Kaija Saariaho is one of 20th century modernism’s most well regarded composers, with her mystical and enrapturing orchestral soundscapes winning admiration outside the avant-garde establishment. Shunning high modernism’s more abstruse tendencies, Saariaho is concerned with the textural qualities of harmony and slow moving monumental structures. This places her in the lineage of Sibelius and Debussy, who also represent the two centres of her musical life: Finland, where she grew up, and France, specifically Paris, where she has worked since the 1980s.
As a composition student in 1970s Helsinki and Freiburg, Saariaho was frustrated with the modernist establishment’s obsession with system and procedure. Looking elsewhere for inspiration, the Spectralist music of Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail – which explores the acoustic properties of the harmonic series – was a major influence in her compositional development. The other was the establishment of the IRCAM centre in Paris by Pierre Boulez in the late 1970s. As well as being a milestone for acoustics research, IRCAM gave composers such as Saariaho the opportunity to experiment with tape and live electronics.
This fuelled a compositional interest in what Saariaho described as ‘the boundary between music and noise’. Verblendungen, completed in 1984 shortly after her move to Paris, encapsulates many persistent elements of Saariaho’s style. Written for orchestra and tape, the piece blurs the line between pre-recorded material and live performance, with the electronics acting as a textural extension of the orchestral writing, which in turn consists of an unearthly, slowly morphing dense mass of sound.
As her career progressed, Saariaho took a renewed interest in melody and an increasing engagement with extra-musical material. Saariaho is fond of using literary and visual stimuli as compositional starting points: Lichtbogen (1986), translating to ‘Arches of Light’, is her musical reaction to the aurora borealis, a piece which also reconnects her work to the idea of ‘North’ and ‘Finnishness’. Her debut opera L’Amour de Loin (first performed in 2000, and finally being staged at the Metropolitan Opera this season in the company’s second-ever opera written by a woman) has a libretto by novelist Amin Maalouf, and is based on the 12th-century troubadour Jaufre Rudel’s idealised love for the Countess of Tripoli.
Operas such as L’Amour de Loin and her later work Adriana Mater show Saariaho’s continued interest in narratives involving women. Lamenting the lack of female role models in music, Saariaho was influenced by writers such as Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Edith Södergran and Anaïs Nin, and uses stories with women at their centre in works such as La Passion de Simone, portraying the life and death of Simone Weil, and Emilie, a monodrama for solo female voice. However, Saariaho rejects the label of ‘woman composer’ as much as she dislikes being cast as a ‘computer composer’. Her greatest achievements are purely musical: the harmonic and electronic sonic experiments of Saariaho and others challenged and ultimately re-energised late 20th century modernism.