The past resembles the future more than one drop of water resembles another.
– Ibn Khaldun, 14th century historian
Performing in the intimate setting of a private Mt. Gretna home, violinist Miranda Cuckson compares two glorious musical “drops of water”: Bach’s second partita and Finnish living composer Kaija Saariaho’s Frises. The Bach’s partita, has been characterized as “excerpts from eternity,” and “the purification of time,” and Saariaho uses it as a point of departure for her composition.
Hearing the two works back-to-back is a rare chance to erase the superficial differences of centuries and experience the shared humanity of these pieces.
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Notes by Kaija Saariaho
Frises (Friezes) was born of violinist Richard Schmoucler’s request, who told me his idea of combining different works around Bach’s second partita for solo violin, particularly in relation to the last part, the Chaconne. He asked me to compose a piece to be performed after Bach’s Chaconne and start it with the note that ends the movement, the D.
My piece, which I wrote in 2011, has four parts. I focused in each of them on the idea of one historical ostinato variation form, using as starting-point carillon, passacaglia, ground bass, and chaconne. There are four variations around a theme, a harmonic process, or other musical parameter.
To expand the ideas and possibilities of the instrument, I added an electronic dimension to the work. According to its character, each part has a different processing. In general, and in accordance with the score, prepared sound materials are set off by the musician during the piece. These materials are completed by real-time transformations of the violin sounds.
My aim in composing this piece was to create a rich work for violin with four very different and independent parts. The first part, Frise jaune (Yellow Frieze), is a prelude, a flexible improvisation around a constant D, colored by harmonics and the electronic part consisting of bell sounds. This part is also inspired by the idea of carillon, a continuous melodic variation.
The second part, Frise de fleurs (Frieze of Flowers), is based on a harmony created on a ground bass. Sequences of successive chords are gradually enriched before opening to achieve a more free and lyrical development.
The third part, Pavage (Paving), is inspired by transformations of a source material by a mathematical process where a frieze is a filling of a line or a band by a geometric figure without holes or overflow, as in paving. But I do not work in the sense of perfect symmetry – as with the cobblestones of a patterned ground – rather to create continual metamorphosis, in the sprit of some M. C. Escher’s images, though less consistently.
The last part, Frise grise (Gray Frieze), is like a strange procession, solemn, fragile, but at the same time resolved. The idea of passacaglia is here realized with slow triplets, the constant accompaniment of the left hand pizzicati on three strings, while the melody is evolving on the fourth, which is not part of the accompaniment. The thematic material evolves, descending slowly from E, the highest string, to G, the lowest. The music finally reaches the initial D, double-stopped, restoring us to the beginning.
The titles are inspired by the mathematical ideas mentioned above but also by Odilon Redon’s painted friezes, which I saw recently in an exhibition dedicated to his work – especially the Yellow Frieze, Frieze of Flowers, and Gray Frieze.
Partita No. 2 for solo violin, BWV 1004 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Notes by Miranda Cuckson
JS Bach composed his three Sonatas and three Partitas for solo violin between 1703 and 1720 in Weimar and Cöthen. They were published in 1802 by Nicolaus Simrock. Though they were not widely performed until Joseph Joachim brought them into his repertoire in the mid-late 1800s, they were very much part of an exploration of solo violin writing that had been burgeoning in Germany. Among the new works Bach likely knew were the solo partitas of Westhoff, and violin pieces by Biber, Pisendel, Walther and Vismayr. With his surpassing skill and artistry, however, Bach took this medium to a level that remains the inspiration for many composers for the instrument.
The six Bach works are a timeless achievement in their use of the violin’s polyphonic potential (through chordal writing and implied harmonies in single-line passages), in their expression of a huge gamut of emotions and characters, both exalted and earthy, and as a unified body of music linked by aspects of form and possible religious subtext. In these pieces, Bach demonstrated how to combine gravitas, liveliness, virtuosity and sheer compositional ingenuity in music for the solo violin, giving the instrument a multi-dimensionality and independent presence more associated with keyboard instruments. Whereas the Partitas present sequences of Baroque dance forms such as Sarabandes and Gigues, the Sonatas are in the four-movement, slow-fast slow-fast “sonata da chiesa” form, incorporating free-flowing preludes and brilliantly devised fugues.
The Partita No. 2 consists of four dance movements – Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue – followed by a monumental Chaconne. This Partita was a mournful response to the sudden death and burial of his wife, Maria Barbara, while he was traveling. Its opening dance movements, can be interpreted as looking back fondly but sadly at an energetic life. The subsequent Chaconne lets loose an outcry of grief that builds and falls in huge waves; its inexorable 3/4 rhythm and bass line seem to convey the onward flow of time. A chaconne is a slow dance in 3 that originated in Spain; as a musical form, it is a set of variations built on a repeating ground bass. The piece builds inexorably in the three large sections, the middle one a transcendently beautiful epiphany, as the mounting waves of the D minor opening section give way to a sublimely tender and peaceful D major.
Kaija Saariaho is a prominent member of a group of Finnish composers and performers who are now, in mid-career, making a worldwide impact. Born in Helsinki in 1952, she studied at the Sibelius Academy there with the pioneering modernist Paavo
Heininen and, with Magnus Lindberg and others, she founded the progressive ‘Ears Open’ group. She continued her studies in Freiburg with Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber, at the Darmstadt summer courses, and, from 1982, at the IRCAM research institute in Paris – the city which has been most of the time her home ever since.
At IRCAM, 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 its emphasis on the shaping of dense masses of sound in slow transformations. Significantly, her first orchestral piece, Verblendungen (1984), involves a gradual exchange of roles and character between orchestra and tape. And even the titles of her next, linked, pair of orchestral works,
In the profusion of large and small works which Saariaho has produced in recent years, two features which have marked her
whole career continue to stand out. One is a close and productive association with individual artists – not least Amin Maalouf and Peter Sellars, as well as the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, the flautist Camilla Hoitenga, the cellist Anssi Karttunen, the soprano Dawn Upshaw and, the pianists Emmanuel Ax and Tuija Hakkila . The other is a concern, shown equally in her choice of subject matter and texts and in the profusion of expression marks in her scores, to make her music not a working-out of abstract processes but an urgent communication from composer to listener of ideas, images and emotions.
Saariaho has claimed the major composing awards in The Grawemeyer Award, The Wihuri Prize, The Nemmers Prize and in
2011 was awarded The Sonning Prize. In May 2013, Saariaho was awarded the Polar Music Prize. In 2015 she was the judge
of the Toru Takemitsu Composition Award. Always keen on strong educational programmes, Kaija Saariaho was the music
mentor of the 2014-15 Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative and was in residence at U.C. Berkeley Music Department in the autumn 2015.
In 2015 the song cycle True Fire was premiered by Gerald Finley and Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo
Dudamel. Her opera Only the Sound Remains was premiered in March 2016 at The Dutch National Opera. Other performances will follow in Paris, Helsinki, Madrid and Toronto. Kaija Saariaho’s harp concerto Trans got the world premiere in August 2016 by Xavier de Maistre and The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ernest Martinez-Izquierdo at the Suntory Hall, Tokyo.
American violinist and violist Miranda Cuckson delights audiences with her expressive playing of a large range of music, from the newest creations to music of older eras. She has in recent years been deeply and widely involved in contemporary music. Active internationally as a soloist and chamber musician, she is passionate about the creative and communicative role of the performer/interpreter in the artistic process. Her recording of Luigi Nono’s “La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura” for violin and electronics with Christopher Burns (Urlicht AV) was named a Best Recording of 2012 by the New York Times.
Over the past year, she premiered a new violin concerto written for her by the Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas, with its co-commissioning orchestras: the Suntory Festival and Tokyo Symphony with Ilan Volkov, the Staatsorchester Stuttgart with Sylvain Cambreling, and the Orchestra of Casa da Música in Porto with Baldur Brönnimann. She also gave the world premiere of Mexican composer Marcela Rodriguez’s Violin Concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico and Sylvain Gasançon, and the New York premiere of the Violin Concerto by Michael Hersch with Ensemble Échappé and Jeffrey Milarsky.
Miranda made her Carnegie Hall (Stern Auditorium) debut in Walter Piston’s concerto with the American Symphony Orchestra. She appears in concert halls large and small, schools and universities, and informal spaces. Venues have included the Berlin Philharmonie, Teatro Colón, Suntory Hall, Library of Congress, Miller Theatre, Guggenheim Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Strathmore, Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music, and the Marlboro, Bard, Lincoln Center, West Cork, Bridgehampton, Portland, Music Mountain, Sinus Ton and Bodensee festivals.
Her ongoing engagement with older music includes all the concerto and sonata repertoire and the solo works of JS Bach. She has performed the complete cycle of Beethoven Sonatas with pianist Thomas Bagwell. She has collaborated in concert with composer-performers Michael Hersch, Huang Ruo, Vijay Iyer, Nina C. Young, and Philip Glass. She frequently works both with emerging young composers and with a slew of celebrated composers from around the world.
She has released ten lauded albums. Her most recent album – solo music by Wolpe, Carter and Ferneyhough (Urlicht AV) – has been praised by Brian Ferneyhough and added to her varied discography. For her first CD, she recorded the Ponce and Korngold concertos with the Czech National Symphony, on Centaur Records. She subsequently was awarded grants from the Copland Fund (four times in a row) to pursue her interest in 20th-century American violin music and record works by Ross Lee Finney, Donald Martino, and Ralph Shapey.
She is founder/director of Nunc, a member of AMOC (American Modern Opera Company), an artistic advisor at National Sawdust, and member of counter)induction. She was the founding violinist of the Argento Chamber Ensemble, American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) and Momenta Quartet.
She is continually engaging with various forms of art. She has performed the Barber Concerto with the New York City Ballet, Stravinsky Duo Concertant at BAM with the State Ballet of Georgia, and Stravinsky Concerto for the Balanchine centennial.
Miranda studied at Juilliard, starting in Pre-College when she was nine, through her DMA degree (with some years away from school between her college degrees). She was a Starr Fellow and won Juilliard’s Presser Music Award, and the Richard F. French Prize for her doctoral dissertation on Ross Lee Finney, his violin works and his folk music background. Her teachers included Robert Mann, Dorothy DeLay, Felix Galimir, Shirley Givens, Fred Sherry and the Juilliard Quartet. Now a sought-after teacher herself, she is on faculty at the Mannes School of Music/New School University, college and prep divisions.
She is a US citizen and her parents, both musicians, are of Austrian/English and Taiwanese origin.