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Kaija Saariaho, the composer who explored color and light, has died at age 70

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho was always searching for new timbres of instrumental sound.
Raphael Gaillarde
/
Getty Images
Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho was always searching for new timbres of instrumental sound.

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, an artist who offered a dazzling palette of colors in her music, died from complications of brain cancer Friday at her home in Paris. Her death was confirmed in aFacebook post by her family andshared by her publisher. She was 70 years old.

"I think that sound and color are not completely detached from each other," the composer told NPR last year. "That's maybe how it is in our brain. And I think that 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."

Her career began in a less sure-footed place. She explained that as a shy young composition student at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, some professors refused to teach her, saying that she was too pretty and would soon be married. It was her drive to compose that helped her get over the sexism. "Now when I think about it, it's a pity, but that's how that period was," she recalled. "At some point I thought, well, that's what they think — but I'm going to write my music anyway."

In 2016, Saariaho's already successful opera L'amour de loin became only the second opera by a woman (and the first in 103 years) to be staged at New York's Metropolitan Opera. When asked about the lack of visibility women composers have in today's opera houses, she remarked that during the Met run of L'amour, that topic was the only one journalists wanted to talk about. "With social media, the cult of personality has taken over," she said. "Could we finally speak about the music?"

Saariaho's most recent opera, Innocence, a story about a school shooting, just received its U.K. premiere in April at London's Covent Garden. The Telegraph called it a "modern masterpiece," and in a review, Nicholas Kenyon called it "a modern music-drama worthy to stand in the rich tradition that stretches from Monteverdi to Britten and beyond. It is a truly great opera for our troubled times." The opera will be staged at the Met in the 2025-2026 season.

Kaija Saariaho was born Oct. 14, 1952, in Helsinki. As a child, she had a vivid imagination, and would describe hearing melodies in her head. "When I was in bed in the evening, I kept hearing this music," she recalled. "I couldn't sleep, so I asked my mother if she could 'turn off' the pillow, because I was imagining that it came from the pillow. In my imagination, there was much sound and color, and it sometimes made me a little bit absent-minded because the sensations were very strong."

Early in her career, Saariaho was a member of Korvat Auki ("Ears Open"), a society of avant-garde composers who lobbied on behalf of contemporary music, which in their minds was not heard enough in Finland. Her constant striving for new sounds and new combinations of instruments led her to Paris in 1982, where she worked primarily at IRCAM, the institute for experimental music founded by Pierre Boulez. There she began a lifelong study of instrumental technique and sound, leading to a breakthrough work, Lichtbogen, which blurs the boundaries between acoustic and electronic instruments.

Saariaho would go on to write music in a broad spectrum of styles, including opera, ballet, songs, chamber music and concertos. Among the fervent champions of her music are soprano Dawn Upshaw, who sang in the premiere of L'Amour de loin, violinist Gidon Kremer, to whom the concerto Graal théâtre was dedicated, and conductor and compatriot Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has led many of her works.

The composer's death struck many, even in the classical music community, as a surprise; according to the statement from Saariaho's family, she had kept her illness fairly private. Amid many tributes from shocked fans on social media, British journalist Andrew Mellor described her as "a pioneer in every sense," adding: "In imagining states of natural light in music, she was up there with Haydn and Wagner. Maybe even beyond them." The composer David T. Little called her "a dramatist of profound depth."

Over her career, Saariaho earned many major composing awards, including the Grawemeyer Award, the Nemmers, Sonning and Polar Music Prizes and the Frontiers of Knowledge Award for music. In 2019, she was voted thegreatest living composer by a BBC Music Magazine panel of 174 of her peers. She is survived by her husband, composer and multimedia artist Jean-Baptiste Barrière, her son Aleksi Barrière, a writer and director, and her daughter Aliisa Neige Barrière, a violinist and conductor.

Saariaho always seemed to be searching for new sounds and fresh ways to express herself. "Music is so fantastically flexible," she said. "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."

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.
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