Kaija Saariaho central composer at November Music: ink-black scenario in subtle timbres

Kaija Saariaho (1951) was scheduled to be central composer of the 2020 edition of November Music in s Hertogenbosch. This was however cancelled because of Covid-19, but she will still be one of the featured composers of the festival in 2021, with a slightly different programme.

Although I had known the music of Kaija Saariaho for years, I first heard it live in 2005. The Holland Festival presented the Dutch premiere of her opera L’Amour de loin (Love from afar) in the not yet officially opened Muziekgebouw aan het IJ in Amsterdam. It describes a young troubadour who sings the praise of a woman he has never even met. At the first actual meeting he dies in her arms. – Upon which she decides to become a nun.

Kaija Saariaho (c) Andrew Campbell


Saariaho managed to capture this improbable story in dazzling sounds. ‘The music is ethereal in the best sense of the word and pregnant with unfulfilled desires’, I wrote at the time. ‘It is as if it encompasses you lovingly. The overall sound resembles an abstract carpet composed of countless pastel-coloured threads, or a water surface, that, moved by the wind, constantly changes colour because of the changing incidence of light.’ I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed it, considering the worldwide success of L’Amour de loin. Since its premiere in 2000, the opera has been performed many times and has developed into a modern classic.

Pièce de résistance will be the brand new Reconnaissance (Rusty Mirror Madrigal) for choir, percussion and double bass. Saariaho composed it for November Music and the Donaueschinger Musiktage. The first performance was scheduled in October in the German festival, which was also cancelled. – A blessing in disguise for November Music, for a world premiere by one of the world’s leading living composers provides extra prestige. Corona permitting, Saariaho will come in person from Paris to attend the festival.

No cultural background

Although Saariaho received numerous international awards and is firmly rooted in the repertoire of famous orchestras, ensembles and soloists, a career as a composer was by no means self-evident. She was born in Helsinki in 1952 as Kaija Laakkonen (later she took the name of her first husband). In her own words she grew up ‘in a family without any cultural background’. Her father worked in the metal industry, her mother took care of the three children. They did have an old-fashioned radio in the house, however, to which the young Kaija listened a lot. This triggered her interest in classical music.

Some music frightened her, other music appealed to her very much. As the sensitive and imaginative girl she was, she even ‘heard’ music when the radio was off. At night she sometimes couldn’t sleep because of the many sounds resounding in her head. Then she would ask her mother to ‘turn off the pillow’. Her parents sent her to a Rudolf Steiner School, where her artistic and musical talents were further encouraged and developed for thirteen years. This may explain her later focus on interdisciplinarity: she often kneads visual, literary and musical elements into one coherent whole.

Pretty girl’

A second hurdle existed in her being a woman. As a baby boomer Saariaho experienced that the phenomenon of female composer was still relatively unknown in the early 70s. When she applied for Paavo Heininen’s composition class, he told her it was full. However, she did not allow herself to be fobbed off. ‘I had decided that I would not leave the room until he had taken me’, she told the British music journalist Tom Service in 2012. ‘I was crazy, but I knew I could not leave the room. He tried to say many times there was no room for me – but finally he had no choice. I became his pupil.’ 

She turned out to be the only female composition student. Some teachers actually thought it was a waste of time to teach her. ‘You’re a beautiful girl, what are you doing here?’, they asked rhetorically. Shameless, certainly. But even in 2020, female composers are still underrepresented on the concert stage.

No second Sibelius or Ferneyhough

Be that as it may, Saariaho studied along with people like Esa-Pekka Salonen, Magnus Lindberg and Jouni Kaipainen. They were annoyed by the  conservative climate at the conservatoire in Helsinki. In a sense they were trained to become a second Sibelius, its namesake. Dissatisfied with the curriculum they founded ‘Korvat Auki’ (open ears) in 1977. Instead of staring at the past, they looked at the latest developments in Germany and France, organizing concerts and seminars to draw attention to these in Finland.

After attending the renowned summer courses in Darmstadt, Saariaho moved to Freiburg to study composition with Brian Ferneyhough. The Brit was the figurehead of the ‘new complexity’, a kind of runaway form of atonality. Just about anything that is even remotely recognizable to the human ear was forbidden.

Saariaho rebelled against this as well. She had not refused to become a second Sibelius in order to leave behind all the achievements of the past. Annoyed, she remarked: ‘You were not allowed to create a pulse, nor tonally oriented harmonies or melodies. But I don’t want to write music based on negatives. Anything is allowed, as long as it is done with taste.’

Unheard timbres

When she hears music from the so-called ‘spectralists’ Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey this is an eye-opener. Their orientation on the inner life of sounds appeals to her and in 1982 she leaves for Paris, where she enrols at the IRCAM. At this Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique she researches the possibilities of electronics in relation to music, analysing the spectrum of sounds with the help of computers. On the basis of her findings she develops the unprecedented sensitivity to unheard-of timbres that has become her trademark.

Often electronics play an important role in this. As early as 1984 she broke through with Verblendungen, in which she builds a whole ‘string orchestra’ out of two electronically manipulated violin sounds. Two years later she composes the equally successful Lichtbogen, in which she manipulates the sound of seven instruments with live electronics. This creates an iridescent sound image, inspired by the phenomenon of Nordic Light.

Saariaho is fascinated by light anyway, as evidenced by the many titles in which this word appears. And that is no coincidence: just as light can constantly change colour and atmosphere, she enchants our ears with ever-changing timbres. That is why she is sometimes – to her slight displeasure – compared with Debussy.

Man and creation

These two breakthrough pieces are not on the programme, but still there is a lot of beautiful stuff to be heard. Along the already mentioned classics, there are less frequently performed pieces. The student ensemble fc Jongbloed, led by guitarist Aart Strootman, will perform two works for soprano and ensemble. Die Aussicht (1996) is based on the text of the same name by Friedrich Hölderlin, Changing Light, composed in 2002, is set on a poem by the American rabbi Jules Harlow. Both describe the insignificance of man in the face of creation. The two miniatures are a good illustration of how subtly Saariaho succeeds in translating philosophical insights into atmospheric and powerful music.

Another concert to look out for is Dominique Vleeshouwers performance of Six Japanese Gardens on November 13. Saariaho wrote this piece for percussion and electronics in 1994 after a visit to the gardens of Kyoto. In addition to the sounds played live, the performer triggers recordings of nature sounds, ritual singing and Japanese percussion instruments via a computer. The twenty-minute piece offers a plethora of different rhythms and timbres.

For the electronic part Saariaho collaborated with the French composer and multimedia specialist Jean-Baptiste Barrière whom she met at the IRCAM and married in 1984. Since 2007 she has also worked regularly with their son Aleksi, who was born in 1989.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (c) NASA

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Aleksi Barrière wrote the texts for various of her choral works. He also supplied the libretto of Reconnaissance (Rusty Mirror Madrigal) which will be premiere on 14 November. Saariaho composed it for the French chamber choir Accentus, which is well-versed in both early and modern music.

The title seems to refer to this background, but Saariaho denies this: ‘I did not have these kinds of references in mind. Rather, I regard the choir as people who tell the story of their history. Aleksi came up with the title. It refers to various things, but especially to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.’ This NASA spacecraft has been circling around Mars for fifteen years, sending detailed photographs to Earth.

Rusty mirrors

Barrière zooms in on the relationship between the two planets. In five parts he sketches how man suffocates in his own waste gases and seeks salvation on Mars. In the concluding ‘Requiem’ both Mars and Earth appear to have been destroyed. ‘Both worlds have returned to wilderness/ Two rusty mirrors face to face’, we read.

Saariaho is reluctant in answering the question how she translated such an ink-black, science-fiction like libretto into music. ‘I have worked closely with Aleksi, who knows my music well. We discuss our ideas, loosely define form and content and he offers me new perspectives.’ She does send me a sketch of the piece, though.

The five movements seem to mirror each other in an A-B-C-B-A form, which fits the text nicely. Movement I and V have a slow pace, movements II and IV are almost twice as fast and bear indications such as ‘energico’ and ‘ostinato’. The time signature is even higher in III, ‘Green House’, that must be performed ‘espressivo’.

But, Saariaho emphasizes: ‘Don’t take these sketches too seriously, because during the process of composing things still change all the time.’

Update 3 November 2020: the Dutch goverment banned all concerts until November 18. Rather than revert to live streaming November Music has cancelled the entire festival.


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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