The Finnish composer, who died at 70, is remembered by one of her longtime collaborators.
Photo: Vincent Tullo for The New York Times
The history of classical music is a history of creators of distinct originality. Its evolution has always happened through the work of visionary individuals and their ability to expand our understanding of the world through their works. These artists widen our horizons, invent, search, open doors and create paths for others. It takes extraordinary force, and courage, to follow an inner voice that no one else knows or understands yet.
One of these visionaries was the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, who died on Friday at 70. Her legacy is monumentally important, luminous and larger than we can fully comprehend at this time.
When I first got to know her as a person in the early 2000s, I had already admired her from a distance. She was a well-known figure in Finland, from the group Korvat Auki! (Ears Open!) in her youth and her collaborations with Avanti!, a summer festival, and in my mind, she and her music were one and the same.
I conducted “Cinq Reflets” at the Helsinki Festival in 2002, and over the years that followed, I got to know both her and her musical universe more profoundly; and I came to understand how deeply personal her music really is. It is not something external, which is given or delivered to us. Rather, as I see it, it is something that allows us to enter into her intimate inner world. We are, generously, given an opportunity to look within her.
It’s mind-blowing to see how a deeply personal creative voice can be so powerful that, even if the language expands in time and is more and more refined over the years and decades of their creative work, its originality shines through from the very beginning, so bright that it is immediately recognizable. Unlike anything else, it becomes a new element in the greater musical universe.
Kaija’s music is like this: both new and timeless, both personal and universal, from the moment it is first heard. Whether her works are electronic or acoustic, staged or in concert, we are always transported to another time and place.
The creative process for a composer is fundamentally solitary, but a characteristic element of Kaija’s working process was collaboration. She knew how the interaction between a creator and an interpreter means much more than simple questions of technique, volume or tempos — how it also means having the willingness to be on the same wavelength to be able to transmit the right atmosphere with the greatest care and respect. To write a role for a certain singer, a concerto for a soloist genuinely interested in her view of the instrument, an orchestra piece or an opera, knowing who would be conducting would, I believe, liberate her creative energy to full freedom.
Her music is spellbindingly beautiful and reflects colorful imagination, but in a way it’s also a form of sonic research, through science and artisanship — and, always, poetry and reflection. Kaija has changed music because she has changed our perception and our way to listen. This music is living. It vibrates and breathes, and it has to get its own space and freedom, and it feels like it speaks to us from another world. Electronics and acoustic instruments, solo or full orchestra, the human voice, words, dreams — it’s fascinating and impressive how, in spite of different tools and changing proportions, the final result is always unique, but at the same time it also perfectly coheres with other pieces. It is a language in which specific sounds blend together and become an amazing paradox of crystal-clear precision and luminous haze.
The most refined nuances are our sensory vocabulary, and in Kaija’s works nuance is everything: Understanding the essential meaning in each expression is key. For a composer, having her message passed on to the audience in the right way, with the right sensitivity, is absolutely essential.
Kaija’s closest longtime collaborators — such as Jean-Baptiste Barrière, her husband; the cellist Anssi Karttunen; the flutist Camilla Hoitenga; and the conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen — recognized her talent and trusted her instinct, understanding her unique voice from the beginning. There were us others of a younger generation who joined Kaija’s musical family later, and she would never fail to express how grateful she was for our work. We in turn will forever feel a deep gratitude for the trust, for all the ways she supported us through her warmth and care, and for all the friendships that have grown out of our shared love for her art.
She was a mother, exceptionally devoted to her children and family. In time, her children Aleksi and Aliisa also became working partners, and Kaija repeatedly spoke about how much she learned from them and their observations. But this nurturing and caring weren’t limited to them alone. Having been allowed to be a part of her artistic family has been the greatest privilege imaginable; her generosity in supporting the young generation of composers and musicians is also an indicator of her thinking, which was aimed to keep building things bigger than ourselves. She was warm and funny too, and a very wise and compassionate friend — a truly, remarkably beautiful person, both outside and in.
The courage with which Kaija built her life’s work is enormous, considering the condescending or humiliating attitudes she had to endure as a woman early in her career — be it in the press, by institutions or in private encounters. She never wanted to draw much attention to this, but there were hurtful experiences she only shared after years of close friendship. Her nobility and strength to rise above all that, however — in keeping on, then showing the way to others — was incredible, strong and exemplary. She knew that even in that respect, her work carried huge importance, but she chose to let the music speak for itself.
She is and remains a role model, not only for her place in music history, but also for her ethics and her courage to speak up about topics that she considered important. She chose complex subjects for her operas, such as those of “Adriana Mater” and “Innocence,” and the theater would include everything: the unbearable truths, but also the soothing dream world — which for her was the most central element of “Innocence,” not the tragic events themselves. Through this genuine fearlessness and honesty, she restored many people’s belief in opera as art form.
It is impossible to imagine the world — the music world or my own life — without Kaija. But her presence is with us in her art. What helps now, in the grief, is the inner light present in her works, which we will now keep carrying forward, always moving toward the light.