Ekstasis is a multi-media collaboration between Kaija Saariaho and Jean-Baptiste Barrière. There are six pieces on the Blu-ray disk. Three were written by Saariaho with the visual elements added later by her husband. The Barrière works were conceived from the outset as multi-media pieces.
The three Saariaho pieces come first. There’s Nocturne for solo violin which is the only piece that doesn’t include electronics. It’s played by Allisa Neige Barrière and is a kind of meditation for extended violin techniques. The video element is the violinist sort of semi superposed on a rippling pond. It’s typical of all the visuals. An image, often the player, is combined with another image, often, as here, of a landscape element. The images merge and flicker in a sort of kaleidoscopic way.
Noa-Noa is inspired by Gauguin’s journals and Sariaaho’s interest in etching. It combines flute (Camilla Hoitenga) with sampled fragments from the journals. The visuals are various blendings of the flautist, a woodcut, flowers and journal pages.
Lonh was a kind of working sketch for L’amour de loin. It combines sung Occitan text by soprano Raphaēle Kennedy with birdsong and sampled male voice reading the text. The visuals here are a portrait style superposition of the singer and medieval manuscripts that becomes more abstract before moving the singer to the side of the frame and finally going full on landscape. It really does have the sense of a journey from an idea to its realisation.
The Barrière pieces are rather different in that two of the three really started with visuals and the third with text. There are two Bruegel /Maeterlinck inspired works. Crossing the Blind Forest is inspired by Maeterlinck’s Les Aveugles, in its turn based on Bruegel’s Parable of the Blind. It’s scored for bass flute, piccolo and electronics. It puts flautist Camilla Hoitenga through her paces using the full range of her instruments to create the impression of the flutes as “leaders” of the group of blind people. The visuals are quite abstract; a shimmering forest, the flautist, spirals of colour.
Violance is based on Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents and the remarkably matter of fact Maeterlinck play it inspired. It combines spoken word (Maeterlinck’s text) with violin Ms. Barrière again), elecronics and sampled children’s voices. The visuals combine a snowy forest and Bruegel with the narrator’s face for the most part. It’s a weird and chilling piece.
Ekstasis is inspired by the works of Simone Weil and Louise Michel. It’s scored for soprano (Kennedy) and electronics. The visuals are more violent; cosmic images; water and flame, for the most part. The music too gets denser and louder as the piece goes on. It builds to an almost frenetic climax as it reaches its conclusion with Michel’s; if Love is insufficient to ensure Brotherhood then all that’s left is Hate.
The difference in approach between the two composers is brought out very well in long (twenty minute plus) interviews with each conducted by Pierre Adrien-Charpy. The Sariaaho interview reveals a desperately shy girl hyper-attuned to the sounds and acoustics of the Finnish forest. She’s immersed mentally in music and sound in a fundamentally unmusical household. She’s so shy that the only musical career she can envisage is organist in a village church where no-one will see her. It seems something of a miracle that she did decide to pursue music. In contrast, Barrière seems to have grown up in an intellectual environment possible only in Continental Europe. He was writing electronic music by the time he was twelve and went on to pursue a doctorate in philosophy and mathematical logic before ending up at IRCAM. That, of course,is where these two pioneers of electronic music first met.
A few words on the Blu-ray disk itself. It’s brilliantly recorded. Besides stereo there’s a genuine PCM 5.1 soundtrack that is truly immersive (though you will have to drive your amplifier very hard to get the full effect). The visuals are lovely and there’s a generous booklet with an essay which is very cerebral but doesn’t really add much to the interviews plus texts of the pieces and short notes on each piece. Subtitles are French and English. Curiously there’s also a CD with straightforward stereo sound recordings of the six pieces.
This is probably the most cerebral thing in any medium that’s come my way in quite a while. If you are up for philosophy expressed in sound and images this is a pretty interesting disk to explore.