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Kaija Saariaho, a composer with ears wide open

At the beginning of her career, Kaija Saariaho had plenty of doubts. She ended up becoming one of the most revered composers of her generation.
Maarit Kytöharju
Courtesy of the artist
At the beginning of her career, Kaija Saariaho had plenty of doubts. She ended up becoming one of the most revered composers of her generation.

As a youngster, when Kaija Saariaho laid down in bed at night, she couldn't stop the music churning in her head. She'd ask her mother to "turn off" the pillow, thinking the sounds were emanating from there — but this music was her own invention, an early mark of a teeming imagination.

The Finnish composer, who will turn 70 this year, says music still swirls inside her. She became a master at harnessing it into some of the most colorful, dreamlike and arresting compositions to be heard over the past four decades. Her operas are staged in the most prestigious houses, her orchestral and chamber music is heard worldwide and her broad range of work is well-represented on recordings.

As a shy student who nonetheless pushed her way into a composition class at Helsinki's Sibelius Academy, Saariaho decided early on that life would be meaningless if she didn't pursue composing. After the Academy, she went to Germany to study, and in the early 1980s landed in Paris at IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music), founded byPierre Boulez, where she began to develop one of her signature sonic landscapes — a seamless blend of electronic and acoustic orchestration. Saariaho's blossoming career got an extra boost in 2000 when her debut opera, L'Amour de loin, directed by Peter Sellars, premiered to significant acclaim at the Salzburg Festival. The work would later be staged at New York's Metropolitan opera, only the second opera by a woman heard there since 1903.

From her home in Paris, where she's mainly lived since the early 1980s, Saariaho sat down to talk about the challenges along her path to success — including sexist professors, conservative institutions and plain old low self-esteem — and the profound love of sound that drives her desire to compose. Her mantra, korvat auki (ears open), is taken from the name of a group of like-minded composers she co-founded back in the 1970s. It was a plea for music presenters and listeners alike to embrace the widest variety of music. It's still good advice today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Huizenga: You've said that when you were starting out as a young composer in Finland you were a little annoyed with the modern music scene there. What was the problem?

Kaija Saariaho: The problem in Finland in the 1970s and '80s was that it was very closed. My generation felt that there was no place for us and no interest in our music — and more generally, modern music was heard much less.

I was studying with Paavo Heininen — who had been studying in Köln with [Bernd Alois] Zimmerman and in the Juilliard School — whose mind was very curious. He really encouraged us to find all the different things that were happening in the world at that time, and that was basically impossible in Finland. So that's why we founded this Korvat auki, "Ears Open," society, because we wanted different kinds of music to be heard in Finland, and of course we wanted our music heard as well.

So the purpose of the Korvat auki group was to tell people, "Open up your ears and hear more music," right? What was your own music sounding like at that time? Did you feel any pressure to write music that sounded extra-"modern," as a reaction to the establishment?

In all times of my life as a composer, I always wrote the music that I needed to write. I don't think I ever wrote music to react to other music — I really had a very strong need to express myself. And what happened in Finland happened in Finland, but I don't think that concerns my music, really. I was not the rebel, in that sense.

Kaija Saariaho, at home in Paris, in 2004. She moved to the city in 1982, when she began studies at IRCAM, the music research institute founded by Pierre Boulez.
Raphael Gaillarde / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Kaija Saariaho, at home in Paris, in 2004. She moved to the city in 1982, when she began studies at IRCAM, the music research institute founded by Pierre Boulez.

You've told stories about some professors at the Sibelius Academy, in Helsinki, who didn't want to teach you. They said you were a pretty woman who would soon be married and they didn't want to waste their time on you. What is it like looking back on that time now?

It was a very normal thing [at] that time, and I didn't think of much of myself anyway, so it was not so shocking. I was disappointed only when I told other people about it — like my young male colleagues, they couldn't believe their ears. Now when I think about it, it's a pity, but that's how that period was. At some point I thought, "Well that's what they say and that's what they think, but I'm going to write my music and I will find my way." The most important person was Paavo Heininen, and he never talked about me being a woman. His objective was to teach me to compose.

It sounds like you're saying that you didn't have such a high opinion of yourself back then. Could you explain that a bit more?

Well, I never became a composer because I thought that I'm so fantastic, and my ideas are so fantastic and the whole world needs to hear them. I loved music so much that I felt that I'm not skilled enough, I will never be. There is so much mediocre and boring music, and I didn't want to be one of those composers. But then, at some point, I just had this urge that I need to do this — to learn, to write my music. And it seemed to be really the most important thing in the world. I had a feeling that I must not be shy, I must be brave enough to be able to do it, and that was the only worthy way of living my life.

In its own way, that is a rebellious act. Just knowing in your heart that you had become a composer, and finding a way to do it, seems like a pretty bold move.

Yes, but it was an inner fight. When I felt the necessity, it was not anymore a question of if I'm brave or a coward. It was not a question of whether I would be the only woman doing this or that. I didn't care about that anymore, because I just needed to do it. And then I just did it.

Were there any obstacles in your way in the past that are no longer there because of the success you've had?

Of course. There were many obstacles when I was young. People didn't take me seriously; it was just the norm. And cultures are very different. In Finland, which is normally a very equalitarian county — or used to be and now is much more — in the most important political or cultural positions, there was always a man. That was completely clear. Then there was the sauna culture: You make your meetings in a sauna, where everybody is naked. It depends on the woman, but I was never very comfortable in that situation. [Laughs.] So there were many different strategies to close women out.

Kaija Saariaho, on the set of her opera <em>Emilie</em>, based on the life of the 18th century philosopher and mathematician Emilie du Chatelet. The opera debuted at the Lyon Opera in 2010.
Philippe Merle / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Kaija Saariaho, on the set of her opera Emilie, based on the life of the 18th century philosopher and mathematician Emilie du Chatelet. The opera debuted at the Lyon Opera in 2010.

I'm sure you know that you are only the second woman to have an opera staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Before L'Amour de loin was produced there in 2016, you have to go all the way back to Ethel Smyth's Der Wald, in 1903. I'm wondering if you see that as a problem.

Well, I see that as a problem for many other women who have written great operas. Of course I knew about it when I was in New York for L'Amour de loin; that was about the only thing that people spoke about. It should be like, OK, even if that happened, what about discussing the music? Everybody wants to discuss how it is to be a woman composer, and the short answer would be: How could I know, because I was never a male composer. I just would have liked them to speak about music. But then, today it's different: The culture of personalities has taken over in all fields, with social media and all this. So I feel that today, when there is so much more equality — and of course, there still could be and should be more — we could finally speak about music. But no, it's still about all these questions.

I agree, although the numbers don't lie. In the upcoming season of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, they are presenting music of 53 different composers. Six of them are women. In the Cleveland Orchestra this upcoming season, they are presenting music of 39 different composers. Only three are women. A few years ago, it was worse: In the 2018-2019 season of the Philadelphia Orchestra, they presented music by 55 different composers — no women. We don't have to keep talking about it, but it's kind of mind-boggling.

I agree with you. I know about these numbers, and they are similar in Finland. I hope that the people who make their decisions, that there would be more women among those people, and even that doesn't necessarily help, because there is still this idea of genius as being masculine, you know? This is something that we need to deal with. Somehow I'm hopeful — if we don't destroy the whole planet before finding those solutions, I'm optimistic about it.

Getting back to your music, was there a breakthrough piece for you early in your career — a work that captured people's attention?

The World Music Days that were organized in every country, every year — my first orchestra piece, Verblendungen, was performed at one of them in 1984. And then Lichtbogen, an ensemble piece, was maybe in '86 or '87. I have a feeling that these two were really important, because after that I felt suddenly my music started to be asked for much more. Until Verblendungen, I was very much spending my time only composing, and had very few concerts.

What do you think it was about Verblendungen or Lichtbogen that stood out?

Verblendungen was quite an unusual piece, through the construction and the electronic part — linear but clear. The progression of the music was quite audible, and that was different from all the post-serial music that was mainly played, for example, in that festival at that moment.

Lichtbogen is a quite advanced piece when it comes to the harmonic language. My own harmony can be recognized in that piece. And then, my use of electronics and instrumental music was also more typical of me, and became something where the electronics is the extension of the musical expression: There was no clear conflict between the electronic and the acoustic music. Blended. And I think that was quite unusual at the time.

In 2008, you wrote an orchestral piece I really like called The Magic Lantern. It's inspired by director Ingmar Bergman's autobiography of the same name, where he tells the story of how he was entranced by the flickering images of a primitive film projector he had as a child. And it reminds me of a childhood story of yours that I'd love for you to tell, about imagining sounds in your mind.

Sometimes, when I was in bed in the evening, I kept on hearing this music, and it was repeating itself. I couldn't sleep because of that, so I asked my mother if she could turn the pillow off, because I was imagining that it came from the pillow. I didn't think that it was uncommon, because that was my reality, and how could I know that somebody else had a different reality? Anyway, in my imagination, there were sounds and colors; I remember smells and music, which was sometimes like music boxes. And it made me, sometimes, a little bit absent-minded, because the sensations were very strong.

I'm curious: That child imagining her music, is she still a part of you today?

Yes, very much. Life is very different now [laughs]. But yes, of course, constantly.

That idea of color is something I am fascinated by, because the kaleidoscopic palette you conjure up from an orchestra is exceptional. Do you associate music with color at all, like some people who have what they call synesthesia?

I have some connections with colors and certain instruments. I imagine very much the decrease of light, and I think very much about texture, the surface of certain sounds. I think that sound and color are not completely detached from each other. That's maybe how it is in our brain — certain sounds, or certain kinds of music, can have even a specific smell. So I feel that all the senses are somehow present when I compose.

There is another aspect of your music that intrigues me, and that is the dreamlike quality of some of your pieces. I'm thinking about the transparent scrims of sound in Winter Sky, or à la Fumée, with its dark corners and smoky flutes, or the piece Caliban's Dream. I'm wondering, do you hear this dreamy quality in your music at all? Do you get inspiration from dreams?

Yes, I do. Dreams are super-important for me. I spend time writing down my dreams because I want to understand them; I think they are messages from myself to myself. They can be very inspirational also, because they keep a consistent quality, even if the people all of a sudden change and you are suddenly in a different place: The story can jump in different ways and there is something in the background that keeps it together. And then this sense of time, which can be so different in dreams. I feel that we composers create illusions about the perception of time. It has a lot to do — if we speak about orchestral music — with orchestration, with the registers, about the rhythmic nature, how active it is or how inactive it is.

In the Sibelius Seventh Symphony, for example, there are some splendid places where suddenly we leave the music and we step out of time, into the musical space. This is my dream — to bring my music there, bring the listener there, and then ask myself: What do I do now? How do I get them out from here without disappointment? How do I get myself out? Or should we come out at all? For me, that's the most central and fantastic thing that can happen in orchestral music.

I'm so happy to hear that, because I belong to a group that meets via Zoom, where we talk about our dreams. When you hear the dreams of others, you realize some of them have connections to your own, and that can help you figure out – as you say – what you're trying to tell yourself.

Speaking of messages, I have a question about the bio on your website. It says that your music is "not a working out of abstract processes, but an urgent communication from composer to listener of ideas, images and emotions." I'm wondering how important it is for you to connect with the listener. Some composers claim not to care.

Of course it's important that my music communicates. I mean, music is communication. But I cannot think about the listener when I'm composing. I cannot expect something from a listener because every listener is different, and every listener listens differently. I'm just trying to express what I imagine.

When we think about human cultures — or human cultures that we know up to now — there wasn't one without music. Music is so fantastically flexible. It has been used in all the rituals and always it finds its place. So I hope that contemporary music like mine also finds its place.

Kaija Saariaho and Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour took the stage in Stockholm in 2013 when they both accepted the Polar Music Prize.
Erik Martensson / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Kaija Saariaho and Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour took the stage in Stockholm in 2013 when they both accepted the Polar Music Prize.

Most of us, whether in our careers or just in life, play to our strengths: We know what we do well and we do it. But you seem to enjoy challenging yourself. With Vista, your recent orchestral work, you purposefully left out what you call "some of my signature instruments." And with your opera La Passion de Simone, about the French philosopher, you said: "I don't agree with her thoughts but they force me to create my own opinions." How does this idea of challenging your own status quo contribute to your artistic process?

Well, I'm forced to find new kinds of solutions. Maybe for other people my music always sounds the same, but at least for me, it always remains a challenge to find my way, doing it the way I find satisfying. It's true, I like challenges a lot. I think there is nothing more boring than a composer who found some kind of recipe and keeps on repeating himself or herself.

Now you remind me of Pierre Boulez, who was very opinionated about those he called "lazy composers," who just relied on the past. He was always looking for something new and something fresh. Are there new directions for music to go today?

I wouldn't say new, but I think that there are fresh ways to express oneself today. We have all these good old parameters, but it seems that with good, clear ideas, you can still do some things which are interesting. You need to keep your mind alert.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.