Kaija Saariaho
Saariaho in 2013
Kaija Laakkonen

(1952-10-14)14 October 1952
Helsinki, Finland
Died2 June 2023(2023-06-02) (aged 70)
Paris, France
WorksList of compositions
Jean-Baptiste Barrière
(m. 1984)

Kaija Anneli Saariaho (Finnish: [ˈkɑi̯jɑ ˈsɑːriɑho]; née Laakkonen; 14 October 1952 – 2 June 2023) was a Finnish composer based in Paris, France. During the course of her career, Saariaho 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.[1] In a 2019 composers' poll by BBC Music Magazine, Saariaho was ranked the greatest living composer.[2]

Saariaho studied composition in Helsinki, Freiburg, and Paris, where she also lived since 1982. Her research at the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (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 electronics.

Life and work

Saariaho was born in Helsinki, Finland. She played violin, guitar and piano growing up, and received her primary and secondary education at a Steiner school.[3] In university she studied first splitting her time between studying graphic design at the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, piano at the Helsinki Conservatorium [fi] and musicology at the University of Helsinki; and then she later studied composition at the Sibelius Academy under the guidance of Paavo Heininen.[3] 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.[4]

In 1980, Saariaho went to the Darmstadt Summer Courses and attended a concert of the French spectralists Tristan Murail and Gerard Grisey.[5] Hearing spectral music for the first time marked a profound shift in Saariaho's artistic direction. These experiences guided her decision to attend courses in computer music that were being given by IRCAM, the computer music research institute in Paris, by David Wessel, Jean-Baptiste Barrière, and Marc Battier.

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.[6] Each of her Jardin Secret trilogy was created with the use of computer programs. Jardin secret I (1985), Jardin secret II (1986), and Nymphea (Jardin secret III) (1987).[7] 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 to 1987. Saariaho and Barrière married in 1984. They have two children.[8]

In Paris, Saariaho developed an emphasis on slow transformations of dense masses of sound.[9] 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, while 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, delusions, blindedness".[10][11]

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 said:

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.[12]

Saariaho often talked about having a kind of synaesthesia, one that involves all of the senses, saying:

... 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.[13]

Another example is Six Japanese Gardens (1994), a percussion piece accompanied by a prerecorded electronic layer of the Japanese nature, traditional instruments, and chanting of Buddhist monks. During her visit to Tokyo in 1993, she expanded her original percussion conception into a semi-indeterminate piece. It consists of six movements that each represent a garden composed of traditional Japanese architecture, by which she was inspired rhythmically. Especially in movement IV and V, she explored many possibilities of complex polyrhythm in liberated instrumentation. She said:

... I felt a connection between architecture and music: both art forms select and introduce materials, let them grow, give them form, prepare new contrasting elements, create different relations between the materials.[14]: 18 

In her book on Saariaho, musicologist Pirkko Moisala [fi; sv] writes about the indeterminate nature of this composition:

[Kaija said:] 'There are so many kinds of percussion instruments which I do not know. I thought that it would be most interesting to see how the musicians choose their instruments in certain passages.' the identity and character of the composition remains the same even when the instruments are changed; each musical idea requires certain kinds of sound color but not a particular instrument.

On 1 December 2016, the Metropolitan Opera gave its first performance of L'Amour de loin, the second opera by a female composer ever to be presented by the company (the first was performed more than a century earlier, in 1903).[15] The subsequent transmission of the opera to cinema on 10 December 2016 as part of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series marked the first opera by a female composer, and the first opera conducted by a female conductor (Susanna Mälkki), in the series. In 2002 the Santa Fe Opera presented L'Amour de Loin. In 2008, the Santa Fe Opera also presented her opera Adriana Mater.

Saariaho was the patron of the Helsinki Music Centre organ project and endowed the construction of a new organ in the Helsinki Music Centre with one million euros.[16] She was also the chair of the International Kaija Saariaho Organ Composition Competition,[17] which selected in April 2023 eleven compositions.[18]

Saariaho was diagnosed with glioblastoma in February 2021. She died in Paris on 2 June 2023, at age 70.[19]

Her very last work, HUSH, a concerto for trumpet and orchestra, was given its world premiere on 24 August 2023 at the Helsinki Music Centre with Verneri Pohjola and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Susanna Mälkki.[20][21] While the premiere was posthumous, Saariaho had been able to hear the work herself at a rehearsal in the spring of 2023. The piece is conceived as a response to Saariaho's own first concerto Graal Théâtre and based on a text by Aleksi Barrière,[22] Saariaho's son and librettist of some of her last works.

Awards and honours

Selected works

Main article: List of compositions by Kaija Saariaho

Saariaho's works include:[44][45]

Selected recordings


  1. ^ "Kaija Saariaho, Ondine Composer". Ondine. 28 May 2021. Retrieved 28 May 2021.
  2. ^ "Kaija Saariaho voted greatest living composer by BBC Music Magazine". Music Finland. Retrieved 5 December 2019.
  3. ^ a b "Saariaho, Kaija (1952–2023)". SKS Henkilöhistoria (in Finnish). Finnish Literature Society.
  4. ^ Howard Posner. "Du cristal". Hollywood Bowl (website). Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  5. ^ Ross, Alex (24 April 2006). "Birth". The New Yorker. Retrieved 28 May 2021.
  6. ^ "The CHANT Project: From the Synthesis of the Singing Voice to Synthesis in General". Rodet, Xavier; Potard, Yves; Barriere, Jean-Baptiste. Computer Music Journal, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Autumn, 1984), p. 30. The MIT Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3679810. Accessed 19 August 2015.
  7. ^ Howell, Tim; Hargreaves, Jon; Rofe, Michael. Kaija Saariaho: visions, narratives, dialogues. Ashgate, 2011. 82–85
  8. ^ a b Ellison, Cori (7 November 1999). "Uncovering Beauty in Ordinary Noise". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 January 2017.
  9. ^ "Biography « Kaija Saariaho". Kaija Saariaho. 21 March 2021. Retrieved 28 May 2021.
  10. ^ "Verblendung", Langenscheidt's Condensed Muret-Sanders Dictionary (ed. Heinz Messinger and the Langenscheidt Editorial Staff), 1982
  11. ^ "Verblendung | translate German to English". Cambridge Dictionary. 25 May 2022. Retrieved 31 May 2022.
  12. ^ Saariaho, Kaija. Programme Note: Nymphéa (1987). New York: Commissioned by the Lincoln Center and Doris & Myron Beigler for the Kronos Quartet., 1987. Print.
  13. ^ Moisala 2009, p. 55.
  14. ^ Moisala, Pirkko (2009). Kaija Saariaho. Women Composers. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-03277-6.
  15. ^ Anthony Tommasini (2 December 2016). "Review: A Newly Relevant L'Amour de Loin at the Met". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 December 2016.
  16. ^ Helsinki Music Centre Foundation. "Kaija Saariaho". #PlayTheOrgan – #UrutSoimaan. Retrieved 29 April 2023.
  17. ^ Helsinki Music Centre Foundation. "Organ composition competition". #PlayTheOrgan – #UrutSoimaan. Retrieved 29 April 2023.
  18. ^ Helsinki Music Centre Foundation (27 April 2023). "The Kaija Saariaho Organ Composition". #PlayTheOrgan – #UrutSoimaan. Retrieved 29 April 2023.
  19. ^ Pitkänen, Heini; Tiikkaja, Samuli (2 June 2023). "Säveltäjä Kaija Saariaho on kuollut". Helsingin Sanomat (in Finnish). Retrieved 2 June 2023.
  20. ^ "Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Susanna Mälkki, Verneri Pohjola". Helsinki Festival. Retrieved 27 August 2023.
  21. ^ "Radion sinfoniaorkesterin konsertti". Yle Areena. Yle. Retrieved 31 August 2023.
  22. ^ "HUSH | Kaija Saariaho". www.wisemusicclassical.com. Retrieved 17 December 2023.
  23. ^ a b c Moisala, Pirkko, 'Gender Negotiation of the Composer Kaija Saariaho in Finland: The Woman Composer as Nomadic Subject', in Music and Gender (Pirkko Moisala and Beverley Diamond, editors). University of Illinois Press (ISBN 978-0-252-02544-0), pp. 166–188 (2000).
  24. ^ "Nominees 2000". Nordic cooperation. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  25. ^ "Kaija Saariaho". Schott Music. 14 October 1952. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  26. ^ Moisala, Pirkko (2010). Kaija Saariaho. Women Composers. University of Illinois Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-252-09193-3. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  27. ^ Tapio Ollikainen (Summer 2004). "Four measures of Kaija Saariaho". Universitats Helsingiensis. Retrieved 2 January 2017.
  28. ^ "2003 – Kaija Saariaho – Grawemeyer Awards". Grawemeyer Awards. 20 July 2003. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  29. ^ Mark Swed (2008). "The 2008 Honorees: Composer of the Year – Kaija Saariaho". Musical America. Retrieved 2 January 2017.
  30. ^ Wihuri Foundation (2009). "Kaija Saariaho". Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  31. ^ "Die Reinheit der Luft nach dem Regenschauer". Frankfurter Rundschau (in German). 25 July 2010. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  32. ^ "Léonie Sonning Prize 2011: Kaija Saariaho". Léonie Sonnings Musikfond (Press release). May 2011. Retrieved 2 January 2017.
  33. ^ Tom Service (9 July 2012). "A guide to Kaija Saariaho's music". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 January 2017.
  34. ^ "Kaija A. Saariaho". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. 27 July 2023. Retrieved 17 December 2023.
  35. ^ "Kaija Saariaho: Laureate of the Polar Music Prize 2013". Polar Music Prize (Press release). August 2013. Archived from the original on 3 January 2017. Retrieved 2 January 2017.
  36. ^ "The BBVA Foundation recognizes Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho for breaking down the divisions between acoustic and electronic music". BBVA. 14 February 2018. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  37. ^ Künste, Bayerische Akademie der Schönen. "Die emotionale Intelligenz – Nachruf auf Kaija Saariaho". www.badsk.de (in German). Retrieved 17 December 2023.
  38. ^ "Honorary Members – American Academy of Arts and Letters". artsandletters.org. Retrieved 17 December 2023.
  39. ^ "Kaija Saariaho voted greatest living composer by BBC Music Magazine". Music Finland. Retrieved 17 December 2023.
  40. ^ "I Leoni della Biennale Musica 2021". La Biennale di Venezia (in Italian). 12 March 2021. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  41. ^ Tommasini, Anthony; Woolfe, Zachary; Barone, Joshua; Walls, Seth Colter; Allen, David (6 December 2021). "Best Classical Music of 2021". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 17 December 2023.
  42. ^ "Kaija Saariaho et Giuseppe Penone élus membres associés étrangers | Academie des beaux-arts". Kaija Saariaho et Giuseppe Penone élus membres associés étrangers | Academie des beaux-arts (in French). Retrieved 17 December 2023.
  43. ^ "Kaija Saariaho awarded "Academician of Arts" by the President of Finland". www.wisemusicclassical.com. Retrieved 17 December 2023.
  44. ^ "Catalogue". www.wisemusicclassical.com. Retrieved 18 August 2020.
  45. ^ Works". saariaho.org. Retrieved 18 August 2020.
  46. ^ Robert Everett-Green (27 January 2012). "Kaija Saariaho is looking for love in Canada". The Globe and Mail. Toronto. Retrieved 3 February 2012.
  47. ^ "Kaija Saariaho gets lots of love for Love from Afar". The Toronto Star. 2 February 2012. Retrieved 3 February 2012.
  48. ^ Andrew Clements (26 March 2016). "Only the Sound Remains review – almost perversely unengaging". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 December 2016.
  49. ^ Saariaho, Kaija; Upshaw, Dawn; Kremer, Gidon; Salonen, Esa-Pekka; Kamariorkesteri Avanti; Radion sinfoniaorkesteri (Helsinki); BBC Symphony Orchestra (London) (2001), Graal Théâtre; Château de l'âme; Amers (in undetermined language), [Lieu de publication non identifié]: Sony Classical, OCLC 995496757
  50. ^ Saariaho, Kaija; Maalouf, Amin; Sellars, Peter; Kokko, Helena; Finley, Gerald; Upshaw, Dawn; Groop, Monica; Salonen, Esa-Pekka; Tsypin, George; Pakledinaz, Martin (2005), L'amour de loin, Hamburg: Deutsche Grammophon : Distributed by Universal Music & Video Distribution, OCLC 724679575
  51. ^ Saariaho, Kaija; Cage, John; Maderna, Bruno; Cikada Strykekvartett (2005), Cikada String Quartet – in due tempi (in undetermined language), München: ECM Records, OCLC 163365164
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