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Kaija Saariaho

Publisher: Chester Music

Only The Sound Remains (2015)
Commissioned by Dutch National Opera, Finnish National Opera, Opera de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid and Canadian Opera Company.
Chester Music Ltd
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
1 Hour 55 Minutes
vocal ensemble (SATB)
countertenor, bass baritone
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Programme Note
Kaija Saariaho Only The Sound Remains (2015)

Only the Sound Remains combines two short operas inspired by Nôh dramas: Always strong (original title Tsunemasa) and Feather mantle (Hagoromo), based on translations by Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa.

In Always Strong, a young lute player named Tsunemasa returns as a spirit to the court following his death under violent circumstances. When alive, his playing on the Biwa lute was erotic and heavenly but he cannot find happiness again. The monk Gyōkei contacts the spirit and offers the Biwa lute before the altar of the deceased and performs a service with music. Tsunemasa’s spirit touches the lute briefly before disappearing slowly.

In Feather Mantle, a fisherman named Hakuryō goes fishing with his companions and finds a beautiful robe hung on a pine branch. When he attempts to take it home as a family heirloom, a celestial maiden appears and asks him to return the robe to her. At first, Hakuryō refuses to return it. However he is moved by the celestial maiden who laments that she cannot go home to heaven without it. The fisherman argues with her and finally promises to return it if she will show to him her dance or at least part of it. She accepts his offer and eventually disappears in the haze, beyond the peak of Mount Fuji – only the sound remains.

Preview the score

The New York Times Best Classical Music of 2018: For all its orchestral and choral lushness, this composer’s 2000 opera “L’Amour de Loin” has an intimate quality. Her latest opera, “Only the Sound Remains,” which had its American premiere last month at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, manages almost the opposite: The genuinely intimate work — for two singers, a dancer, a background vocal quartet and chamber ensemble — gathers full-scale musical richness and powerful thematic resonance. Based on two Japanese Noh plays, one about a young monk transfixed by the ghost of a dead man he prays for, the other about a fisherman who finds the feather mantle of a moon spirit, proved subtly riveting and wondrously spiritual in an imaginative, simple Peter Sellars production.
Anthony Tommasini , New York Times ,05/12/2018
In a program note, Ms. Saariaho, whose “L’Amour de loin” was performed to acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016, explains that in “Only the Sound Remains” she wanted to create an intimate opera that would play effectively in a large space. She achieved that goal compellingly... Ms. Saariaho’s music is rich with sustained sonorities, shimmering harmonies and slides. Wavering masses of sound are jarred with squiggly instrumental riffs. Plucked phrases on the kantele and the strings seem at once delicately spiritual and skittishly angular. The score risks sounding amorphous at times, but Ms. Saariaho prevents this by injecting shards of dissonance, elusive harmonies that slip and groan, and spiraling figures that create moments of dizzying intensity... Alas, there were just two performances. The offerings of this White Light Festival are considerably reduced from earlier years. “Only the Sound Remains” must come back to New York for a longer run.
Anthony Tommasini, New York Times,18/11/2018
The text and sounds of Saariaho connect with the painting [by the Ethiopian artist Julie Mehretu]. The massive shadows of a monk, a spirit, an angel projected upon light canvases. The images created are of an unreal beauty. Light and dark, distance and proximity, earthly and heavenly all go hand in hand. Conductor André de Ridder ensures in an admirable way that the sounds of the instruments and the voices of the singers project from the stage. In carefully selected passages they are transformed by the electronics and lay like a garland around the audience.
Biëlla Luttmer , deVolkskrant,18/03/2016
Saariaho’s symphonic soundscapes benefit from their brevity and compact intensity, where her longer operas sometimes suffer from intermittent monotony. With Only the Sounds Remains, the Finnish composer has created two intense experiences as a double bill, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of length. Saariaho’s music originates from spectralism, soundscapes focusing on colour and texture. Through Eija Kankaanranta’s kantele play, Camilla Hoitenga’s variety of flutes, and the plethora of percussion managed by Niek Kleinjan, the composer creates her distinct ethereal style. […] Saariaho’s fascinating application of electronica enriched her score. David Poissonnier’s sound projections seamlessly entwined the music with electronics.These effects do not function as instruments, but enhanced her music with glowing aureoles, outstretched tones, and rhythmic vocal repetitions. Exciting peaks emerged through the remarkable stereophonic effects that created a surround sound enveloping the audience from all sides, often with ghostly results. Saariaho composed specifically for Jaroussky’s angelic countertenor. She builds a captivating vocal world, revealing a refreshingly different side to the famous singer. With the electronics his highly piercing voice seemed surrounded by a halo, entrancing your mind, making you forget everything except the beauty on stage. […] Jaroussky and Davone Tines, whose earthly, deep voice exquisitely contrasted the countertenor’s rarified voice, generated a sensuality that Sellars suspensefully guided through Saariaho’s slowburning musical tension, resulting in several highly charged moments on stage.
David Pinedo, Bachtrack,17/03/2016
There is mainly a lot of twinkling meditative music, with a few characters on stage in front of a life-size abstract painting and with an ingenious light direction that gives the show atmosphere, color and emotion. It is simultaneously state of the art yet, considering its form, just as traditional as an opera by Monteverdi. It is archaic and modern, cleverly balanced between East and West, earthly and spiritual.
Oswin Schneeweisz, Theaterkrant,16/03/2016
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