Bachtrack is asking the same six questions to many composers this month as part of its focus on contemporary music. Here’s what Kaija Saariaho had to say.

1. What influences are important to you and your music? Do you choose them, or do they choose you?

At this point of my career, after so many years of composing, the influences don’t seem to be as important as they were when I was still studying or as a young composer. But there are every now and then things that touch me particularly and find their way into my music. So they rather choose me, or come on my way in the right moment. These influences can be music, of course, any kind, but also different languages or cultures for example. I think that I am most of the time imagining music wherever I am, and then sometimes things happen around me which have a connection to my ideas and become part of them.

2. What (if anything) do you want listeners to take away from your music?

I don’t think there is a precise answer to this question. I don’t have a straight political message, and for such a thing music is too abstract anyway. Yet I am always impressed by how strongly we can communicate through music. I simply try to express my musical ideas and my experiences of life through music. As every composer does, I try to find again and again answers to the technical questions concerning musical form and material, and if I am solving those problems with sincerity and frankness that correspond my personality, then also something else, deeper, grows into the music during the composition. This other substance is intuitive, not easy to analyze or qualify precisely. It is like a smell which we don’t perceive but which affects us.

3. Is there a composition of yours which you are most satisfied with? What makes it successful?

There are pieces which are more or less successful: every work is different and the compositional process is every time different also. The more successful works seem to be fruits of intensive reflection concerning compositional matters and strong emotional engagement during the composition process. Some pieces like that are Laconisme de l’aile (solo flute, 1980), Lichtbogen (nine musicians and electronics, 1986), L’Amour de loin (my first opera 1999) and D’OM LE VRAI SENS (clarinet concerto, 2010).

4. How important is new technology to you as a composer?

I have worked with technology for 30 years now, and the most remarkable thing about new technology is that it so quickly becomes old! That means that the works with technology need to be updated very often. But that doesn’t mean that technology isn’t important for me – it can be inspiring and that is why I include technology regularly in my projects.

5. What music do you enjoy listening to?

I can enjoy many different kinds of music if the performers are good. I listen mostly to classical, contemporary and jazz. I don’t really listen to music to relax, but if I sometimes do, it is most often Bach. I prefer silence.

6. How is composing changing, and where do you want new music to go in the future?

The positive aspect is that composers have freed themselves from unnecessary dogmas. So ideally we are free to develop our own, personal music. The negative aspect is that also in the art music field the works are expected more and more to be formatted products, which need, to be successful, some kind of fancy packaging around them.


Kaija Saariaho is a prominent member of a group of Finnish composers and performers who are now, in mid-career, making a worldwide impact. Born in Helsinki in 1952, she studied at the Sibelius Academy there with the pioneering modernist Paavo Heininen and, with Magnus Lindberg and others, she founded the progressive “Ears Open” group. She continued her studies in Freiburg with Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber, at the Darmstadt summer courses, and, from 1982, at the IRCAM research institute in Paris – the city which has been most of the time her home ever since.

At IRCAM, Saariaho developed techniques of computer-assisted composition and acquired fluency in working on tape and with live electronics. This experience influenced her approach to writing for orchestra, with its emphasis on the shaping of dense masses of sound in slow transformations. Significantly, her first orchestral piece, Verblendungen (1984), involves a gradual exchange of roles and character between orchestra and tape. And even the titles of her next, linked, pair of orchestral works, Du Cristal (1989) and …à la Fumée (1990) – the latter with solo alto flute and cello, and both with live electronics – suggest their preoccupation with colour and texture.

Before coming to work at IRCAM, Saariaho learned to know the French “spectralist” composers, whose techniques are based on computer analysis of the sound-spectrum. This analytical approach inspired her to develop her own method for creating harmonic structures, as well as the detailed notation using harmonics, microtonaly and detailed continuum of sound extending from pure tone to unpitched noise – all features found in one of her most frequently performed works, Graal théâtre for violin and orchestra or ensemble (1994/97).

Later Saariaho has turned to opera, with outstanding success. L’Amour de loin, with a libretto by Amin Maalouf based on an early biography of the 12th-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel, received widespread acclaim in its première production directed by Peter Sellars at the 2000 Salzburg Festival, and won the composer a prestigious Grawemeyer Award. Adriana Mater, on an original libretto by Maalouf, mixing gritty present-day reality and dreams, followed, again directed by Sellars, at the Opéra Bastille in Paris in March 2006. Emilie, an opera and monodrama for Karita Mattila had its première in Lyon in March 2010.

The experience of writing for voices has led to some clarification of Saariaho’s language, with a new vein of modally oriented melody accompanied by more regular repeating patterns. This change of direction has been carried over into orchestral works including Aile du songe for flute and chamber orchestra (2001) and the stunning Orion for large orchestra (2002), Notes on Light (2006) for ‘cellist Anssi Karttunen and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Bergman inspired Laterna Magica (2008) for Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Most recently, D’OM LE VRAI SENS was written for the clarinettist Kari Kriikku.

In the profusion of large and small works which Saariaho has produced in recent years, two features which have marked her whole career continue to stand out. One is a close and productive association with individual artists. The other is a concern, shown equally in her choice of subject matter and texts and in the profusion of expression marks in her scores, to make her music not a working-out of abstract processes but an urgent communication from composer to listener of ideas, images and emotions.

Saariaho has claimed the major composing awards of the Grawemeyer Award, the Wihuri Prize, the Nemmers Prize and in 2011 was awarded the Sonning Prize. In May 2013, Saariaho was awarded the Polar Music Prize. In 2015 she will be the judge of the Toru Takemitsu Composition Award.

The most recent orchestral work, Circle Map, has jointly been commissioned by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orcestra, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre National de France, Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. The piece has been inspired by six poems of Rumi. These poems recited in Persian are used as the material for the electronic part. Circle Map was premiered by Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Susanna Mälkki at the Westergasfabriek Gashouder, Amsterdam on June 22 2012.

The music of Kaija Saariaho is published exclusively by Chester Music and Edition Wilhelm Hansen, part of the Music Sales Group of Companies.

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