Kaija Saariaho and Vasco Mendonça

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 4)

In encounters in cities from  Los Angeles to Helsinki, the mentorship of  Finland’s Kaija Saariaho and Portugal’s Vasco Mendonça unfolded smoothly, establishing a joyful professional friendship that was both dynamic and highly productive. Mendonça attended performances of Saariaho’s music around the world – and twice his music was played at the same event as hers. They were able to engage in stimulating intellectual discussions about their work and other artistic matters.  Mendonça found the experience of having a “second pair of eyes” on his work invaluable.

Kaija Saariaho and Vasco Mendonça

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 4)

May 2014

The music deep inside

At age 36, composer Vasco Mendonça is already establishing a name for himself across Europe. Receiving various commissions, from the Festival d’Aix en Provence to the Gulbenkian Foundation, he also represented Portugal at UNESCO’S International Rostrum of Composers. His mentoring year with Kaija Saariaho promises to reveal a sensitive musical connection.

When I first met Kaija we didn’t actually talk about music very much, it was more about life and how certain events can make you aware of who you are and what you do. Music is quite an abstract art, so, as a composer, it’s important for me to try to find a connection with daily life – and use my work to examine myself and my responses to certain situations. I felt Kaija related to this. We also discussed the importance of going as deep as possible into your own sensitivity and how this relates to the character of your music.

I'm inspired by poetry and people. From an early age, I have always been drawn to poetry and, latterly, to poets such as Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin and T.S. Eliot. I’m not a religious person but there is a sort of transcendence that comes with poetry that fulfils some kind of spiritual need in me.

Touch their sensitivity

I have always been absolutely fascinated by people and their behaviour. This fascination finds its way into my work, particularly my theatre work. It’s important to me to connect with people. I welcome any interpretation of my work – even if my original intention for a piece has been missed, whatever someone perceives of it is still relevant and valuable – and, more importantly, it means I have been able to connect with them and touch their sensitivity.

The composition where my heart is, is always the latest one I am working on. So it’s difficult to know which piece of work I am most proud of. From the latest pieces, I am quite happy with the opera The House Taken Over and the orchestral piece Group Together, Avoid Speech commissioned for the Gulbenkian Orchestra’s 50th anniversary. Curiously enough, both of these were written with tight deadlines.

Body percussion

Recently, I have been working on a percussion piece. I’m experimenting with body percussion, vocalizing, unusual objects Sometimes ideas come from unusual places. One of the sounds I am experimenting with in this piece is the sound of rock hitting rock. This comes from a strange place in my brain, a childhood memory of the shale rock that you find in the north of Portugal, where my family originally comes from.

Somehow that sound forced itself into me and became the source of this particular musical narrative. In the next two years I'll be quite busy with opera, with two new opera commissions.The libretto for one of these should arrive in just a few weeks.

More than composers, I have pieces I'm fond of. Some pieces have been very helpful in suggesting paths for my own development as a composer. Like Birtwistle's Secret Theatre or Donatoni's Spiri, or Britten’s song cycles.

Interestingly, a few years ago I once did a series of programmes for Portugal’s national radio and in each programme I talked about an opera written since the beginning of the 21st century. One of the works I talked about was Kaija’s L’amour de loin. I thought at the time (and still do) it was one of the strongest stage works of the last decade.

La Passion de Simone

My plan for the coming year is to meet Kaija at places and times where her work is being performed. The first occasion will be in Paris at the end of May when I will join her to see a new production of her theatre work La Passion de Simone.

When I first heard I was nominated I was surprised, but once I saw the scope of the initiative and realized what a prestigious programme it was, I was quite honoured to be deemed a candidate.

I expect this programme to help me establish my international career. From an artistic point of view, it’s exciting to know that I will be able to discuss my ideas with such a talented and experienced artist such as Kaija.

Kaija Saariaho and Vasco Mendonça

A year of mentoring

Six months with a mentor (Chapter 3 of 4)

The young Portuguese composer Vasco Mendonça has been steadily developing his craft since discovering jazz as a teenager. Later, he received a thorough grounding in classical music in Amsterdam, London and Lisbon, where he now lives. Over the past decade, his distinctive music has appeared on increasingly important concert platforms and opera stages, but his career recently received a mighty boost through the Rolex Arts Initiative. Interviewed as his mentoring year with master composer Kaija Saariaho approaches its end, Mendonça revealed how the experience has changed his life.

Rolex Arts Initiative: How has your time with Kaija Saariaho been spent?

Vasco Mendonça: What we’ve done was to set a series of meetings where Kaija was having her pieces performed: Our first mentoring days were in France in May, and we later met in the U.K., Norway and Mexico, and we also met in Finland, Austria and Los Angeles. In Mexico and Finland, I also had pieces being performed. We went for dinner, sometimes with Kaija’s family, and we didn’t even necessarily talk about music. But in each city we also had really nice discussions in which we talked about everything: work, the profession, our lives.

What sort of ground did you cover in those meetings?

It was varied every time we met. The first time, I had just received the libretto for the opera I’m about to begin writing, so we discussed that. The second time, I was just finishing a percussion quintet. And, the following time, I was working on an ensemble piece that I’d just finished. This premiered at the Musica Nova festival in February in Helsinki.
So you take pieces that you’re in the middle of writing, as you would with a teacher?
Actually, I’ve brought her mostly finished pieces to talk about. The first thing she said to me in the beginning was, ‘We really can’t do a teacher/student thing. We will have to come up with something more informal.’

She was very impressed with how fully formed you are artistically.

It’s humbling to me and very generous of her to say, ‘I’m not sure I have that much to teach you, but I think it makes sense to have an ongoing dialogue between a younger and a more seasoned composer.’ And she has also been very keen on helping me with other, more practical aspects of my career.

Every time we met, Kaija took the time to introduce me to people, to help me network. For instance, my Musica Nova commission came through her recommendation. To have such a distinguished advocate help me reach ‘cruising speed’ in those exalted circles is a huge advantage. There are so many good young composers these days, the competition is fierce.

In terms of Saariaho’s specific input on your pieces, what sorts of things can you say you’ve learned from her?

We’ve had some conversations about form that were very interesting. With the Musica Nova commission, we discussed my selection of texts: Should the piece be a setting of one or two poems? Should it be in two movements, two poems connected by something? Or should it be one piece featuring two poems? How can you ‘translate’ the feeling of urgency in one poem and the feeling of abnegation in the other one? And how can you formally link them together? Those were immensely helpful discussions.

Saariaho said that, in choosing you as her protégé, a major factor was your interest in opera, which has been such an important part of her own work.

Absolutely. I’m about to begin working on my second opera. Though I haven’t yet started composing it, my discussions with Kaija about the libretto were helpful. To have a second pair of eyes, and such talented and experienced ones, is invaluable because you have to put a lot of thought into what you want to do with a libretto, what type of opera you want to create. There are so many ways you can go with opera.

Are there other areas in which you feel an affinity with her?

We get along well on a personal level. She has a great sense of humour, and a sense of absurdity I share. I can relate to her sensibility, her sensitivity to the world. I think it takes Kaija a while to get to know people and open up, and I am a bit like that too. She’s also a very honest person, and you always know that anything she says is genuine. She talks about everything, her own experiences, her family.

Kaija Saariaho and Vasco Mendonça

A year of mentoring

After a year of mentoring (Chapter 4 of 4)

November 2015

A harmony of musical souls

For young Portuguese composer Vasco Mendonça, the solitary act of composing classical music becomes a rich, fulfilling journey in the company of celebrated Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, who has opened doors and her life to her protégé.

By Sarah Crompton

On a bone-chilling night in February, snow covers the ground of the Finnish capital - but that doesn't stop the music-lovers heading in their droves to the subterranean Music Centre, heart of Helsinki's rich musical life. Somehow the concert-goers fail to spot the celebrity in their midst: the classical composer Kaija Saariaho sits in the main café, anonymous and very quiet.

The elegant 63 year-old is on home turf. She was born in this city and still has a flat here, though she is mainly based in Paris. This was where she began a career as a composer that has made her celebrated around the world. "To journey into Saariaho's music is to be confronted with the darkest and most dazzling dimensions of your subconscious, and glimpses of the existential journeys she has made to find those pieces," says British music writer Tom Service in The Guardian. She is a composer like no other, a conjurer of powerful, dreamlike images.

But today she fades into the background, sitting nursing a black coffee and a bout of flu, waiting for a friend and colleague.

He arrives, fresh off the plane from his home in Lisbon. Vasco Mendonça, 38, already an established composer in his own right, is her Rolex protégé, and this meeting, halfway through the year of mentoring, will be as joyful as the rest of their encounters.

Rich cultural knowledge
Saariaho felt an empathy with her protégé from the first, when she chose him from a shortlist of three finalists in Lyon. "His music is intelligent, well organized and breathes rich cultural knowledge," she says. "It has intensity and intention, but isn't directly emotional. It's going to be fascinating to see how far it will continue to develop."

Initially they didn't even talk about music. "We talked about our lives and how they influence what we do," remembers Mendonça. "I had a very young child and a second one on the way, and so we started talking about that and how vulnerable it makes you feel and the sense of fear that comes with having children. We immediately connected on that aspect because Kaija is clearly someone who is utterly dedicated to her family."

Introducing Mendonça to her world was how Saariaho decided to tackle her mentorship. "For a composer, mentorship is different from what I imagine it might be with artists of other disciplines," she explains. "You can watch someone paint or sculpt or dance or conduct, but composing is a solitary profession. There's nothing Vasco could gain by sitting and watching me compose," she says. "So, instead, I have been looking at and hearing his music, conversing with him about music and life, and bringing him to assist at rehearsals and performances of my music so that he can also get to know my colleagues."

Competitive profession
One of them, the cellist Anssi Karttunen, now artistic director of Helsinki's Musica Nova festival, suggested Mendonça should write a piece to accompany a dance work at the biennial event. "Kaija has been very generous and very active in introducing me to people and facilitating ways for my work to be shown," says Mendonça. "I think that is one of the most important aspects of this programme. There are so many good composers nowadays, but to get to the level of achievement and recognition Kaija has, is something quite unique. And, of course, to be recommended to someone by her can be extremely helpful in such a competitive profession."

But Saariaho's collegiality, not her networking, was key to their rapport. "From the first she was clear that this was not a teacher-student relationship. I have been composing professionally for some time now and I have been doing well in my career. So all the time our discussions have been between a more experienced artist and a younger artist... It has been a wonderful exchange between two composers."

Saariaho, too, feels that the relationship has been one of mutual support. "It's given me a chance to have several interesting discussions with a talented younger colleague - and to get to know his music and ideas better. I really am learning from Vasco when I see music and life and problems through his eyes."

Mexico City
The most memorable conversations of the year were in Mexico where both composers had pieces played at the Festival Internacional de Musica de Morelia. The International Contemporary Ensemble's performance of Mendonça's 15 year-old piano trio had thrilled him. He also found the gracious, 16th-century city of Morelia, with its beautifully preserved curving streets and its frescoed governor's palace enchanting. Then came the excitement of the tumult in Mexico City. "On a crazy drive back from Morelia to Mexico City with a driver who was dodging the traffic", the two had an enlightening discussion about the commission for Musica Nova Helsinki. Mendonça was torn between a number of texts and Saariaho advised him to follow his instinct and compose the poem he was most attracted to, rather than to squeeze two texts into one work. The result was Adultery, based on a poem by the British Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.

Saariaho hopes her feedback has given Mendonça new ways to estimate his work when composing. "It is so important to be able to step back occasionally and see one's own work as an entity, because when composing we have so many details to deal with, it isn't always easy to see the totality. I have encouraged him to express himself more directly and to trust his intuition when it comes to some compositional decisions."

Values in life
Their compositions and sound worlds are quite different. Saariaho is renowned for combining electronic and live music in lush and elaborate compositions, while Mendonça has often worked in chamber forms and has experimented with sounds as basic as rock pounding on rock. His soundscape is austere, sparse.

Saariaho was drawn to Mendonça partly because of his interest in opera and music theatre - the form that has become increasingly important in her own career since L'Amour de Loin premiered at Salzburg in 2000. Mendonça's dark and intriguing opera, The House Taken Over, had just been premiered at the Aix-en-Provence festival when they met. "The human voice is my instrument of choice," he explains. "There's something overwhelming and vulnerable about it. Music is such an abstract art, self- referential, very much outside the world. And the theatre brings it back to earth and anchors it."

This mutual interest - "I related very much to the care and attention Kaija has in her vocal music," Mendonça says - gave them rich common ground for conversation and discovery. An early talk, in Paris, where a new production of her oratorio La Passion de Simone was being staged, concerned a libretto about the seven deadly sins. Mendonça had been commissioned to write an opera on the subject for next year's commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the death of the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. He took the first draft of the libretto with him - as he took a new composition to each of their meetings - and they mulled over difficulties of pacing and the balance between dialogue and exposition.

He has also valued her advice on the very practical issues that face aspiring composers such as publishing and fees. "Oddly enough, in managing your career, you just have to figure these things out as you go along. In that sense, it was very helpful to be able to ask someone about it."

Invitation to Lisbon
In April, Mendonça invited Saariaho to Lisbon, to meet his family - and to see the place where he works. He moved to the Portuguese capital from his birthplace in Porto when he was four, and it was here that he learned guitar, and then piano, taking the first steps towards life as a classical composer. After he began to play jazz, he also discovered he liked composing more than performing and his course was set. "Music has always been my privileged form of communication: composing is a way to express myself, but also an act of sharing with others something that matters for me. More and more I see art as a way to connect," he explains.

In bringing Saariaho to his home, he wanted her to understand his culture and background, to show her the places "where no tourists go", like the little café near his office where he eats lunch every day. It reinforced a relationship forged in nine cities and nine encounters during the year that is likely to continue long after this formal mentorship has ended. "We've established a connection and a personal relationship, and I don't see why it won't continue," says Mendonça.

It also underlined once more the empathy that had brought them together in the first place - the importance of family, of a perspective on the world that extends so much beyond music, yet underpins everything they both do. Saariaho sums it up. "Having a family helps you to keep a healthy relationship with one's work. It makes professional problems and successes relative. It reminds us about the most important values in life, about generosity, equality and independent thinking. And then, of course, being a parent teaches us much about love. Like everything in life, that goes into the music - and brings it richness."

Sarah Crompton is a writer and broadcaster on all things cultural. She writes for The Guardian and Intelligent Life, among other publications. Additional research was provided by music writer and dramaturge Cori Ellison.