Saariaho, Kaija

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Kaija Saariaho


For the Record…

Selected compositions

Selected discography


A composer of immense imagination and creative power, Finland’s Kaija Saariaho is known for her spellbinding music, which challenges the modern stereotypes of classical music as a cerebral, convoluted, and distant art. Indeed, listeners experience her music as an overwhelming primal event, a mystical encounter providing glimpses of a deeper reality that escapes the regulated, linear consciousness of everyday life. Underneath tonality, which she does not reject, Saariaho explores the magical universe of musical colors, timbres, and inner forms; underneath the linear temporal and narrative structure of much of traditional and modern classical music, she searches for the profound, infinite, sacred time which introduces the human soul to the fullness of being.

Born on October 14, 1952, in Helsinki, Finland, Saariaho studied art at the Helsinki University of Art and Design. From 1976 to 1981, she studied composition with Paavo Heininen, at the Sibelius Academy. As a student, she was one of the leading members of Korvat auki (Ears Open), a group of young Finnish composers, founded in 1977, who rejected then-current musical styles and sought new modes of expression. As her colleagues gradually became the accepted new wave of Finnish composers, Saariaho, a restless spirit, left Finland in 1981, in search of new artistic horizons.

Her first stop was the Statliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, Germany, where she studied with Brian Fer-neyhough and Klaus Huber. In 1982 Saariaho arrived in Paris, quickly finding a place for herself in the French capital’s musical life. Deciding to study electronic music at the Institut de Récherche et de Coordination Acoustique-Musique (IRCAM), she not only expanded her compositional procedures but also found a congenial group of musicians who believed that the art of composition implied a constant search for new techniques and forms. In particular Saariaho was fascinated by the idea that the essentially mysterious nature of sound can never be completely encompassed by knowledge. While critics have attempted to classify Saariaho’s works into discrete categories, such as “more melodic” and “more sound-oriented,” these distinctions are not helpful to the listener, since both her early pre-electronic compositions and her later works, which incorporate computer techniques, clearly exhibit her ability to create music where different dimensions, such as melody, harmony, or timbre, seamlessly coexist in one universe.

One imagines that Saariaho’s apprenticeship at IRCAM was rather brief, since she emerged, almost instantly, as an established French composer. While it may be tempting to define 1982 as a watershed, her music totally defies ethnic, cultural, and historical categorization. There is no fundamental difference between the Saariaho who in 1977 wrote Bruden (Brides), based on a text by the Swedish poet Edith Södergran and the later, post-1982 Saariaho, who steeps herself in Rilke, Saint-John Perse, and troubadour poetry. Furthermore, labels such as “traditionalist” and “modernist” do not work for this composer, who finds inspiration in natural phenomena, art, medieval poetry, and computer technology.

In Laconisme de l’aile (1982), Saariaho conjures up the experience of birds in flight by enhancing the expressive potential of the flute (the flute and the cello are her favorite instruments) and a voice reciting poetry. Vers le blanc, composed the same year, explores, through the medium of taped sounds, modalities of three-voice harmonies. In subsequent compositions, working with various instrument groupings, Saariaho blends live performance with electronic effects. For example, in Verblendendungen (1984) for orchestra and tape, the performers trace an anticlimactic trajectory from a dramatic opening instant. Lichbogen (1986), for nine performers and electronic effects, was Saariaho’s first attempt to write music with the help of the computer. Having analyzed the sound spectra of particular effects produced by the cello, she applied this information to create new harmonies. This hauntingly suggestive work introduces the listener to the infinite world of sound.

Composed for the Kronos Quartet, Nymphea (1987), also combining live performance and electronic effects, creates musical reflections of imagined or perceived natural forms. Interestingly, lo (1987), a structurally complex piece for chamber group, tape, and electronics, contains a tape solo that Saariaho dedicated to the Russian film director Andrey Tarkovsky, who had died

For the Record…

Born on October, 14, 1952, in Helsinki, Finland; married Jean-Baptiste Barrière; two children. Education: Attended Helsinki University of Art; attended Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, 1976-81; received diploma from the Statliche Hochscule fur Musik, Freiburg, Germany, 1982; studied at Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique-Musique (IRCAM), Paris, 1982.

Composer and researcher at IRCAM, 1982-; visiting professor of composition at Sibelius Academy, 1997-98.

Awards: Darmstadt (Germany) International Music Institute Kranichstein Prize, 1986; Prix Italia for Stilleben, 1988; Ars Electronica Prize for Stilleben and Io, 1989; Chevalier à l’ordre des Arts et Lettres (France); Elsie Stoeger Prize for contributions to chamber music, 1999; Nordic Muse Prize for Lonh, 2000; Grand Prix Multimédia (France) for Prisma, 2000; Record of the Year (Finland) for From the Grammar of Dreams, 2000; Rolf Schock Prize (Sweden), 2001; Christoph and Stephan Kaske Foundation Award (Germany), 2001; Grawem-eyer Award for Music Composition 2003 for L’Amour de loin, 2002.

Addresses: Office —Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique-Musique, 1. place Igor Stravinsky, Paris 75004, France.

in 1986. “How fitting,” Juhani Nuorvala remarked in “Kaija Saariaho in Profile I” at the Finnish Music Information Centre website, “that this film director was important to Saariaho: light, water, poetry, mystery….”

Unlike compositions in which the listener expects, and discerns, narrative-like progressions from beginning to end, Saariaho’s works are neither linear nor circular. The only realm in which analogies to her music can be found is the mysteriously elusive universe of dreams, and Maa (The Earth), a ballet composed in 1991, beautifully exemplifies her uncanny ability to create sonic dream-images. According to Nuorvala, “[t]he ballet has no plot as such; its archetypal symbols include doors, gates, entries into new worlds, journeys, and water crossings.”

One finds a similar atmosphere in Saariaho’s Stilleben (1988), a radiophonic opera, for which she won the 1988 Prix Italia and the 1989 Ars Electronica Prize. Dedicated to Saariaho’s teacher Paavo Heininen, Stilleben is an important work, in which the composer, relying on tones, sounds, and speech in several languages, meditates on such imponderables as distance, memory, presence, and communication between people. “[D]espite the abundance and movement of the material,” Saariaho wrote in her essay about Stilleben, “the basic idea was one of a moment… I wanted to stop the moment and examine everything that may be embraced by the twinkling of an eye all the layers of thought, reception, seeing, hearing. The contradiction is expressed in the relation of the title and the sub-title: a moment suspended in time (Stilleben), within which is a vast amount of knowledge, experience that enters our consciousness with varying force, a journey in all its dimensions, life in its entirety on the largest human scale.”

In Saariaho’s music composed in the 1990s, perceived dichotomies between natural (human voice and instruments) and electronic media become irrelevant, as listeners realize that a composition’s message is not in the medium. Thus, for example, in Amers (1992), for cello, chamber ensemble, and electronics, based on a book-length poetic tribute to the sea by Saint-John Perse, the cello plays with strings which are amplified separately. While this technical enhancement plays an important role, as sonic images of the sea’s mysterious vastness surface in the listener’s consciousness, the physical sources of these images, electronic or not, recede, and vanish, as the listener moves through a liquid labyrinth. Graal theatre (1994), a concerto for violin and string ensemble, written for Gidon Kremer, plunges the listener into a soundscape of richness that the absence of electronics remains unnoticed.

In Château de l’âme (1996), for soprano, women’s voices, and orchestra, Saariaho reveals the romantic power of the human voice: as the soloist’s voice rises above the instrumental accompaniment, the listener hears a soulful soliloquy that transcends melody and speech. Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin (Love from Afar), premiered in 2000 with enormous success at the Salzburg Festival. L’Amour de loin is about Jaufré Rudel, a twelfth-century troubadour, and Clémence, Countess of Tripoli, the distant beloved whom he never met. For this work, in which Saariaho ponders her perennial motifs of time, distance, separation, and closeness, she received the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for 2003. Saariaho lives in Paris with her husband (and colleague) Jean-Baptiste Barrière; she has two children, a son and a daughter.

Selected compositions

Laconisme de l’aile (flute), 1982.

Vers le blanc (tape), 1982.

Lichtbogen (chamber ensemble and electronics), 1986.

Nymphea (string quartet and electronics), 1987.

Stilleben (tape), 1988.

Maa (tape), 1988.

Amers, (cello, chamber ensemble, and electronics), 1992.

Graal théâtre (violin and orchestra), 1994.

Château de l’âme (soprano, women’s voices, and orchestra), 1996.

L’Amour de loin (opera), 2000.

Selected discography

Portrait of Kaija Saariaho, 1994.

Private Garden, Ondine, 1998.

From the Grammar of Dreams, Ondine, 2000.

New Gates, Mode, 2000.

Chateâu de I’âme, Amers, Graal théâtre, Sony, 2001.

Prisma, Naive, 2001.

L’Aile du songe, Naïve, 2002.



Hillila, Ruth-Esther, and Barbara Blanchard Hong, Historical Dictionary of the Music and Musicians of Finland, Greenwood Press, 1997.

Morin, Alexander, editor, Classical Music: The Listener’s Guide, Backbeat Books, 2002.

Sadie, Stanley, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan, 2000.


“Kaija Saariaho in Profile I,” Finnish Music Information Centre, (July 1,2003).

“Kaija Saariaho in Profile II,” Finnish Music Information Centre, (July 1,2003).

“Stilleben,” Finnish Broadcasting Company, (July 1, 2003).

Zoran Minderovic