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21 Jul 2019

Saariaho – Asteroid 4179: Toutatis

by Michael Clive

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; strings; percussion.

Kaija Saariaho is a prominent member of a group of Finnish artists who are making a worldwide impact. She studied in Helsinki, Fribourg and Paris. At IRCAM, the influential workshop for modern composition, Saariaho developed techniques of computer-assisted composition and acquired fluency in working on tape and with live electronics. This experience influenced her approach to writing for orchestra, with emphasis on the shaping of dense masses of sound in slow transformations.

Significantly, Saariaho’s first orchestral piece, Verblendungen (1984), involves a gradual exchange of roles and character between orchestra and tape. In the titles of her early linked pair of orchestral works Du Cristal (1989) and …à la Fumée (1990), we see her preoccupation with color and texture.

Although much of Saariaho’s catalogue comprises chamber works, she has turned increasingly to larger forces and broader structures, such as Orion (2004), Laterna

Magica (2008), and Circle Map (2008). Her detailed musical notation includes harmonics, microtones and detailed continua of sound extending from pure tone to unpitched noise.

From the later 1990s onward, Saariaho has turned to opera with international success. In 2016 her exploration of chivalric love’s poetic mysteries, L’Amour de Loin (2000), drew sellout audiences at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and was simulcast in live movie theaters throughout the world. Saariaho has claimed major composing awards including the Grawemeyer Award, Wihuri Prize, Nemmers Prize, Sonning Prize, Polar Music Prize. In 2015 she was the judge of the Toru Takemitsu Composition Award.

Asteroid 4179: Toutatis dates from 2005. In this orchestral work, Saariaho’s inspiration is astronomical: a stony asteroid classified as a near-Earth object. Bulbous and irregular, a bit like a natural stone pestle or an elongated potato, Toutatis is named for a Celtic god worshipped in ancient Gaul and Britain, probably as a protector. Saariaho notes: “I first became interested in Toutatis when reading that it is the asteroid whose orbit passes closest to Earth. When reading more and then seeing pictures of it, I started to find its unusual shape and complex rotation interesting — different areas of it rotate at different speeds. One consequence of this is that Toutatis does not have a fixed north pole like the Earth; instead, its north pole wanders along a curved path roughly every 5.4 days. The stars viewed from Toutatis wouldn’t repeatedly follow circular paths, but would crisscross the sky, never following the same path twice. So Toutatis doesn’t have anything you could call a ‘day.’ Its rotation is the result of two different types of motion with periods of 5.4 and 7.3 Earth days that combine in such a way that Toutatis’ orientation with respect to the solar system never repeats. All these peculiarities, and the fact that Toutatis already has had many collisions with other heavenly objects, inspired me to write this small work…”

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