Kaija Saariaho

Born 1952

Kaija Saariaho



A turning point appeared in the music of the French spectral composers Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey. Their focus on the harmonic series and diverse techniques and atmospheres immediately offered the sonic and expressive possibilities that she had been intuitively longing for. Saariaho soon moved to Paris, which would remain her home, and began working at IRCAM, the legendary electro-acoustic center. Her focus was immediately centered on integrating acoustic instruments and electronics, creating striking works such as Verblendungen (1984) for orchestra and electronics, the first recognised piece in her catalogue. Dedicated to Esa-Pekka Salonen and premiered under his direction with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the composition reflects Saariaho’s attention to sound and development, with the electronics and orchestra traversing the dichotomy between pitch and noise.  The tape part, created solely from a recording of a violin sforzato note and pizzicato note, was created in the Paris studio of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales. The work is filled with ghostly atmospheres and confused boundaries between the acoustic instruments and tape part, notably ruptured halfway through the piece with a solo tape section. The work’s trajectory, continuously moving upward from its violent beginning, ends with an ambiguous and mysterious high whistling.

Another important early commission came from Lincoln Center for the Kronos Quartet, and resulted inNymphéa (1987) for string quartet and live electronics. The structure, in a technique very much inspired by the spectral composers, arose from spectral analyses of the recorded cello. The players also recite phonems and fragments from a poem by Arseny Tarkovksy, which blend into the grainy surfaces of the instrumental parts.  The shimmering textures of the strings and tape are constantly in flux, evolving from sheets of white noise, to melody, to nearly minimalistic unisons, repetition, and pulse.

Kaija Saariaho is among the most prominent representatives of a generation of Finnish composers and musicians who, through their unique musical languages, have had an enormous impact on classical music in the late 20th century. Saariaho has been particularly active at the forefront of electronic music, mostly in combination with acoustic instruments, and has incorporated much of her experience with electronic music and analysis into her instrumental writing. Her unique musical instinct and insights garnered from her electronic research and experiments have resulted in extraordinary and colourful musical forms and panoramas. 

Saariaho was born in Helsinki; neither of her parents were musicians, and her earliest introduction to music was listening to the radio. She has said that she would hear music in her head as a young girl, imagining that it came from her pillow at night. Despite a lack of free spaces in the composition program at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, she convinced the composer Paavo Heininen to accept her into his class. While in the Academy she founded the Ears Open group with fellow students includingMagnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Following in her teacher’s style, and the dominant avant-garde of the time, she initially studied the serial style of composition. However, while continuing her education at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg with composers Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber, she began to find the style crippling: “You were not allowed to have pulse, or tonally oriented harmonies, or melodies. I don’t want to write music through negations. Everything is permissible as long as it’s done in good taste.”

After attending the Salzburg Festival production of Messiaen’s St. Francis of Assisi in 1992, Saariaho was inspired to begin work on what would become her first opera, although far from her first work for voice. 2000’sL’Amour de Loin also marked her first collaboration with two other artists with whom she would continue to work on later pieces: Lebanese writer (and fellow Paris resident) Amin Maalouf and director Peter Sellars. The opera, based on the ancientLa Vida Breve, tells the tale of a twelfth-century prince and countess who fall in love with each other via the tales of a wandering pilgrim. The prince undertakes an extraordinary journey to find the woman he loves, only to die shortly after he arrives and they confess their love for each other. The work deals with timely sociopolitical issues of East and West, identity, and nationalism, with a typical depth of orchestration and color, even including electronics and fragments of medieval modal melodies.

A joint commission by the Berlin Philharmonic and the Lucerne Festival led to 2008’sLanterna Magica. The piece was inspired by film director Ingmar Bergman, whose autobiography shares the same title, and who passed away during the composition of the work. Structurally, the inspiration comes from the concept of the lanterna magica, the first device to create the effect of a moving picture, as individual images are blurred together. This effect manifested itself musically in different rhythms and tempi, whose material changes based on our perception of its speed.  A fragment of the Bergman’s autobiography, in which he describes the types of light captured in film, is also recited in the piece: “Gentle, dangerous, dream-like, lively, dead, clear, hazy, hot, strong, naked, sudden, dark, spring-like, penetrating, pressing, direct, oblique, sensuous, overpowering, restricting, poisonous, pacifying, bright light, Light.” The music surely embodies all of these forms of light in its kaleidoscopic range of expression and effect.

A recent work, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, although already with Gustavo Dudamel having taken up the position previously held by Salonen, is True Fire (2015). The song cycle, Saariaho’s first for male voice, was written for baritone Gerald Finley. She has spoken of initially struggling to find a text that matched her musical idea, and ultimately combined four different sources for the six movements, taking fragments from Seamus Heaney, Mahmoud Darwish, a traditional American Indian song, and Ralph Waldo Emersons’s Spiritual Laws. She writes in the program notes: “It is only now after having completed the work that I see the common ideas in these contrasting texts: our being surrounded by nature, our perception of this and our being part of it.”

Saariaho has won many of the most coveted awards for composition including the Prix Italia, Prix Ars Electronica, Grawemeyer Award, Nordic Council Music Prize, and the Polar Music Prize, and has been in residence at numerous major organizations. In 2011 the Harmonia Mundi label’s recording of L’Amour de Loin was awarded the Grammy award for Best Opera Recording. 

The music of Kaija Saariaho shares much of the vocabulary of other late 20th century music, but expressed in a very personal manner. Her extraordinary attention to colour and her experience with electronic music give her works an astounding range of expression and depth. Her artistic language, above all, is an example of extreme purity and honesty at the intersection of many of different contemporary musical worlds.

Images courtesy of Polar Music Prize and Limelight Magazine