister piece, Descensus, a ‘tellurian frustration’ for another avantgarde music group, Avanti. The law of gravity, after all, demands that ascent is inevitably followed by descent – or falling.

It was no accident that, of all Finnish poets, the musicians commissioned Saaritsa to write them a score in the form of a poem. Saaritsa is a listener to music who moves over a wide range of styles, a walking databank of classical themes. He likes to play, on his violin, extracts from the most important works of Schubert and Bach. He can also summon forth a respectable sound from a trumpet.

All this, of course, is merely superficial.

Every poet develops his own rhythmic sense and conception of the nature of tonal colour. That so many writers have a deep and undivided relationship with music is no accident, either. The writer lives voluntarily within his own consuming circle of words. Whether he is working or flirting, going to market, across the road or to the pub, he encounters words. But then there is this wonderful form of aural communication, without the sharp edges of the semantic level: for those who work with words, music can seem an almost sinfully refreshing resting place.

Word-scores have been much employed in modern western music. Probably the most well-known example is Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen, which is made up of a selection of phrases that aim to induce in the performer a state of attuned spirituality in which intuition begins to provide impulses which, through his instrument, produce the work. The instructions themselves are not very extraordinary: ‘Play the longest possible notes for as long as you can’. Thinkers like Stockhausen and John Cage opened up important philosophical perspectives on performance and the concert, although there have been disagreements as to the aesthetic value of the ‘scores’.

The instrumental theatre and so-called ‘danger music’ of the 1960s, in particular, gave more emphasis to anarchism and resistance than to making music and the values attached to it. Word-scores were no more than indications:

‘Volunteer for the removal of your spine.’

‘Write a thousand symphonies.’

‘Crawl into the vagina of a living whale.’

‘This concert will end when something happens.’

‘Draw a line with yourself. Go on drawing until you are worn out.’

‘Do not perform.’

In the light of these examples, Saaritsa’s word-scores bring a completely new level (and value) to the conversation: poetry.

Music is a temporal art; but so, when it wants to be, is poetry. In writing his commissioned works, Saaritsa has naturally adopted the role of composer, and placed time at the centre of his pair of compositions: the text rises metaphorically to the top of a mountain, peers over to the other side, and finally, in Descensus, descends a gravelly path to the sea-shore. The poems contain movement and events, and these are connected, in the listener’s mind, to the time axis. But this is also the nature of music, its most essential mode of existence. Movement, time and happening give the work a feeling of process. This is not minimal, but dramatic, art; these poems are not decorative objects, but units with development and culmination. All of these are choices that each composer makes before a single note appears on the paper.

Of course, performance of Saaritsa’s scores demands that the musicians improvise, but only in the details. The composition itself is as strong and unequivocal as the Egmont overture.

A musical analysis of Ascensus could run as follows:

The introduction represents a state in which spirit moves on water. Every composition is preceded by a state in which the world is not yet born. The tempo is slow, and nuances take place at the extremity of quietness. Ascensus also ends in this intermediate state between being and non-being, and thus has a typically cyclical compositional form.

The ascent of the mountain takes place in verses whose internal intensity grows moment by moment. A cry of departure is raised and the mythic mountain-shoulder begins to be visible because of the light that dawns over it. In other words, the point of aim of the composition has been identified. It remains present throughout, like a Wagnerian leitmotif, or, as Chekhov wrote, the rifle that hangs on the wall in the first act – we know from the beginning that it will be used.

As the verses proceed into structure, polyrythms and gradually sharpening tonal colours are introduced, ‘the grinding of teeth’ and ‘the ring of a shield’.

Before the climax, in accordance with classical theory, we hear a series of solo cadences in which each instrument, according to its nature, prepares to peer over to the other side of the ridge.

The cadence is followed, inevitably, by a great commotion: ‘when all speak with one voice / the confusion is at its height’. Thus we are at the climax, the resolution: it is evening. The climax is followed by a short coda which, in the spirit of the aesthetics of western music, recalls some kind of post coitum phase, in which the real value and meaning of all
strivings is pondered. Everything gradually becomes calm.

The visions of Ascensus and Descensus do not give us a great deal of faith in the future. Saaritsa believes that the function of the poet is not so much to write poetry as to look around him: ‘such / is the story of human goodness, its possibility / at its best only like the smile of those who suffer’ (Descensus).

I once made a sarcastic comment to Saaritsa about his consistent pessimism. Saaritsa answered in his collection Bagatelleja, op. 16 (‘Bagatelles, op. 16’):

They accused me of pessimism
so that I lost my temper and tried
to hammer hope home to them in great iron

and I did hammer it.

It did not want to obey,

but I hammered and hammered

until it snapped.

Metal-fatigue, apparently.

I replied in a poem to Saaritsa in honour of his fiftieth birthday:

But are not drink, curse, rust, dirt
and chalk

and the hammered hope of fatigued metal
only dust on the skin of eternal perception.
That which rings with every touch.

That which never grows old.

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