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Kaija Saariaho – The Academy’s new visiting professor

– My work is solitary. I rarely share thoughts about it with others. So I enjoy meeting young colleagues and hearing their ideas and plans, and maybe help and guide them if I can.

Kaija Saariaho is one of the most in demand composers of contemporary music. She can count forty-five years of experience as a composer, and has an international career that spans over more than thirty.

A teacher who listens

– I have not accepted any kind of fixed position earlier, simply because I have tried to restrict my travels so I can concentrate on composing. This particular position of visiting professor was possible for me to take because it does not demand too much time.

Saariaho is Finnish, but has lived in Paris since the early eighties. Despite all the years in France, she still has the feeling of being a stranger.

– Coming to any Nordic country makes me feel at home. We have so many common features I have not recognize before: the care for nature, direct communication, fresh food. I visited Oslo several times as a child because I have relatives here, and Norway seemed to me very exotic and even dangerous because of the dramatic landscape and foreign language. Now I am pleased to see that that very same landscape appears to be very beautiful to me.

"Today one is all alone in the middle of all sorts of styles coming to us in real-time from all over the world."

Saariaho will pay short teaching visits to the Academy throughout the year. This will affect the way she teaches:

– As I am never the principal teacher, I think that my task is to give as much feedback as possible. I aim to find positive and strong elements in each personality, but I also want to give critical advice. Being an outsider, it is easy to see the work objectively and comment on it. I am sure that my comments sometimes will correspond with the principal teacher’s, but that does not matter, it can be a good thing.

Spontaneously, she adds:

– I would like young people to be aware of the musical history of their own culture and the western culture in general. One can learn so much just by listening to music and reading scores from all historical periods. Ultimately, we all deal with the same musical parameters and problems concerning musical perception, throughout the centuries.

"Composition is very much about making decisions, and that task becomes harder if nothing can be excluded or included automatically."

altChallenging task

On the topic of the aesthetic diversity of today, she has this to say:

– There are no longer any general taboos. This makes the compositional field freer, but also more complicated, especially for young people. Earlier one could compare oneself to the clear dogmas of previous generations. Today one is all alone in the middle of all sorts of styles coming to us in real-time from all over the world. Composition is very much about making decisions, and that task becomes harder if nothing can be excluded or included automatically.

Saariaho’s journey

Kaija Saariaho studied at the Sibelius Academy in her home town of Helsinki. Her teacher, Paavo Heininen, inspired her to explore modernism. Studies in Freiburg with Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber brought her further down that road. Later she found a new source of inspiration in the French spectral composers, who used computers to explore the quality of timbre. She further explored the possibilities of electronics in her work at IRCAM, the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music in Paris. After that, in the beginning of the eighties, Kaija Sariahoo began her own journey.

Poetic modernism

The gradual transformations that electronics can bring about in musical material seems to have opened Saariaho’s musical imagination. The idea of gradual transformations, degrees of texture, colouring and shading were notions she brought back to her work with acoustic instruments. A refined combination of electronic and acoustic sound became a trademark of her music; unmistakable, with its poetic, tactile surfaces, where timbres seamlessly glide into one another.

Later Saariaho’s musical development took a different direction emphasising melody; slowly gliding ornamental lines. It raised a bit of apprehension in modernist circles when Château de l'âme for soprano and orchestra was first performed at the Salzburg Festival in 1996. It was expressive music that could also reach a larger audience. This was also the case for Lohn for soprano and electronics that was performed at Wien Modern the same year. It had a sincerity one does not encounter very often in contemporary music. Four years later she earned the Nordic Council Music Prize for this chamber piece.

Saariaho’s first opera, L’amour de loin, premiered at the Salzburg festival in the year 2000, showing that the composer’s operatic language had been developed in several of the earlier pieces. Saariaho herself maintains that everything she has written after 1983 has a connection to her first opera (Dagbladet Information, 17 August 2000).

An opera composer

Following her piece Verblendungen for large orchestra and tape in 1984, Saariaho was commissioned to write works for prestigious orchestras, institutions and festivals all over Europe, USA and Japan. This fall brought a first performance of a concert for harp with Xavier de Maistre and the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, and two full evening concerts dedicated to her music by the New York Philharmonic and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

“I’m shocked that we are still discussing this. It’s unbelievable.”

The four operas she has written have given her the position of one of our time’s most prominent opera composers. When L’amour de Loin is run at the Met in New York the 1 of December this year, Kaija Saariaho will be the first female composer to be staged there since 1903.

– It took one hundred and thirteen years at the Metropolitan Opera. I’m shocked that we are still discussing this. It’s unbelievable. Yes, I did have a lot of problems, and myself, I was the biggest problem, because there were no female composers around me. So I didn’t understand how I could become one, with my mediocre talents. I think we have problems every day. Of course I have less problems today, because my music is played, everybody in the music business knows who I am. We all know that women need to be much stronger than men, to have the same positions. It is still that way.

“Female composer”

It comes as no surprise that Saariaho so openly wishes to comment on the subject of “female composers”. Over the years her views on the matter have changed:

– For a long time I didn’t wish to speak about that whole thing. I felt that we should concentrate on music! Who cares if it’s written by a woman or a man. But recently I realized that there has been no advancement. Thirty-five years have passed from when I started as a composer, and in some moments I have felt that things were getting better. But now I feel that we are going backwards, back to traditional roles. I see so many problems that young women have, anorexia being one of them. Maybe I have some kind of authority, so now I want to speak about it, I want to speak about women. So I speak a lot about it, hoping that it has some effect.


What does a production at the Met mean to you?

– Well, Metropolitan Opera… For me personally it means that it is finally happening. We have been talking about this for eleven years. It’s a fantastic place, I’ve seen very beautiful productions there. I cannot really think about it career-wise, you know. I don’t think about things career-wise. But of course I’m happy that it is happening. I know the production, because it was already staged last summer in Québec, where Robert Lepage works. It is a beautiful production. There have been so many different productions of L’amour de loin, and I feel that this one really corresponds to the opera.

Slow working

After L’amour de loin (2000) came Adriana Mater (Paris 2006), Émilie (Lyon 2010) and Only the sound Remains (Amsterdam 2016). A fifth opera is in the making, commissioned by the Royal Opera House in London for 2020, with Finnish-Estonian librettist Sofi Oksanen.

– Well, every time I think that this will be the last one. But this time, I really think it will be the last one. It demands so much brain power that I don’t know how long I will be able to do it.

“…this art form that can be so kitschy and superficial and annoying…”

So then, what is it that makes the opera genre so fitting, artistically, for Kaija Saariaho?

– I think there are two reasons. One is that for me it is a chance to collaborate with other artists from different areas, which is very interesting, even if it is hard. It is often difficult to communicate and rehearsal periods are very tiring for me. I am not used to being in a room with other people, daily. I am used to be by myself with my music. Secondly, there can be something magic in opera. If it is a good production, if the pieces of the puzzle come together, suddenly it is more than music. It can be very profound. I find it so interesting that this art form can be so kitschy and superficial and annoying, but it can also be very profound. It touches us humanly in other ways than when we are in concert. So there is something secret, and more in a spiritual sense, that I feel hounded by.

Saariaho still emphasises that her operas are not a central part of her oeuvre:

– It just takes so much time that it seems to other people that I’m always writing operas. But that is because the work is so slow. I don’t think it is central. It should not be.

Her own style

Saariaho’s aesthetical position has enabled a strong assuredness in her work. She has expressed earlier that many of her choices are based on intuition.

– I don’t spend too much time worrying about aesthetics, or right or wrong. It is always a personal matter. So I just go for the best means for realizing the project I am working on.

For the young composer, Saariho has this piece of advice, a piece of advice that may help many a bored concertgoer:

– This was often my exercise when I sat frustrated in concerts as a young person. When my own music was not played, but all that other horrible music was played, I spent quite a lot of time trying to imagine how a piece, which I didn’t think was good, could become a good piece of music.

Last updated: 6. September 2016