Her contribution to contemporary music was “extraordinary in its individuality, breadth and scope,” according to the committee deciding the award

Composer Kaija Saariaho, winner of the 10th Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Music and Opera, dies aged 70

The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, Frontiers of Knowledge Laureate in Music and Opera in the 10th edition of the awards, died last Friday, 2 June at the age of 70. On granting her the BBVA Foundation award in 2018, the committee chaired by Professor Nicholas Cook, Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom), defined her oeuvre as “a seamless interweaving of the worlds of acoustic music and technology,” while hailing her contribution to contemporary music as “extraordinary in its individuality, breadth and scope.”

5 June, 2023


Kaija Saariaho

Shortly after receiving the Frontiers of Knowledge Award, Saariaho explained that the merging of the acoustic and technological found in her work had come to her quite naturally. When she began 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.

In 1982, she moved to Paris to continue her training at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), where she came into contact with the leading exponents of spectralism. The spectralist technique of decomposing sound left a recognizable imprint on Saariaho’s writing in the form of electronic arrangements and computer-generated sounds. The combination of synthetic sounds, classical instrumentation and elements of nature shines through in early works like Lichtbogen (1986), inspired by the Northern lights.

“Coming from Finland of course has made me more sensitive to nature,” she explained. “And this has a lot to do with the acoustics. When you walk through a big forest after the rain, the acoustics are very different, because the leaves are wet and that creates a reverberation. The forest is like a church. The same thing happens with snow, which creates a very particular silence. These childhood experiences are part of me and part of my music.”

Saariaho also acknowledged the influence of electronics and technology in her work to the extent that they had helped her pursue her chosen direction. However she did not see them as the core element: “My aim,” she declared, “is that the listener doesn’t perceive the frontier of the electronic component in my music. It is part of the orchestration. When there is something I cannot do with natural instruments, I turn to computers, then I complete the orchestration, the musical idea.”

For the committee granting her the Frontiers of Knowledge Award, Saariaho’s music has “a unique quality that is almost as visual as it is sonorous.” And one that is steeped in imagination. As the composer herself said, “I have always loved music, as long as I can remember. My mother told me that at night when I was going to sleep, I would start to imagine that I was hearing music. So much so that I couldn’t fall asleep and would ask her to ‘turn off the pillow.’ Music has always been in my mind and my imagination.”

Worldwide success of her first opera

Saariaho initially thought that her music was not dramatic enough for opera. Nonetheless the idea stuck in her mind. The definitive push came with a Peter Sellers production of Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise, performed at the Salzburg Festival, which she described as “liberating,” and “a sign” that she could venture into the opera genre. “It was a lengthy process,” she recalled later, “lasting about eight years in all. At first I didn’t know who would be interested or if I could do it. But finally the means came together to make it possible.”

In the year 2000, back at the Salzburg Festival, she was present for the world premiere of her first opera L’Amour de Loin, with a libretto by the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf. Its success positioned Saariaho at the forefront of a world in which women have traditionally been underrepresented. Asked whether being a woman meant she had to work harder, she offered a meditated response: “It was undoubtedly an obstacle when I was a young composer trying to get a start, and it still is for many young women today. But now that I have made a name in music, I don’t experience it as a problem.”

She would follow up L’Amour de Loin with a further three operas, Adriana Mater (2006), Émilie (2010) and Only the Sound Remains (2015), all of them addressing themes she considered important for humanity. “Love is one – she related – and another is death. Both are great mysteries that form part of our lives.”

Saariaho was an eminently versatile author, known for her ability to switch genre. She wrote for soloists and chamber groups, and composed orchestral works, operas, oratories and vocal, incidental and electronic music.

After hearing of the award to the Finnish composer, conductor Ernest Martínez Izquierdo, who had worked closely with her for over 25 years, remarked that Saariaho’s music could be a challenge to perform, “but not because the score is very complex, as might happen with composers like Boulez, but because you also have to grasp her musical poetics. Her music is more than the notes, it is also color. And to perform it, you have to coax that color from the sounds. Her approach to the orchestra starts from electronics, and she knows how to get the musicians to produce effects and sounds from that world, which she then fuses with actual electronics. The result is that both sounds merge so smoothly you cannot tell them apart.”

He added, however, that as a writer she was always thinking of the performer, and was very loyal to those she worked with, giving them an unaccustomed degree of freedom and making them part of the creative process. This freedom, perhaps, reflects the importance that Saariaho accorded to creativity, which she saw as the bridge between science and culture: “All the great inventions come from creative minds, so there are obviously many meeting points between the two worlds. I follow scientific developments with great interest, especially, of course, in the domain of music and acoustics.”