The role of women composers in the evolution of classical music is often underappreciated. The reason is obvious: classical music spanned a period in history when women did not possess many rights and freedoms.  This fall the Metropolitan Opera is hosting its first opera by a woman since 1903.  Kaia Saariaho is cracking that glass ceiling.

Here is her story:

Saariaho was born in Helsinki. She studied at the Sibelius Academy under Paavo Heininen. After attending the Darmstadt Summer Courses she moved to Germany to study at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg under Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber. She found her teachers’ emphasis on strict serialism and mathematical structures stifling, saying in an interview, “You were not allowed to have pulse, or tonally oriented harmonies, or melodies. I don’t want to write music through negations. Everything is permissible as long as it’s done in good taste.”

In 1980 Saariaho went to the Darmstadt Summer Courses and attended a concert of the French spectralists Tristan Murail and Gerard Grisey. Hearing spectral music for the first time marked a profound shift in Saariaho’s artistic direction and these experiences guided her decision to attend courses in computer-music that were being given by IRCAM the computer music research institute in Paris. In 1982 she began work at IRCAM researching computer analyses of the sound-spectrum of individual notes produced by different instruments. She developed techniques for computer-assisted composition, experimented with musique concrète, and wrote her first pieces combining live performance with electronics. She also composed new works using IRCAM’s CHANT synthesiser.[5] Three of her pieces are grouped under the same title because they were each developed with CHANT: Jardin secret I (1985), Jardin secret II (1986) and Nymphea (Jardin secret III) (1987). Her works with electronics were developed in collaboration with Jean-Baptiste Barrière, a composer, multimedia artist and computer scientist who directed the IRCAM’s department of musical research from 1984-1987.

In Paris Saariaho developed an emphasis on slow transformations of dense masses of sound. Her first tape piece, Vers Le Blanc from 1982, and her orchestral and tape work, Verblendungen, are both constructed from a single transition: in Ver Le Blanc the transition is from one pitch cluster to another, and in Verblendungen, it is from loud to quiet. Verblendungen also uses a pair of visual ideas as its basis: a brush stroke which starts as a dense mark on the page and thins out into individual strands, and the word Verblendungen itself, which means “dazzlement”.

Her work in the 1980s and 1990s was marked by an emphasis on timbre and the use of electronics alongside traditional instruments. Nymphéa (Jardin secret III) (1987), for example, is for string quartet and live electronics and contains an additional vocal element: the musicians whisper the words of an Arseny Tarkovsky poem, Now Summer is Gone. In writing Nymphea, Saariaho used a fractal generator to create material. Writing about the compositional process, Saariaho wrote, “In preparing the musical material of the piece, I have used the computer in several ways. The basis of the entire harmonic structure is provided by complex cello sounds that I have analysed with the computer. The basic material for the rhythmic and melodic transformations are computer-calculated in which the musical motifs gradually convert, recurring again and again.”

She has often talked about having a kind of synaesthesia, which is a neurological phenomenon in which the stimulation of one sense triggers other senses. Saariaho’s synaesthesia involves all of the senses, and she has said, “…the visual and the musical world are one to me… Different senses, shades of colour, or textures and tones of light, even fragrances and sounds blend in my mind. They form a complete world in itself.”

Saariaho has been married to French composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière since 1982.

Kaia’s opera L’Amour de Loin, a story of a Christian and a Muslim swept up in idealized assumptions about each other will be performed this fall at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.  It will be conducted by Susanna Maliki.

Kaija Saariaho, Paris, den 12.05.09 Copyright: Priska Ketterer Luzern




About Bernadette

I live in the small town of Haddonfield, NJ. I am at an age in my life when I seem to spend time thinking and musing about life. These musings are usually stimulated by my walks through Haddonfield, my reading of books and fellow bloggers, and my interaction with my group of fabulous family and friends.

21 Responses

  1. What a wonderful piece about women composers; yes, I think our culture, and the world, lost a lot in the generations before us in which women were not acknowledged as musicians and composers. “You were not allowed to have pulse…” is a wonderful quote and can speak of so much, not just music. Women in general were not allowed to ‘have pulse.’ Neither were women writers and other creative women. I celebrate the pulse in all of us!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I hope that they in lipped this in the Opera from The Met season …. I’ve seen many in London and can do the same in so many other places …. You have certainly whet my appetite to see this piece 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I read about her opera for the Met and was astonished it was the first one written by a woman for more than a century! Kaia definitely deserves to be featured here. Very fascinating and I’m intrigued by her computer approach to music and also interesting to read about her ‘synaesthesia’. It would be quite something to see the opera in real life!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for introducing me to Kaia Saariaho. Your essay was so interesting to me that I immediately went on over to see if there was anything on Utube by her and as I write this comment am simply enchanted with a piece called “Circle Map.” It is so unusual. Thank you, Bernadette. 🍁

    Liked by 2 people


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