Kaija Saariaho


Contemporary Music

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Contemporary Music category goes, in this tenth edition, to Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho on the basis of “a contribution to contemporary music that is extraordinary in its individuality, breadth and scope.” From her earliest works, the jury continues, Saariaho has exhibited “a seamless interweaving of the worlds of acoustic music and technology,” a quality which the new laureate remarked, after hearing of the award, had come to her quite naturally. When she started studying music at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, she was frustrated at the acoustics of the venues she would attend to hear live performances. Wondering if it was possible to alter characteristics like the volume of the instruments, she began recording them and processing the sound for subsequent playback.



Kaija Saariaho

Kaija Saariaho (Helsinki, 1952) studied with Paavo Heininen at the Sibelius Academy, where she was among the founders of the “Ears Open” group. She continued her training in Freiburg with the composers Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber, while attending the Darmstadt summer courses.

Her experience at IRCAM (Paris) started in 1982, and her study of the French spectralist composers, made electronic and computer-generated music a constant element in her music around this time. Works like Lichtbogen (1986) and the string quartet Nymphea (1987) testify to her ability to conjure new worlds of sound by interweaving acoustic instruments and computer technology connecting musicians, tape and live electronic sounds.

She has said: “My music arises from a continuous reflection on sound.” From the time she began composing, in the 1980s, this reflection has translated as a focus on color and texture, apparent in her diptych Du Cristal (1989) and …á la Fumée (1990) or Orion (2002), for large orchestra.

She honed her skills of deep listening through her research into psycho acoustics, sound spectra and music perception. Her aim from the 1980s onwards was to evoke a “dazzling brightness” of “textural surfaces” and the “interpenetration of complementary worlds [and] shadows.”

The year 2000 brought her first venture into opera. L’Amour de loin, about the twelfth-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel, met with immediate acclaim. It also marked the start of a collaboration with writer Amin Maalouf, who provided the libretto for this and her next two operas: Adriana Mater (2006), about the Balkans war, and Émilie (2010), inspired by Émilie du Châtelet, mathematician, physicist and the first woman to establish an international scientific reputation.