Kaija Saariaho: Behind the Scenes With the Trailblazing Composer

Monday, March 06, 2017 - 12:11 PM

The composer Kaija Saariaho. (Courtesy of the artist)

Above audio: An interview with Kaija Saariaho from the He Sang/She Sang podcast.

On Dec. 1, 2016, the Metropolitan Opera was packed with an edgier and more eclectic audience than usual. That evening, the seats were not filled with the usual crowd of opera-loving New Yorkers and a smattering of tourists eager to experience the grand spectacle of it all. Instead a relatively young and adventurous group convened, buzzing with expectation and excitement. Among them were composers, conductors, singers, students and many others who were all eager to take part in a piece of music history.

L’Amour de Loin was a resounding success when it premiered at the Salzburg Festival in August 2000, and although Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho had already established herself as an important composer of orchestral and chamber works, this was her first opera. She worked on it over the course of eight years, collaborating with the acclaimed Lebanese-French composer Amin Maalouf (also a newcomer to opera). It tells the story of Jaufré Rudel, a 12th century troubadour who falls in love with a faraway countess he has never met. It’s a story of longing, loneliness and the physical and psychological distance that separates us. The music seamlessly blends acoustic and electronic elements — a style that Saariaho mastered through many of her instrumental works.

In fact, there’s a great deal that Saariaho has mastered in her long and fruitful career. Born in Helsinki in 1952 to parents who did not share her fascination with music, she almost gave up composing before she even really started. As a young child, she learned of Mozart’s singular prodigiousness and felt so cripplingly inadequate that she determined to pursue music in other ways. But she had a special connection and sensitivity to sound that she couldn’t ignore and it wasn’t long before she realized that she simply was, and must be, a composer.

Saariaho made her way to the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, where she felt she absolutely had to study with the experimental modernist composer Paavo Heininen. The course was full, and Heininen repeatedly told Saariaho that there was no room for her. This was the early 1970s, when there were teachers who refused to accept women into their classes simply because they believed it was a waste of time. But Saariaho stood her ground. She refused to leave the room until Heininen had no choice but to teach her. She was the only woman in the class.

After continued studies in Freiburg and at the Darmstadt summer courses, she moved to Paris in 1982 and joined IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music), an institute that explores the science of music, sound and avant garde electro-acoustical art-music (translation: contemporary and experimental classical songs that use both electric and acoustic instruments). Once again, Saariaho was the only woman participating, and despite her limited programming skills she began using computers in her composition process. This is where she began to explore using electronics in live performance, finding ways to mimic and blend them with natural, live sound. These experiences influenced her approach to writing for orchestra in dramatic and enduring ways. Her first orchestral piece, “Verblendungen” (1984) involves a gradual dialogue between acoustic orchestra and taped electronics: 

Saariaho took an analytic approach to composing, learning techniques based on computer analysis of the sound spectrum, and it was this approach that inspired the development of her own harmonic method. She would use her extraordinarily sensitive ears to pick up on the tones and pitches that are constantly around us but that exist below the threshold of our conscious awareness. She was particularly interested in the sounds of the natural world, such as wind blowing or waves crashing. Once she had identified these subtle sounds (ranging from pure tone to unpitched noise), Saariaho would use detailed notation incorporating harmonics and microtonality to allow an ensemble of instruments to voice them. These techniques feature in “Graal théâtre,” a work for violin and orchestra, and one of her most frequently-performed pieces (1994/97): 

When Saariaho later turned to opera and vocal music, she found a whole new musical language. She immersed herself in the expressive power of text and the human voice. She explored new ranges of color and texture and used her dazzling balance of analytic and intuitive strengths to bring the human subconscious to life through her music. Her use of electronics was subtle, as ever, but brought ethereal beauty and sonic depth to the opera: 

After L’Amour de Loin won her a prestigious Grawemeyer Award, Saariaho went on to compose Adriana Mater, an opera with two major themes: motherhood and the violence within us and around us. Like Saariaho’s first opera, Adriana Mater is based on a libretto by Amin Maalouf, and also like her first opera, the premiere was directed by Peter Sellars:

The challenges of motherhood are themes that Saariaho has explored both in her work and in her life. It’s an aspect of her identity that she has struggled to reconcile with her career as a composer — the fundamental disconnect between the creative mindset required to write good music and the organizational, administrative mindset required to run a household. “It’s difficult,” Saariaho says, “to have at the same time your feet on the ground and your head in the sky.” Exercising both aspects of her personality has not been easy, but it’s a challenge that she shares with all artists who become mothers, and she has found her way through it.

As a female composer, the logistical complexities of motherhood are not the only ones Saariaho has faced. Early in her career, she often confronted the attitude that writing classical music was a pursuit best left to men, and that women couldn’t possibly prove themselves to be serious composers. It’s an attitude that Saariaho has personally faced less and less frequently as her successes (including a long list of world-class collaborators and awards) have accumulated. In addition to the Grawemeyer Award for L’Amour de Loin, she has claimed the Wihuri, Nemmers (to date, she is the only female recipient), Sonning and Polar Music Prizes, as well as many other honors and accolades.

However, Saariaho acknowledges she is in a somewhat rarified position and that many female composers today still face the same obstacles that she once did. This reality is born out by the data. Of the 373 American composers with works premiered between 1995 and 2015, only 41 of those composers (11 percent) were female. Women continue to be dramatically underrepresented among composition prize winners, people holding composition faculty positions at conservatories and composers whose works are performed in concert halls and opera houses. 

This brings us back to the Metropolitan Opera this past December — the first night in more than a century that the opera house would be filled with music by a female composer, conducted by the fourth woman ever to take the podium at the Met, Susanna Mälkki. So much of L’Amour de Loin is about difference and distance, about the lengths we will travel and the sacrifices we will make for what we love. It’s about dangerous paths and fateful journeys that do not end as we’d hoped. And underneath it all, it’s an opera about our profound connection to art, and the ways in which words and music are bridges between people, cultures and the disparate elements of our identity.

“In the midst of composing it,” Saariaho says, “I understood that it was also my story. I was at once the troubadour and the lady. These two parts of me that I try to reconcile in my life.” Individually and collectively, we are all tasked with these efforts at reconciliation, and through both her life and her music, Kaija Saariaho shows us how profoundly beautiful these efforts can be.

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