Saariaho Versus Davidovsky: A Comparison and Contrast of Two Electroacoustic Works from 1988

A Brief History of Both Composers

Kaija Saariaho (born October 14, 1952) and Mario Davidovsky (born March 4, 1934) are two seemingly unconnected composers: Saariaho is Finnish, Davidovsky is Argentine, they are not the same age, and they did not attend any of the same universities or study with any of the same teachers. However, both of them wrote a piece of music in 1988 for a solo string instrument and some form of electronic accompaniment. In Saariaho's case, this piece is titled Petals and is written for solo cello and live electronics; Davidovsky's piece is his ninth installment to his famous set of works for various instrumental ensembles and tape (in this case, Synchronisms No. 9 for violin and tape). A brief introduction to their lives and careers will help to illuminate what influences their music.

Kaija Saariaho was born in Helsinki, Finland and studied composition with Paavo Heininen at the Sibelius Academy, in addition to studying with Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber in Freiburg and at IRCAM in Paris. Some of her most prestigious awards include the Prix Italia, the Prix Ars Electronica, the Grawemeyer Award, the Nordic Council Music Prize, and Musical America's Musician of the Year 2008. She has written for and been commissioned by some of the most internationally renowned artists, such as the Kronos Quartet, Dawn Upshaw, and many of the worlds finest orchestras. Her works, especially since her time at IRCAM, tend to highlight an emphasis on timbre and a use of traditional instruments alongside mostly live electronics (which serve to help her endeavor of focussing on timbre and colors).

Mario Davidovsky was born in Médanos, Argentina where he studied composition with Guillermo Graetzer at the University of Buenos Aires. He also studied at what is now the Tanglewood Music Center with Aaron Copland and Milton Babbitt. It was through his connection with Milton Babbitt that he started working at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and thus developed an intense interest in electroacoustic music. In addition, Davidovsky worked with the famous composer Edgard Varèse as his personal technician (Varèse would describe the sounds that he desired and Davidovsky would tweak the electronics to develop these sounds). Davidovsky has won most of the highest awards offered to composers, including (among many) the Pulitzer Prize, Guggenheim fellowships, the SEAMUS Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Aaron Copland-Tanglewood Award. Unlike Saariaho, most of Davidovsky's works since the mid-1970s have been non-electronic (his Synchronisms series is the obvious exception).

Some Primary Elements of Petals and Synchronisms No. 9

In analyzing these two pieces (by two very different composers), one is presented with many challenges that traditionally plague anyone who endeavors to analyze electroacoustic music. One issue is that electroacoustic pieces often only have their use of technology in common. This certainly holds some water when speaking about these two pieces, and even then their use of technology is very different: Saariaho uses live electronics and Davidovsky uses a pre-recorded tape. So, essentially their use of technology (unless Davidovsky used an SPX90 harmonizer to produce some of the sounds on the tape, which is entirely possible) is limited to the fact that there will be a stereo sound system on stage during the performance.

Another issue is that analyses of electroacoustic works tend to fall back on compositional process, according to Lelio Camilleri. It is, perhaps, fitting to start with the difference between the two compositional processes with which these composers are working. In Saariaho's piece, everything is about timbre; the notation, therefore, reflects this emphasis on tone and color. She goes to great lengths to describe every extended technique that is to be used on the cello and what effect it is going to have on the sound. Even when describing the electronic elements of the piece, she emphasizes what the desired sound is to be, so if you don't have the required equipment, you at least have an idea of what timbres that Saariaho is looking for. Therefore, in terms of written notation, there are considerably fewer written notes than in the Davidovsky, but a great variety in the sounds produced, although you don't always see what you are creating (For example, the slightly varying glissando with the upper finger moving constantly on an artificial harmonic will produce "vividly varying pitches" according to Saariaho's performance notes, but in the written score you only get the two notes on the opposite ends of the glissando). In stark contrast, Davidovsky's notation is very specific in terms of written pitches and as close to standard notation as possible. If there is a sound event that defies the capabilities of standard music notation, Davidovsky will approximate (and he says so in the performance notes), such as his block noteheads that hover around the pitches of whatever is happening in the tape part. In fact, there is not a single non-standard extended technique used in the violin part of this particular Synchronisms (the closest thing is a double-stopped bartok - or snap - pizz). One thing as far as methodology is concerned that these pieces have in common is the fact that the electronic portions have the effect of adding a great deal of timbral variance to the sound. Even still, the amount of color produced solely from the cello in Petals is far more than that of the violin in Synchronisms No. 9. The harmonizer and reverb in Saariaho's work, then, have the effect of amplifying the timbral variance that is already taking place, as opposed to solely being the accompaniment to a solo instrument. The flip side to that is that the counterpoint in the violin work is of much more importance and even becomes a compositional focal point with which Davidovsky makes brilliant use, whereas Petals has little to null counterpoint.

A primary difference in these two works, and quite possibly the most important factor in contrasting the two, is the amount of acousmatic sound (hearing without seeing). In a performance of the Saariaho, you would see a direct link to almost everything that you are hearing. Even with the electronics, as they are live, you would see the technician, if you will, turning the knobs or pushing the buttons on whatever machine that is creating the reverb (unless, of course, you are producing a modern performance using a completely automated laptop running MaxMSP). With the Davidovsky, contrarily, you have an entire orchestra, so to speak, that you would not see. In addition to that element, the sounds that are coming from the tape in the violin work are most certainly of a more phenomenological nature, which is to say that you hear the sound without reference to it's source. There are certainly varying degrees of this, but it is safe to say that Saariaho only briefly touches (or would "skims the surface" be more appropriate?) on this phenomenological technique when the cello piece uses different bow techniques and heavy amounts of reverb and microtonal pitch shifting to create a sound that is certainly not traditionally associated with a cello. Even then, if you were sitting in a live performance (which, after all, is what these pieces were intended), you would see that the cellist is using extreme amounts of bow pressure creating a very scratchy, beginning-elementary-school-student sound. Whereas with the Davidovsky piece, there are sounds that you neither see the source from which it is coming nor do you have an idea from what the sound was produced.

Sonograms and Recordings of Both Works

For the final element of contrast between the pieces, there is a sonogram of each below. These are useful in visualizing the sounds that standard notation has a problem notating, as is, generally speaking, the problem with electroacoustic music. Especially in the Saariaho work, which is somewhat aleatoric in its visualization (not to be confused with notation of intent) of timbre, you can see what is created in a very accessible way. Note that the Saariaho is much more heavy at the lower end of the harmonic spectrum, which naturally comes with the fact that it is a piece for cello. However, with the tape in Synchronisms No. 9, it would be more than possible to access that register, but overall it seems to be more balanced. The sonograms also give a clear indication of form, and especially in terms of the climaxes, the Davidovsky is unmistakable.

Saariaho - Petals


Davidovsky - Synchronisms No. 9



1. Camilleri, Lelio. "Electro-Acoustic Music: Analysis and Listening Processes." 1993. URL:, 12 March 2001.
2. Chasalow, Eric. "Mario Davidovsky: An Introduction." URL:, 5 May 2009.
3., 5 May 2009.

1397 Words

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License