The world lost a bit of its wonder on June 2, when Kaija Saariaho died at the age of 70 following a battle with glioblastoma. Diagnosed with the aggressive brain cancer in early 2021, Saariaho gave no major announcement about her health, nor did she document the two years of treatment that followed. When she appeared in public using a cane or wheelchair, she said she preferred to keep her illness a private matter, “in order to maintain a positive mindset.” 

The mystery of her health over the last two years was revealed last week when Saariaho’s family issued a statement following her death. This revelation, however, contained deeper truths surrounding brain tumor awareness and detection, accessibility issues for wheelchair users, and “the plight of immunocompromised individuals.” (Saariaho contracted COVID-19 twice during her treatment, owing to inadequate public protection measures at events.)

In a way, this is what Saariaho’s music has continually done: offer unexpected insights underneath a hazily opaque surface. It’s only when the timing is just right, when the light hits things just so, that everything becomes illuminated. 

“Jardin Secret I” (1985)

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Much like nature itself, Saariaho’s music teems at once with awe and anxiety. There’s a kind of reverence in how she renders the sound of a branch cracking, as if it were part of a Eucharist service. But there’s also a twinge of foreboding: What dangers could lurk behind that sound? 

Even Saariaho’s early work with electronic music—developed at Paris’s IRCAM (Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique) alongside her future husband Jean-Baptiste Barrière—bears unambiguous traces of the natural world. The first installation of her “Jardin Secret” trilogy (1985-87) is scored entirely for electronics, sounding at times like a lost Laurie Anderson installation. Rumbles begin as air-raid sirens and resolve into Pamela Z-esque birdsong. Alpine cowbells are run through a warp cycle. The garden is as much an idyll as it is a Boschian fever dream.

“The music sounded simultaneously familiar and alien, intimate and immense,” recalls composer Liza Lim, whose first experience with Saariaho’s music was a performance of “Jardin Secret I” at the 1988 Hong Kong ISCM Festival. Following news of Saariaho’s death, Lim shared the work, adding that “the haunting bell tones seem appropriate today.” 

“Lichtbogen” (1986)

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Written a year after the beginning of her “Jardin Secret” trilogy, “Lichtbogen” was Saariaho’s first experience using the computer-assisted composition (CAC) techniques she studied at IRCAM for constructing an orchestral work. Working with Claudy Malherbe and Gérard Assayag’s Crime environment, she broke down a cello tone into esoteric, multiphonic impulses whose subverbal intricacies are rendered verbal through Crime’s notation system. Harmony and timbre form an imperfectly perfect union that you can hear in one salient pitch barely standing out among surrounding overtones, like the central note of a bell. 

Saariaho also used the Formes environment (codeveloped by Xavier Rodet, Yves Potard, and Pierre Cointe) to establish “Lichtbogen”’s seemingly-rhythmless rhythm, working with a circular list of patterns. When repeated, those patterns become slightly altered. It’s randomness girded by a strong sense of order. This propels the feeling—found in much of Saariaho’s music throughout her career—of time moving at a glacial pace, at times even standing still. 

“Nocturne” (1994)

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In the first few weeks of 1994, Saariaho was working on what would become “Graal théâtre,” a violin concerto written for Gidon Kremer—a daunting task given the immensity of violin concerto repertoire, and Saariaho’s own personal relationship with the instrument. “The violin is connected with a lot of frustrated illusions, longing, and love,” she told the LA Philharmonic. “On the other hand, many interesting things in music and musicianship culminate in the violin: utmost virtuosity, the importance of a personal sonority, instrumental fetishism.”

On the evening of February 7, she received word that Witold Lutosławski had died at the age of 81. A few days later, she had completed a six-minute solo violin work in his memory and faxed it to conductor John Storgårds, who premiered it in Helsinki the following week. 

Here, harmonics collapse in on themselves, and Saariaho packs the space between sound and nothingness, tilling the ground with many of the same frustrated illusions—love and longing, sacred and profane—that would flourish in “Graal théâtre.” 

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“Lonh” (1996)

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“Graal théâtre” was one of the first indicators of another recurring theme for Saariaho: the music and the mythology of the Middle Ages, particularly in her adoptive home of France. This setting of a poem by 12th-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel is a microcosm of the galaxy contained in Saariaho’s first opera, 2000’s “L’Amour de loin”—“Lonh” means means “afar” in old Provençal. 

In this work, we hear Saariaho’s talents as a collagist at play. She forms a third universe out of the unlikely encounter between the worlds of IRCAM electronics and Occitanian poetry. Rudel’s dead language resonates like its own salient pitch against overtones of English and French. Love stretches from afar across time and space, spectralism flirting with Medieval traditions. Nature effects, as in “Jardin Secret,” sound at once like Romantic set dressing and apprehensive augurs. If love conquers all, she seems to be reminding us that doesn’t mean love merely triumphs over evil. It conquers—crushes, subjugates, fucks up—everything in its wake. 

“Nymphéa Reflection” (2001)

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“Mystery” is a word often associated with Saariaho’s music, a word that calls to mind the transformative experiences of ancient Greek mysteries (we can thank some of these mysteries for the birth of theater). Saariaho, a specificist with language, often invited the association herself, frequently notating scores with the word “misterioso.” In a 2014 interview with Clément Mao-Takacs, she explained that this was intended as a message for musicians: “In contemporary music, interpretation is often very unemotional and I’ve always wanted to do the opposite, to reawaken the interpreters by inviting their feelings and sensations.” 

The difference with Saariaho’s music is that all are welcome participants in her musical rites. One of the roots for “mysteria”—the Ancient Greek myein (closed or shut)—is subverted in the openness of Saariaho’s scores. The sacred intimacy comes in the personal experience rather than the group ritual. She distills misterioso into a concentrated essence with the final movement of “Nymphéa Reflection”—a reconfiguration of her 1987 quartet, “Nymphéa,” for string orchestra. 

“Orion” (2002)

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In Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus sees Orion in the underworld, “chasing across the fields of asphodel the beasts he killed when living high in lonely mountains, holding his indestructible bronze club.” Saariaho begins her “Orion” in a similarly interstellar underworld. The opening movement is, aptly, titled “Memento Mori,” but it soon breaks into a lively gallop of sixteenth-notes. You can almost smell the asphodel when the movement is cut off, con violenza. This is a touching contrast to the finale of the work itself, in which various instruments drop out, one by one, revealing—via piccolo and Chinese cymbals—the stars of Orion’s belt.

“Adriana Mater” (2005)

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Susan McClary notes that Saariaho and frequent librettist Amin Maalouf developed “Adriana Mater” when Saariaho recalled that she could feel two hearts beating within her during her first pregnancy. Maalouf, a war correspondent who settled in Paris when civil war erupted in his native Lebanon, wove this memory into a story whose eponymous heroine is raped during an unspecified conflict and becomes pregnant. Despite being encouraged towards an abortion and worrying that her future child will inherit his father’s violence, Adriana insists on keeping it. An agitated exchange with her sister resolves into a misterioso dew: “I feel a second heart beating close to mine,” she says with the assurance of an oracle.

The initial heartbeats Adriana feels are traced through to the opera’s conclusion, one that doesn’t “offer easy solutions or celebrate childbirth as an unambiguous good,” as McClary writes. “Adriana never regrets her choice, but she has nonetheless lived in anguished uncertainty ever since.” 

This is especially poignant given Saariaho’s ambivalence towards being known as a “woman composer,” a feeling that only began to change with the birth of her first child in 1989. (She dedicated “Adriana” to the memory of her own mother.) It’s hard to evaluate the work of a composer like Saariaho—whose autobiography is threaded into all of her music—without confronting one’s own biography. This is perhaps why, in the days following her death, I’ve been most keen to revisit “Adriana Mater” as I consider and reconsider my own feelings towards the obligation of motherhood. 

“Mirage” (2007)

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“My favorite Kaija piece,” Karita Mattila wrote last week. “Mirage” was written for Mattila and cellist Anssi Karttunen, with both solo lines ducking and weaving around one another, declamatory and deifying. The holy self-realization of “Mirage”—sample line: “I am a woman who swims, because I can swim in the infinite”—exists in conversation with the final scene of Strauss’s “Salome,” a work whose title role Mattila sang frequently in this era. 

It’s also a deeper extension of Saariaho’s own continual coming to terms with her identity as a woman and a composer. “Throughout my entire life I’ve had to prove that I am, above all, a composer, and one who is as serious and as smart as any of my male colleagues. My music has been very successful, and I think it’s despite the fact that I’m a woman, while my colleagues have thought it’s clearly because I’m a woman!” she told Mao-Takacs. “I’ve said to myself, ‘Fine, I’m a woman and I accept the fact that people say I’m a compositrice.’” This, owing to the gendered nature of job titles in French, is a bit tongue in cheek. “I don’t consider myself a compositrice,” Saariaho qualifies. “It’s more of a silly quip that makes people think.” 

“Laterna Magica” (2008)

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Literary references abound in Saariaho’s works, but film also found its way into her music. Often it came via literature, as was the case when she picked up a copy of Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography, Laterna Magica, while cleaning up her bookshelves. 

“In time, as I read the book, the variation of musical motifs at different tempos emerged as one of the basic ideas behind the orchestral piece on which I was beginning to work,” Saariaho explained in her program note for the eventual piece, named after Bergman. “Symbolizing this was the Laterna Magica, the first machine to create the illusion of a moving image: as the handle turns faster and faster, the individual images disappear and instead the eye sees continuous movement.”

Like Saariaho, Bergman also found light to be a character in his works. “Cries and Whispers” was shot using entirely natural light—including one iconic scene that takes place in an overly-saturated vermilion-hued room. At times it’s a precious resource, rationed as if it may be exhausted before the credits roll. She took special influence from “Cries and Whispers” in this Bergman-esque work: A small shift in the daylight can signal a major psychological event. 

“Light and Matter” (2014)

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“Nature is one thing, but what’s more important is light,” Saariaho has said of the Nordic attitude towards light that links her work to Bergman’s. “Changes in sunlight throughout the year are so drastic that they affect everyone. You can’t escape its influence.” She made synesthetic connections to light when envisioning her orchestrations, concluding: “I’ve believed that the senses are not compartmentalized, but are in fact far more connected than we realize.” Connected to this, and from the same interview, she said that, from the onset of her career, “my work has sought to unify material and form.” 

These core beliefs manifest in name and in texture in one of my personal favorite Saariaho works, 2014’s “Light and Matter.” In some sections, light illuminates matter, revealing its contours and forms. At other moments, Saariaho seems to be exploring the materiality of light itself, finding its form even as it diffuses to fill every corner of the room. It captures the contradictions at the heart of Saariaho’s music, one that goes back to the effects created in IRCAM computer systems like Crime and Formes: a crystalline tone shrouded in mystery and haze. 

Susanna Mälkki calls out this same juxtaposition in her recent Times appraisal, but it’s hard to avoid repeating the same, albeit very specific words in writing about Saariaho’s work. What could read as subjective descriptors with almost any other musician come across in her compositions as objective fact. 

“Only the Sound Remains” (2015)

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“At its best, opera can be a deep, even spiritual experience that can offer to every listener something different, something they need or are looking for,” Saariaho told BOMB magazine in 2018. “This is possible through a text that evokes thoughts and feelings, and music that goes behind the text and brings its elements further and deeper. Music adds many dimensions to text.” 

Saariaho’s work on her penultimate opera coincided with a residency at Carnegie Hall, one that led her to read the works of American poet (and unsuccessful composer in his own right) Ezra Pound. This, in turn, led her to Pound’s translations and adaptations of two Japanese noh dramas, which she found complementary. Both feature the encounters between the natural and supernatural worlds. Both are relatively simple stories whose complexities and metaphors are brought out in Saariaho’s orchestrations. Both end with spirits encountering music before disappearing back into their respective realms. What remains long after they’re gone is the sound. ¶

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