KAIJA SAARIAHO — ONLY THE SOUNDS REMAINS — PHILIPPE JAROUSSKY — DAVONE TINES — 2016
This opera is a great adventurous story in many ways. First of all, the composer, Kaija Saariaho is a Finnish woman who lives and works in Paris. She just got an award from an important Foundation. The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Award in the Contemporary Music category recognizes her for breaking down the divisions between acoustic and electronic music.
“When she started studying music at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, she was frustrated at the acoustics of the venues she would attend to hear live performances. Wondering if it was possible to alter characteristics like the volume of the instruments, she began recording them and processing the sound for subsequent playback. In 1982, she moved to Paris to continue her training at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), where she came into contact with the leading exponents of spectralism. The spectralist technique of decomposing sound left a recognizable imprint on Saariaho’s writing in the form of electronic arrangements and computer-generated sounds.” (https://www.frontiersofknowledgeawards-fbbva.es/noticias/bbva-foundation-recognizes-composer-kaija-saariaho-breaking-down-divisions-acoustic-electronic-music/, accessed July 25, 2018)
It is clear it is more than just the use of electronics and electroacoustics and today computerized tools to process the recorded music or the performed music directly and live. It is even more than just working at the level of sound. It provides great possibilities, and today with Artificial Intelligence it has opened doors or rather gates that we could not imagine existed. But in this particular opera, the composer goes beyond this simple problematic. It tries to bring together three traditions, the Japanese tradition of Noh Theater, the America capture of it in the translation by Ezra Pound. Probably one of the greatest English speaking and writing poets of the last two centuries, but he was also a not very clear citizen with his own ideas that did not go the proper way for the USA. To understand the drama of his life and poetry we must keep in mind that Ezra Pound was institutionalized from 1945 to 1958 as criminally insane, which is nothing but a crime against poetry and basic human rights: that kind of psychiatry is torture that could be compared to concentration camps, gulag deportation and some others of the type.
“Ezra Pound, The Poet Who Supported Mussolini, is Released
On 18th April 1958, a federal court ruled that Ezra Pound should be released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington D.C. The poet, widely regarded as one of the most influential of the twentieth century, had been incarcerated for thirteen years.
“(Ezra Pound) is more responsible for the twentieth-century revolution in poetry than is any other individual.” wrote T.S. Elliot in 1935, in an introduction to a compilation of Pound’s works he had curated. Instigating new ideas of form, structure, and style, Pound was a pioneer in the formation of modern poetry, his influence also extending into other art forms. (Posted By Daryl Worthington, date: April 17, 2016, in New Historian, https://www.newhistorian.com/ezra-pound-poet-supported-mussolini-released/6306/, accessed July 25, 2018)
The translations by themselves are worth a trip into the libretto. They have not been changed, apart from one or two small details and both plays (and some others) can be found in EZRA POUND, TRANSLATIONS, © 1926, 1954, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1962, 1963 by Ezra Pound, First New Directions hardbound edition, 1954, containing Tsunemasa, Always Strong, and Hagoromo, Feather Mantle. (https://archive.org/stream/translations00poun/translations00poun_djvu.txt, accessed July 25, 2018)
The first play, Tsunemasa, Always Strong, is the story of a past imperial warrior who was a hero, who killed a lot of people in many battles and was killed on the battlefield. Hence he is a ghost and will never be able to move on since he did not die properly and with the proper rites. Note that’s what he condemned many people to when he killed them on the battlefield. A priest invokes him and he appears as a Spirit who is trying to atone his crimes, his killing people, his shedding blood. This is very Buddhist since atonement is the minimum you must do in such a situation. But we are in a Japanese context since the priest is slightly more than a Bikkhu, a monk. The whole play is based on the existence of a wall between this world and the world of spirits, the other world, the supernatural world. But a priest can enter in contact with it, though not enter it. But his invocation will bring contact with Tsunemasa, as a voice at first, then a form, then a real presence in the night. From what the ghost was at first, “a dream that gazed into our world,” he had turned into wind and rain. “It is an hour of magic” And this contact that remains in the text very allegorical, metaphorical is strong and brings “the sorrow of the heart” when it is time for the spirit to go when “dawn is announced.” And “all that is soon over” but the spirit is in fact redeemed and is able to move on metaphorically of course when all the blood he has shed is transformed in him into a fire that burns him like the Phoenix he quoted earlier. And this burning of his guilty “kamma” or “karma,” “merit” in one English word inside him turns him into “a summer moth” that can fly away into the night. “His brushing wings were a storm. His spirit is gone in the darkness.”
The guilt is in history due to the battle you have to fight, and yet he had the bad merit he accumulate no matter what. Killing is bad “kamma” even if it is to serve and defend your emperor, your country, your life. There is no excuse for killing in Buddhism. But then when you die you are trapped in the Bardo Todol of the Tibetan Buddhists, longing for your “Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State.” And that’s what Ezra Pound provides us in this text: the priest is the intercessor between Tsunemasa and his “kamma,” and the priest enables him, with his inspired and enlightened love, to burn his bad “kamma” and to get on the way to liberation, to integrate himself into the cosmic energy that transports us all.
The second story, Hagoromo, Feather Mantle, is just as beautiful but quite different since it introduces an angel to a Chief Fisherman, Hakuryo, and a Fisherman. The angel lost or dropped his Feather Mantle that enables him to fly and go back to heaven. Hakuryo finds it and decides to keep it and take it home, though of course, he cannot do anything with it except brag about it. Without his feather mantle, the angel is blocked in our world and he will wither and die since he will become like us, a mortal. This feather mantel gives the angel the ability to dance a special dance that no one knows really and Hakuryo wants to learn it, which would be a lot better as for bragging. And that’s the deal they come to. Hakuryo gives the mantle back. As soon as the angel has put it on he can dance the angelic dance, and thus satisfy Hakuryo’s demand, and he is able to move back to heaven. We must understand that an angel in this play has little to do with the Christian angels apart from having wings, feathers, and being able to fly. Strangely enough the angel is not down on earth to do anything good, actually to do anything at all. He does not seem to have a mission of any sort.
In fact, the contact Hakuryo establishes with the angel gives him the possibility to enter a sensual world where senses merge into composite pleasures, sensual merging that is typical of the coming spring, that annouinces the coming spring. The main merged sensuousness is “the breath-color,” “to inhale its [a pine-tree’s] color.” “its color-smell.” The angel is called a Tennin and she is a female angel. The whole play is about the Tennin’s dilemma: he/she cannot go back to the other side into the other world because he/she does not have his/her feather mantle that is in the hands of Hakuryo who wants the Tennin to dance the Tennin’s dance, but the Tennin cannot dance his/her dance without his/her feather mantle and Hakuryo has to trust the Tennin’s word about performing the dance when he/she is given his/her feather mantle back. Hakuryo is shamed by the Tennin’s remark and he yields. At this moment the mantle becomes “the rainbow-feathered garment.” And that is a full symbol as a vault in the sky to be crossed into the other world, but also the symbol of the end of the rain and the coming back of sunshine, the symbol in a way of miraculous things since the Tennin is able to bring and wear the rainbow-feathered mantle in the night under the moon and all its various phases alluded to with “three, five, and fifteen. . . the numbers of the nights in the moon’s changes.”
Tennin then from the female nature of his shifts and gets his body divided and he is both heaven-born and a maid, Amaotome, and this division, this dual nature comes from the pine tree that is the moon’s tree that enabled Hakuryo to blend his smell and his sight into one composite sensuous experience. The pine-tree enables Hakuryo to merge two of his senses into one composite experience and at the same time, the pine tree enables the Tennin, when wearing his feather-mantle, to become dual in his nature, heaven-born and hence male probably, and a maid, Tennin, and Amaotome. And this gives this Tennin the power to reach the moon, to go to the top of the mountain Fuji and to go down to the shore of the sea, to encompass the whole world and even the wind becomes piney, hence a being of the moon. And between this world of the and the real world of Hakuryo, the world of these humans who were born of the sun, there is “a fence of jewels.” Beyond this fence the world of the Moon is the world of Tennins, the supernatural world all men should be dreaming of but no feather falls from the plumage of heaven, making the dream an always thwarted desire.
And this nighttime moon-inhabited world of angels and heaven, of supernatural peace, beauty, dance, and of course love too and inner joy, can hear a song coming from the east, the song of the sun that is going to put an end to this night and make human beings get down from the dream back to real life on earth, on the sea, with rain, gale, and snow on the mountains. Tennin says simply: “Plain of life, field of the sun, true foundation, great power!” and this is the signal of the change and the arrival of spring.
“Hence and forever this dancing shall be called “a revel in the East.” Many are the robes thou hast, now of the sky’s color itself, and now a green garment. And now the robe of mist, presaging spring, a color-smell as this wonderful maiden’s skirt — left, right, left! The rustling of flowers, the putting on of the feathery sleeve; they bend in air with the dancing.”
And this heavenly magic, natural transition from the time of the cold to the time of growth, blooming, fruit-giving and harvest has come with no longer the rainbow colors of the feather mantle because we are beyond the rainbow, we have crossed the fence of Jewels from the palace of the moon God into the fruitful earth in spring, a promise that is blue like the sky and green like nature, that is a shadow of all fulfillment, even if the Tennin is lost to sight, leaving behind a color-smell that is the remnant of the rainbow-colored feather mantle. Spring is like a Tennin on earth, a nymph Amaotome directly rising from Ezra Pound’s all-envisaging cultural vision, from his never forgotten Dante’s Paradiso, “As when in cloudless skies the moon is full, Trivia among those nymphs eternal smiles” (Canto XXIII, 25–33) I must admit this reference to Trivia in the notes added by Ezra Pound himself is sort of iconoclastic in the surreal Japanese atmosphere. After all Trivia in Roman mythology was the goddess who “haunted crossroads, graveyards, and was the goddess of sorcery and witchcraft, she wandered about at night and was seen only by the barking of dogs who told of her approach.” (Zimmerman, J E. (1964). “Trivia”. Dictionary of Classical Mythology. New York: Harper & Row. p. 278)
The result is in both plays a surreal world beyond the real life that is marginalized by the surreal world where angels and spirits live as long as they are not saved by their own confession and atonement. When such an angel makes a mistake and loses his angelic nature it is in the hands and the minds of human beings who come across the situation to trust, forgive and trust again to give the angel his nature back and to receive the promise of a rich spring that will bloom and fructify in abundance. Be good with angels to reap the benefits of your goodness.
We can now deal with the Opera, Only the Sound Remains, available on DVD, © 2016 co-produced by the Dutch Royal Opera, Amsterdam; the Opéra National de Paris; the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto; the Teatro Real, Madrid; and the Finnish National Opera, Helsinki.
The main originality introduced by Peter Sellers, the stage director, is that the two characters (singers) meet after crossing the divide and that meeting in each case is made sensuous, sexual even with the kiss that everyone expects in this connection between here and there, real and surreal, real and virtual. We are in a time when virtual becomes a reality. So the two beings, the human and the spirit-or-angel, can meet in real contact, body to body, lips to lips and if you do not like that you can always refer to Shakespeare and ask the one or the other to give his kiss back to the other or the one.
When this has been said, there is a lot more still to say.
First of all, the whole opera is based on the “fence of jewels” between the real world and the supernatural world, a fence that is as important and yet as evanescent as the one between the night and the day, between the moon in the night and the sun in the day, between the dreamlike, dream-invaded, dream-infested, and dream-dominated night on one hand, and the realistic, spring-oriented, spring-meaningful and spring-harvest-promising day. In the first play, the stage is empty with a backdrop curtain covered with scribblings, doodlings, and drawings more parietal than avant-garde, and expressing the universal eternal confrontation of the living and the dead, life and death. The spirit will cross that backdrop as a shape and a voice at first, hence seen through the backdrop and finally getting on this side of the curtain to encounter the priest in real corporeal and physical terms, including a kiss. Kiss the spirit and he will be redeemed. And he sure is back behind the curtain and the blood he is all colored with now turns into a purifying fire that burns the bad “kamma” and liberates the spirit for his final merging into cosmic energy.
The second play is transformed in many other ways. First, the Chief Fisherman and the Fisherman are merged into one character Hakuryo. That liberates the third position to divide the Tennin in his body, between the Tennin himself, and he is definitely a male, and the dancer who is the female in the Tennin. That is awesome, or plain great, because the Tennin is a man and can encounter Hakuryo as his equal, as a man and another man. This enables us again to have the sensuous and bodily encounter in real terms, as some kind of love-exchange between the two that becomes trust and a promise that will be kept, a promise sealed in a kiss. And it is all Romeo and Juliet again. But it is also an allusion to Salome and John the Baptist but this allusion is completely rejected because Salome is a woman and John is a prisoner and the desire for a kiss his lips is perverse. In our case here the kiss is between two men who exchange it as a mark of trust and promise, even if it is obviously slightly more than just a lip to lip kiss, more a body to body frolicking exchange.
But a similar backdrop curtain is used again but this time with the previous one very far at the back and the new one in mid-stage. This curtain will be used as the “fence of jewels” between the real world and the world of angels. The great symbolism of this curtain, of this fence going up and down, opening the real world to the other world and reclosing it several times, is amplified by the fact Hakuryo will never cross it and only the Tennin and the dancer will and the dancer when she recuperates her feather mantle starts dancing and the final, very final vision will be that of the Tennin and the dancer unifying in the far distance of the other world behind the curtain. This commerce with this fence is a lot more effective than in the first play. It is a real open fence at times, closed at other times, no longer fence but divide, limit that is nothing but a line on the ground and yet the curtain falls, always falls back. This is a direct vision of an allusion to a world where there are frontiers, borders and where these divides cannot be crossed except illegally most of the time and then you become nothing but a refugee just like the Tennin deprived of his feather mantle, and the legitimate inhabitant of this world has deprived the refugee of his feather mantle, of his essence, dignity, identity, power, potency, reduced as he is to beg to get his own property back and that leads to some kind of a ruffle between the two men and yet that ruffle will end in a kiss.
This opera is so strong on the following simple idea. We all have a refugee somewhere we exploit in order to feel bigger, stronger, justified in our ego-centered selfishness, and yet this very refugee there in front of us is also a being of flesh, feelings, blood, and marrow, and somewhere in us, beyond our selfish egotism we can find the sensuous desire to kiss this refugee, hoping this kiss will not be the sign to the Roman soldiers that he is the Christ who has to be crucified, and yet if he were, his crucifixion would be our salvation. Hundreds, thousands of refugees are crucified in the water of the Mediterranean and they are our salvation. But do we know it? Do we know how cruel this feeling is? Strangely enough, those refugees, Trump hates them most and they are the trump-cards of our future, a whole set of Tarot cards, the 21 + 1 major arcana of our life. That’s how I feel about this opera, the two plays together. Maybe salvation can only come from the merging of cultures, ages, people, languages, and the willful trespassing of any divide, invited or not, but always to bring more love than hatred. The Tennin can only get his rainbow-colored feather mantle from us, the thieves and robbers, the pillaging looters of the world. And that mission will give us the beauty of a kiss from an angel and the beauty of a dance by this angel just for us. Go every Sunday in Villette Park in Paris and enjoy the numerous groups of “legal or undocumented refugees” playing their drums and other instruments, dancing and singing in the clearings of this park. Then you can watch the final of the Soccer World Cup and enjoy the very similar French team just out of this multifarious forest Porte de Pantin, behind the Philharmonie and Cité de la Musique. And IRCAM is only 13 tube stations away with lines 5 + 4, which gives 9. If you are superstitious, abstain, but otherwise welcome to Paris-Cosmopolitan-Music.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU