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Kaija Saariaho : Laterna Magica

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Published on Nov 17, 2012

Laterna Magica (The Magic Lantern) alludes to the autobiography of the same name by film director Ingmar Bergman. The book caught my eye after many years whilst I was tidying my bookcases in autumn 2007.

In time, as I read the book, the variation of musical motifs at different tempos emerged as one of the basic ideas behind the orchestral piece on which I was beginning to work. Symbolising this was the Laterna Magica, the first machine to create the illusion of a moving image: as the handle turns faster and faster, the individual images disappear and instead the eye sees continuous movement.

Musically speaking, different tempos underline different parameters: the rhythmic continuity is accentuated at relatively fast tempos, whereas delicate shades require more time and space for the ear to interpret and appreciate them.

While I was working with tempos, rhythms with different characters became a major part of the piece's identity: a fiery dance-rhythm inspired by flamenco, a shifting, asymmetrical rhythm provided by speech and an accelerating ostinato that ultimately loses its rhythmic character and becomes a texture.
In contrast to this, there emerged music without a clear rhythm or pulse. This material is dominated by strongly-sensed colourful planes and airy textures, such as the unified colour of six horns, which divides the orchestral phrases. This use of horns points to Bergman's film Cries and Whispers, in which the scenes are often changing through sequences of plain red colour.

When reading the autobiography I was also touched by the way Bergman described the different lights which his favourite photographer, Sven Nykvist, was able to capture with his camera. Part of the text found its way into the piece in German -- for the work was commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic. The extract, in English, goes as follows:

Gentle, dangerous, dream-like, lively, dead, clear, hazy, hot, strong, naked, sudden, dark, spring-like, penetrating, pressing, direct, oblique, sensuous, overpowering, restricting, poisonous, pacifying, bright light. Light.

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