Kaija Saariaho Finnish composer living in Paris

Kaija Saariaho Finnish composer living in Paris

Kaija Saariaho Finnish composer Kaija Anneli Saariaho born 14 October 1952 is a Finnish composer based in Paris, France. Saariaho studied composition in Helsinki, Freiburg and Paris, where she has lived since 1982. Her research at the Institute for Research and Coordination Acoustic (IRCAM) marked a turning point in her music away from strict serialism towards spectralism. Her characteristically rich, polyphonic textures are often created by combining live music and elektroniks

Kaija Saariaho Finnish composer living in Paris

In 1986, Saariaho was awarded the Kranichsteiner Preis at the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music. In 1988, she won the Prix Italia for her work Stilleben and in 1989 both Stilleben and Io were awarded the Prix Ars Electronica.In 2013 she was awarded the prestigious Polar Music Prize.

During the course of her career she has received commissions from the Lincoln Center for the Kronos Quartet and from IRCAM for the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the BBC, the New York Philharmonic, the Salzburg Music Festival, the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and the Finnish National Opera, among others.

Life and work

Saariaho was born in Helsinki. She studied at the Sibelius Academy under Paavo Heininen. After attending the Darmstadt Summer Courses she moved to Germany to study at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg under Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber. She found her teachers’ emphasis on strict serialism and mathematical structures stifling, saying in an interview, “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.” ]

In 1980 Saariaho went to the Darmstadt Summer Courses and attended a concert of the French spectralists Tristan Murail and Gerard Grisey.  Hearing spectral music for the first time marked a profound shift in Saariaho’s artistic direction and these experiences guided her decision to attend courses in computer-music that were being given by IRCAM the computer music research institute in Paris. In 1982 she began work at IRCAM researching computer analyses of the sound-spectrum of individual notes produced by different instruments. She developed techniques for computer-assisted composition, experimented with musique concrète, and wrote her first pieces combining live performance with electronics. She also composed new works using IRCAM’s CHANT synthesiser.  Three of her pieces are grouped under the same title because they were each developed with CHANT: Jardin secret I (1985), Jardin secret II (1986) and Nymphea (Jardin secret III) (1987). Her works with electronics were developed in collaboration with Jean-Baptiste Barrière, a composer, multimedia artist and computer scientist who directed the IRCAM’s department of musical research from 1984-1987.

In Paris Saariaho developed an emphasis on slow transformations of dense masses of sound.  Her first tape piece, Vers Le Blanc from 1982, and her orchestral and tape work, Verblendungen, are both constructed from a single transition: in Vers Le Blanc the transition is from one pitch cluster to another, and in Verblendungen, it is from loud to quiet. Verblendungen also uses a pair of visual ideas as its basis: a brush stroke which starts as a dense mark on the page and thins out into individual strands, and the word Verblendungen itself, which means “dazzlements”.

Her work in the 1980s and 1990s was marked by an emphasis on timbre and the use of electronics alongside traditional instruments. Nymphéa (Jardin secret III) (1987), for example, is for string quartet and live electronics and contains an additional vocal element: the musicians whisper the words of an Arseny Tarkovsky poem, Now Summer is Gone. In writing Nymphea, Saariaho used a fractal generator to create material. Writing about the compositional process, Saariaho wrote, “In preparing the musical material of the piece, I have used the computer in several ways. The basis of the entire harmonic structure is provided by complex cello sounds that I have analysed with the computer. The basic material for the rhythmic and melodic transformations are computer-calculated in which the musical motifs gradually convert, recurring again and again.”

She has often talked about having a kind of synaesthesia, which is a neurological phenomenon in which the stimulation of one sense triggers other senses. Saariaho’s synaesthesia involves all of the senses, and she has said, “…the visual and the musical world are one to me… Different senses, shades of colour, or textures and tones of light, even fragrances and sounds blend in my mind. They form a complete world in itself.”

Saariaho has been married to French composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière since 1982.

Awards and honours

  • 1986 – awarded Kranichsteiner Prize at Darmstädter Ferienkurse
  • 1988 – awarded the Prix Italia for Stilleben
  • 1989 – awarded Prix Ars Electronica for Stilleben and Io; one-year residency at the University of San Diego
  • 2000 – awarded the Nordic Council Music Prize for Lonh
  • 2003 – awarded Doctor of Philosophy honoris causa by the Faculty of Arts, University of Turku
  • 2003 – awarded Doctor of Philosophy honoris causa by the Faculty of Arts, University of Helsinki
  • 2003 – awarded the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for L’Amour de loin
  • 2008 – awarded Musician of the Year 2008 (announced by Musical America, the US publishing company for performing arts), for being “among the few contemporary composers to achieve public acclaim as well as universal critical respect”.
  • 2010 – invited by Walter Fink to be the 20th composer featured in the annual Komponistenporträt of the Rheingau Musik Festival; the second female composer after Sofia Gubaidulina.
  • 2011 – awarded Léonie Sonning Music Prize
  • 2011 – awarded Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording
  • 2013 – awarded Polar Music Prize
  • Verblendungen (1984; orchestra, electronics)
  • Lichtbogen (1986; flute, percussion, piano, harp, strings, live electronics)
  • Io (1987; large ensemble, electronics)
  • Nymphéa (1987; string quartet, electronics)
  • Petals (1988; cello, electronics)
  • Du cristal… (1989; orchestra, live electronics)
  • …à la Fumée (1990; solo alto flute and cello, orchestra)
  • Graal théâtre (1994; violin, orchestra)
  • L’Amour de loin (2000; opera)
  • Orion (2002; orchestra)
  • Adriana Mater (2005; opera)
  • La Passion de Simone (2006; oratorio/opera)
  • Notes on Light (2006; cello concerto)
  • Terra Memoria (2007; string quartet)
  • Laterna Magica, (2008; orchestra)
  • Émilie (2010; opera)
  • D’Om le Vrai Sens (2010; clarinet concerto)
  • Circle Map (2012; orchestra)
  • Maan varjot (“Earth’s Shadows”) (2013; organ and orchestra)
  • True Fire (2014; baritone and orchestra)

Her opera L’Amour de loin was premiered at the 2000 Salzburg Festival  (with a US premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 2002). Oltra mar for chorus and orchestra was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. Her second opera, Adriana Mater, was commissioned for the Opéra National de Paris’ 2006 season. Her third opera, Émilie, is based on life and death of Émilie du Châtelet. In 2016, the operas Always Strong and Feather Mantle premiered at the Opera Forward Festival in Amsterdam.

Selected recordings
  • Graal Théâtre – Gidon Kremer; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen – Sony SK60817
  • L’Amour de loin – Gerald Finley; Dawn Upshaw; Finnish National Opera; Esa-Pekka Salonen – Deutsche Grammophon DVD 00440 073 40264
  • Nymphéa – Cikada String Quartet – ECM New Series 472 4222
Read more