Kaija Saariaho, innovative Finnish composer, dies at 70

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Kaija Saariaho, a Finnish-born composer whose music won international acclaim for its combination of sonic complexity and ethereal lyricism, died June 2 at her home in Paris. She was 70.

The cause was glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer, her family announced.

“Her appearances in a wheelchair or walking with a cane have prompted many questions, to which she answered elusively,” the statement read. “Following her physician’s advice, she kept her illness a private matter in order to maintain a positive mindset and to keep the focus on her work.”

In career that spanned four decades, Ms. Saariaho wrote a dozen lengthy works for orchestra (with and without electronics), copious amounts of chamber music and vocal works, and five full-length operas. Her last piece, a trumpet concerto titled “Hush,” is scheduled to premiere in Helsinki in August.

“Experiencing a Saariaho work is less like listening to concert music than like entering a new, enveloping world: suspended, womblike, irradiated, numinous,” author and dramaturge Cori Ellison wrote in the New York Times in 2010.

Ms. Saariaho’s music was admired by professional musicians and was increasingly popular with the general public. She topped a 2019 BBC poll of 174 fellow composers who were asked about their most respected living colleague. Organizations such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Lincoln Center and the Finnish National Opera commissioned works from her. She often worked with soprano Dawn Upshaw and conductor Susanna Malkki.

In 2016, with her opera “L’amour de loin” (“Love from Afar”), she became the first woman to have a work staged by the Metropolitan Opera since the company presented the British composer Ethel Smyth’s “Der Wald” in 1903.

“L’amour de loin” was first presented in 2000 at the Salzburg Festival in Austria to strong reviews. “Ms. Saariaho has provided a lushly beautiful score,” Anthony Tommasini wrote in the Times. “Best known for her explorations of sound, Ms. Saariaho continues in that vein here with music that combines vivid orchestration, the subtle use of electronic instruments and imaginative, sometimes unearthly writing for chorus.”

Explaining “L’amour de loin,” Ms. Saariaho said she felt compelled to create an opera about love and death. ”I’m sure that sounds so banal,” she said. “After all, nearly all operas are about those themes. But I wanted to go toward these great mysteries of our life that we cannot really approach through reason but that I feel can be approached through music.”

Kaija Anneli Laakkonen was born in Helsinki on Oct. 14, 1952. Her family had no professional connection to music, but the most famous person from Finland by far was — and remains — composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) and there has always been a strong national emphasis on classical music.

Kaija began playing the violin at 6, which provided an entrance into music that was precocious and uneasy. At bedtime, she would sometimes complain to her mother about music coming from her pillow and beg her to turn it off. She never wanted to be a performer but grew increasingly interested in composition — until, at age 11, she read about Mozart and felt humiliated by the multiple symphonies he had already turned out by the time he was half her young age.

”I came to the conclusion that I was not good enough,” she recalled to the Times in 1999. “So I thought I’d become an organist and lead a philosophical, ascetic life in some little village in Finland and play the organ to serve music.”

Instead, she matriculated at the Sibelius Conservatory, where her fellow students included future conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste and the composer Magnus Lindberg.

After graduation, she found her native land too confining. “I started to be labeled right away ‘the woman composer,’ because there were no others,” she said. She studied in Germany with British composer Brian Ferneyhough but also felt out of place there. “Germany is so strict about rules,” she explained, “it somehow made my ascetic tendencies stronger.”

She moved to Paris in 1982, where she enrolled in IRCAM, a center for the study of acoustics, electronics and computer technology that was founded by composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. There, she met Jean-Baptiste Barrière, a composer and faculty member whom she married in 1984. (An earlier marriage, to Markku Saariaho, ended in divorce.)

“I felt it’s so good for me, the value Parisians give to their senses,” Ms. Saariaho told Ellison in 1999. “People can have a lunch that takes one and a half hours. For a Finn, that’s unbelievable. And the wines, the scents, the multitude of possibilities: it somehow relaxed me, gave me a freedom.” She lived in Paris for the rest of her life.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by their two children, writer-director Aleksi Barrière and violinist-conductor Aliisa Neige Barrière.

When working, Ms. Saariaho locked herself in a room for nine hours each day and did not permit disturbances, save for a quick escape to pick up her children.

“To write music, concentration is necessary, an interior hearing,” she told the Times. “To be a woman, to be a mother, one needs to be always available and busy. It’s difficult to have, at the same time, your feet on the ground and your head in the sky.”

Ms. Saariaho occasionally suggested that she might have been affected by synesthesia, a condition where one sense will affect another — where you “see” sounds, for example, or “hear” colors. “I always imagined music through light,” Ms. Saariaho said in 2010. “My music is all about color and light, and this is what led me to the stage.”

“Certainly I don’t make efforts to be mysterious,” she added. “But music itself is a big mystery. We cannot really explain why music affects us so strongly. For me, music is as important as love, as powerful and inexplicable.”

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