Imaginative and spellbinding, the Finnish composer’s music takes us into private, mysterious inner worlds, says Kate Wakeling
For Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, the world fizzes with secret music. As a child, she imagined compositions swimming up from her pillow as she fell asleep, and she has said that she need only look at a telephone directory for the listings to spring to life as sound. Saariaho’s scores offer a glimpse of these mysterious ‘sonic images’, as she calls them. From her breakthrough work for orchestra and electronics, Verblendungen (1984), to her Noh-inspired opera Only the Sound Remains (2015), Saariaho’s music is complex, emotionally direct and utterly spellbinding. What’s more, it doesn’t sound like anyone else’s.
Now in her mid-sixties, Saariaho is arguably the most successful female composer alive. She has been commissioned by a who’s who of contemporary music across the globe and has won countless awards. ★er music is monumental yet introspective. It often charts the boundary between music and noise, blending acoustic instruments with electronically generated effects to create wondrous, cosmic soundscapes. But for all the exploratory strangeness of her music, Saariaho is always alert to how it affects the ear – and the heart. It is the ‘inner space’ that interests her. Composition is about finding new ways to communicate with the listener, not the ‘diagrams on the blackboard’ approach to music that she encountered during post-serial studies in Germany in the 1980s. Which is not to say Saariaho’s compositional technique is anything other than stringent. ★er scores are dizzyingly complicated and precise. But her creative process, Saariaho has said, is about connecting her intellect with her ‘whole being’. It is an intimate and intensely human experience.
For all her glittering success, Saariaho did not have an easy ride into the world of classical music. She was born in ★elsinki in 1952 and describes her family as mostly uneducated and ‘without any kind of cultural background’. As a young child, Saariaho found her imagination filled with sounds that she had no way to express and her parents were at best uninterested in her musical curiosity. ‘Music was my
Saariaho was a shy and anxious student, yet possessed an astonishing strength of will
own universe,’ she says. Aged 12, she began attending concerts on her own, hearing the steady stream of Russian greats who passed through ★elsinki during the 1960s, from pianist Sviatoslav Richter to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. She learned the violin at school and started to compose her own pieces, hesitant as to their merit but driven by a powerful urge to express herself. This mixture of self-doubt and determination framed her early studies. Saariaho was a shy and anxious student, yet possessed an astonishing strength of will: she simply knew she must compose. And so, on being told that there was no space on Paavo ★eininen’s composition course at the prestigious Sibelius Academy in the 1970s, Saariaho staged something of a sit-in, insisting that she would not leave the room until ★eininen admitted her to the class. It worked.