Saariaho’s ‘Circle Map’: electronics and the orchestra

A rare opportunity

Among an increasing variety of musical activities, I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to perform with some of the very fine orchestras here in the UK. It’s rare that this coincides with my work in live electronic performance, but recently I hauled my bass clarinet over to Glasgow to join the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO), with Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, to rehearse for the UK premiere of Kaija Saariaho‘s Circle Map (2012) for orchestra and electronics at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall.

The programme also featured Ravel’s renowned and exhaustive orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1 with soloist Jack Liebeck, and the concert was repeated the following evening at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall.

2014-03-19 15.20.39

Computer interface and orchestral score, monitoring the cued electronics from an onstage position beside the keyboard player.


Circle Map was a joint commission by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Boston, Gothenburg and Stavanger Symphony Orchestras, the Orchestre National de France and the RSNO itself. This sort of multiple commissioning has become popular in recent years and has the advantage of spreading costs and affords a composer and conductor several opportunities to air a new work, rather than prepare for the première and then leave a contemporary piece to sit awaiting all-too-rare future performances. The piece finds its inspiration six quatrains by Persian (or possibly Afghan) poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-73).

Days are sieves to filter spirit

reveal impurities, and too,

show the light of some who throw

their own shining into the universe.       جلال‌الدین محمد بلخى

[excerpt: translation by J Moyne & C Banks, Threshold Books, 1986]

Pre-recorded samples, recited in the original language, form the prime material for the electronics. These humanly sourced sounds have been sonically manipulated to create an electronic part, which is subsequently diffused across six loudspeakers surrounding the large orchestra. The spoken text is imitated or eluded to by groups of instruments, uniting the various live and recorded elements into a coherent and augmented whole. ‘Spatialisation’ across the speakers, and the fine-grained, integrated nature of the fixed-media electronics (still generally referred to as the ‘tape’), afford a perceived sense of flow within this acousmatic ‘aura’.

The vocal delivery (by Saariaho’s IRCAM colleague, Arshia Cont) is imbued with further intimacy, detachment and perhaps even menace by the use of close recording, EQ, delay effects, granular ‘time-stretching’ and an array of reverberation techniques. This processing creates imagined spatial and proxemic environments, or what Simon Emmerson has called ‘a play of spatial frames’, in the  listener’s ‘possible theatre of the imagination’ (Emmerson, 1998*). The rhythm of the poetry folds into and rises above Saariaho’s richly organic orchestral textures, and the electronic element as a whole envelopes the sound of the orchestra in situ, as both combine to traverse the hall towards the listener.

The use of electronics within large-scale orchestral pieces is still relatively rare, and largely confined to fixed-media treatment (the playing of a pre-recorded section or sections). So it is in this piece, where no attempt is made to use live sampling or ‘real-time’ manipulation of the players’ sounds; rather, each sample is delivered with carefully notated synchronisation (inscribed as ‘notes’ within the keyboard part), resulting in a pleasing sense of overall integration.

Susanna Mälkki, former Music Director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, has recorded Circle Map with he Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. She describes the electronics as “discreet” – an important consideration within the already replete environment of the symphony orchestra. I was surprised not to see her retreat into either auditorium to gain a wider perspective on any issues of balance. However, on reflection, she is one of the very few conductors qualified and experienced enough to appreciate the considerations of large-scale mixed electronic music in concert performance. As is the nature of embodied knowledge within the field of music (or any other nuanced, skilled activity), the familiarity and  ‘feel’ of the piece from the podium seem to have provided sufficient feedback to gauge these considerations without the need for such explicit action.

It’s a considerable skill for a composer to blend the acoustic and amplified within the a concert hall setting; the two may potentially inhabit very different sonic realms and perceived ‘spatialities’. Denis Smalley, Trevor Wishart and Simon Emmerson are among those to have written eloquently on this subject (Smalley, 1996; Wishart, 1986; Emmerson, 1998/2007). In performance, the manifold methods of sound production and wide variety of point sources, for example, mean that managing an appropriate integration requires exactitude across all the involved disciplines – conductor, sound engineer, computer technician(s) and orchestral musicians – in an area of collaboration that is still far from common practice.

2014-03-19 14.42.29

Conductor Susanna Mälkki rehearsing Saariaho’s Circle Map with the RSNO in Glasgow (Simon Smith at the keyboard, with Matthew Whiteside monitoring the electronics)


listen to Circle Map on YouTube here

read Kate Molleson’s Guardian review of the UK première of Circle Map at the Usher Hall

* Emmerson’s article discusses Lichtbogen (1986), another of Saariaho’s ensemble pieces with electronics



Emmerson, S. (1998). Acoustic/electroacoustic: the relationship with instruments (p.158). Journal of New Music Research, 27(1-2), 146–164.

Emmerson, S. (2007). Living Electronic Music (ch.6). Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Smalley, D. (1996). The listening imagination: Listening in the electroacoustic era (pp.90-93). Contemporary Music Review, 13(2), 77–107.
Wishart, T. (1986). Sound Symbols and Landscapes 1 (pp.45-52). Retrieved here

2 responses to “Saariaho’s ‘Circle Map’: electronics and the orchestra

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s