A-Level Revision

Kaija Saariaho – Petals

Kaija Saariaho has provided us with a wonderful set work packed full of amazing music. If you don’t know the music of Kaija Saariaho then you might like to listen to some of her other pieces – it’s all Wider Listening afterall.

But I am guessing students may ask the following questions:

“What on earth is this”

“Do we have to listen to that again”

“This isn’t really music is it”

Just some of the comments you hear when you play a piece like this. But it is music, just not the conventional music that we are all so used to. It is a wonderful piece full of so much, and there is plenty that can be included in an exam.

I wrote similar comments in my blog about the Cage Prepared Piano Set work – we need to look at all the things that actually do make this music and embrace them in preparation for the exam.

Lines of Argument

The thing is this piece is great because it has some clear lines of argument and some clear ways into discussion:

It is Avant Garde

It is a Spectral Soundscape

It has a Celestial Atmosphere

It brings together Noise & Cleanliness – a bit like Consonance & Dissonance

It explores the finest possible degrees of change

There is no doubt that Saariaho explores sound in this piece, and I think this is a clear line of argument.

Example Introduction

Lets see what an introduction to this piece might look like in an A-level Essay:

“Petals” was composed in 1988 by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. It is a piece that is Avant-Garde in its approach, seeking to explore new sounds and push the boundaries of cello writing. Using a Spectralist approach to composition, Saariaho explores the possibilities of the cello and uses electronics to adapt and transform these sounds. Whilst the piece doesn’t concern itself with traditional and conventional compositional techniques it does explore sound and music in a unique and exciting way. In this essay I am going to consider how Saariaho created such an array of timbres and put together a piece of music that sought out new directions in composition.

Now the above isn’t perfect, but I think it is important to start an A-Level essay with some context and a clear line of argument for your essay. That way you can keep referring back to this whilst exploring the elements selected by the exam board.

Key Features

For this piece I can’t believe they wouldn’t ask you to comment the performing & instrumental forces at play here. This is a monophonic piece, with little to no melody or harmony and a structure that is far from conventional. Texture, melody and harmony are therefore unlikely elements for discussion in the exam – although you never know. timbre & instrumental techniques would however be a rich source of discussion.

I am not going to recreate the notes provided by Pearson as that wouldn’t be useful, but those notes are well worth looking at. What I want to do is just bring together my thoughts on this piece.

What I think is exciting is that this piece is exploring new ground on the cello, and I like that idea of the “finest possible degrees of change”. Music is constantly evolving and changing and without that we wouldn’t have some of the wonderful sounds we have today. I am sure there are film composers out there that have benefitted from the concept of heavier bowing on the cello to make a rather gritty and noisy sound – perfect for a film score. It is important for us to think about music as a language, and over the years that language has been used in so many ways. But Bach was just as revolutionary as Saariaho and Mozart stepped into the same kind of new ground as she has done. Music has been evolving for years.


But what we get here is an evolution and a movement away from so many conventions, and that is what makes the piece so exciting. It is something that is going to be performed in a school summer concert, well maybe, but it is something that teaches us so much.

It teaches us the power of an instrument, the capabilities of an instrument and the sheer soundscape that is out there waited to be discovered. It gives us inspiration for our own compositions and it gives us ideas for performance and the details that we can go in to with dynamics. In the exam, it would be a great piece to write about because there is so much to evaluate. Quite simply, what does actually make this music even when popular opinion wouldn’t say it is.

Wider Listening

I love that way it can be linked to Hermann and the Psycho Score. Hermann was keen to represent the knife in the famous murder scene in the shower. Using a combination of high pitch and a clear string technique, he was able to create the perfect music. Anyone in the world would probably recognise the music from that famous scene. And yet it wasn’t a sound we would have heard in a Mozart symphony or the latest Ed Sheeran hit. It is a sound that is very much music and very much about taking sound (and silence) and using it to its full potential.

In the same way that Britten pushed boundaries in the War requiem with his heavy use of the Tritone, Saariaho was keen to use timbre and instrumentation to represent the petals of waterlilies and the wet muddy water that lies beneath them. You could link this piece to various film scores or you could link it to other 20th & 21st century works that seek to go in a new direction – John Cage being a great starting point. You can also look at how The Beatles & Kate Bush used technology.


Reverb is one of the new technological features of this piece and often confused with Echo. Reverb is quite simply the extension and elongation of sound. It is the sound that you hear in a big church or chapel when the music stops. The best example on recording of Reverb is the LSO Live recording of Mahler 8 in St Pauls cathedral. Go to the end, turn up the speakers and just embrace the beauty of those final moments – and the amazing 6 seconds of reverb at the end!

Love it or Hate it, we can learn so much from this piece and it links back to so many other pieces. It is a great choice for the Edexcel Anthology and in fact any exam board could use this piece to open students minds! By embracing the unconventional we learn more about the true power and nature of music & sound.

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