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Born in Finland, Kaija Saariaho lived a childhood embedded in music, playing several instruments. At the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, she studied composition with Paavo Heininen, and later in Darmstadt and in Fribourg with Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber. Her research of new timbres led to the study of new instrumental and computer techniques, which she worked on at IRCAM in Paris, starting in 1982.

Her major works include a violin concerto, Graal théâtre, written for Gidon Kremer; two works dedicated to Dawn Upshaw (Château de l’âme, which premiered at the Salzburg Festival, and Lonh, premiered at the Wien Modern Festival); Oltra mar, premiered by the New York Philharmonic; Orion for the Cleveland Orchestra; and Quatre Instants, written for Karita Mattila. Her first opera, L’Amour de loin, libretto by Amin Maalouf and staging by Peter Sellars, premiered at the Salzburg Festival and won the Grawemeyer Award. Her second opera, Adriana Mater, also on a libretto by Amin Maalouf and staged by Peter Sellars, appeared at Opéra Bastille. A vast oratorio, La Passion de Simone, was commissioned by the Wien Festival, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Barbican and Lincoln Centers. Among the many awards and prizes she received are the Prix Italia, the Musical Award of the North Council, the Nemmers Composition Prize, and Musical America Composer of the Year in 2008.

About Nymphéa, Risto Nieminen writes:

“The string quartet, of all the musical genres the most closely bound to its 200-year history, is perhaps a surprising discovery in Kaija Saariaho’s list of published works. Then again, the ensemble of four string instruments does offer a host of different ways of producing sound, from noise to pure flageolet harmonics. At the same time, Nymphéa formed a natural supplement to the experiments with various string techniques found in Lichtbogen and Io from 1985-87.

“The basis of the harmonic world inhabited by Nymphéa lies in the rich spectra of the cellos sounds, which the composer has analyzed on the computer, using the structures that were revealed as a framework for the harmonies. This also helps to account for the subtitle Jardin secret III, which refers us to Saariaho’s computer software developed at IRCAM and applied in the two previous works in the series.

“Naturally Saariaho goes on to expand her harmonic world with electronic effects. Another semantic ingredient in the mix of sounds is the text to be heard at the close of the work, a poem by Arseniy Tarkovsky (English translation by Kitty Hunter-Blair), the lines of which are delivered in a whisper by the players through the medium of microphones wired up to a sound sampler. Tarkovsky’s melancholic verse, which describes man’s desire to reach for the unknown, begins with the words:

Now summer is gone

And might never have been.

In the sunshine it’s warm,

But there has to be more.

“A second extra-musical echo is in the title of the work, which takes our thoughts to Claude Monet’s lily pads, although I suspect the composer herself was more conscious of the water lily as a physical object, when she writes:

“‘One or two ideas were going around in my mind as I was writing the piece: an image of the symmetrical structure of the lily, bending and taking new shape in the rocking motion of the waves. Interpretations of the same image in different dimensions; on the one hand a one-dimensional surface of colors and forms; on the other the different materials state, and dimensions to be sensed and experienced.’”

Kaija Saariaho’s Nymphéa was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Program note excerpted from the liner note of Kronos’ recording of Nymphéa on Ondine Records.