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Finnish Composer Kaija Saariaho, 70, the Alchemical Creator of a Lush Sonic Universe, has Died

Composer Kaija Saariaho
Kaija Saariaho, Paris, den 12.05.09 Copyright: Priska Ketterer Luzern

© Priska Ketterer Luzern


Helsinki, Finland, October 14, 1952—Paris, France, June 2, 2023

A SORCERESS OF SOUND, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho practiced a kind of musical alchemy, alloying and transmuting sonorities that radiated uncanny beauty. As a young woman, Saariaho built up personal and stylistic confidence under the guidance of Paavo Heininen, her composition instructor at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, as she navigated the overwhelmingly male landscape of Finnish composition, dominated by the legacy of Jean Sibelius. Critics inevitably assessed Saariaho’s early compositions through the lens of gender, regarding her as a novelty or attributing her success to her sex. In response to the conservatism of Finnish musical tastes, Saariaho and her colleagues Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen founded the Ears Open (Korvat auki) society in 1977 to promote post-serialist music.

Following her participation in the Darmstadt Summer Courses for new music in 1980, Saariaho took up study with Klaus Huber and Brian Ferneyhough in Freiburg, where her teachers’ highly intellectualized compositional systems felt antithetical to the more immediate aesthetic she sought. She found a welcome alternative in the auditory experiments of French composers Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, who constructed rich harmonic fields based on the overtone frequencies of real-world noises. Saariaho began to incorporate their so-called spectralist techniques into her creative process. The harmonies of her 1987 Kronos Quartet commission Nymphéa, for example, are derived from computer-aided analysis of cello spectra. The quartet also features the kind of live electroacoustic effects that became essential components of Saariaho’s output—amplification, reverberation, filtering and microtonal shifting. Having trained on state-of-the-art equipment at the computer-music studio IRCAM in Paris, Saariaho was a master of electronic synthesis, sculpting tracks of crystalline refinement in collaboration with her husband, Jean-Baptiste Barrière.

Though fashioned through technological means, Saariaho’s creations emerged conceptually from nature—both its sounds and its shapes. Nymphéa is based on the symmetrical structure of waterlilies, and the composer wrote pieces inspired by wind, water, butterflies and birdsong. This isn’t to say that Saariaho dealt in illustrative symphonic poems; her aim was to capture the form or essence of an object rather than convey a picturesque musical representation. Nevertheless, there are striking visual and tactile qualities  to Saariaho’s music, attributable to the composer’s synesthesia. In this sense, she carried on the French Impressionist tradition, having settled permanently in Paris in 1982. Given her nationality, critics invariably heard snowy traces of Sibelius in her music, yet her style was closer to Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen.

Saariaho was a virtuosic orchestrator, and her most significant works of the 1980s and ’90s were composed for large instrumental ensembles. In pieces such as Du cristal (1986) and its sequel, …à la Fumée (1990), she prioritized the parameters of timbre and texture. Spectralist harmonies gradually mutate, progressing through a rainbow of unimaginable tone colors. Complex contrapuntal activity evokes the physical processes of freezing, melting and evaporating—sometimes with violent intensity. Yet there are also passages of sensuous allure where sound seems to morph into scent. Saariaho’s sonic perfumes are simultaneously intoxicating and unsettling, with the power to suspend time and induce a kind of stupor. The composer preferred to think of her orchestration in photic metaphors: the aurora borealis in Lichtbogen (1986), shimmering stars in Orion (2002), a blazing eclipse in Notes on Light (2007) or movie lighting in Laterna Magica (2009).

In the 1990s, Saariaho transitioned toward a more conventional musical language in response to a series of concerto and vocal commissions. Melody, subordinated to timbre in her previous works, was granted new importance. Her vocal writing grew as an extension of the lush sonic universe she had established—endless, undulating phrases; mysterious modal inflections; and wide, upward leaps that communicate erotic longing. The stage was set for Saariaho to move into opera. The 2000 Salzburg Festival premiere of her first effort, L’Amour de Loin, was a revelation; it remains one of the most influential and beloved operas of the new millennium. Saariaho’s atmospheric score and medieval-tinged vocal lines suited the static nature of this Pelléas-like tragedy, the tale of a troubadour and his long-distance ladylove. Librettist Amin Maalouf and director Peter Sellars joined Saariaho again in 2006 for Adriana Mater, a devastating war drama about a mother’s rape-induced pregnancy.

Following these two triumphs were a pair of operatic misfires that demonstrated the dramatic limitations of Saariaho’s style. Émilie, composed in 2008 for fellow Finn Karita Mattila, was a rather rambling monodrama on the life of enlightenment mathematician Émilie du Châtelet. And in her attempts to replicate the hypnotic quality of Japanese ritual theater, Saariaho subjected audiences to an excruciatingly slow operatic ordeal in her 2015 Noh adaptation, Only the Sound Remains. Arriving at her last major vocal work, Innocence, composed in 2018 and given its world premiere at Aix-en-Provence in 2021, the composer finally settled into a truly idiomatic opera style. With its cinematic pacing and dynamic orchestration, the work is a disturbing yet all-too-relevant examination of school shootings and their aftereffects. In a rather poignant reconnection with her homeland, Saariaho nostalgically cast a Finnish folk singer as one of the victims. Innocence received its Covent Garden premiere in April 2023 and is scheduled to arrive at the Metropolitan Opera in the 2025–26 season. San Francisco Opera will present the American premiere of Innocence next summer, exactly a year after the composer’s death from brain cancer. —Joe Cadagin