Interview with Kaija Saariaho

Dynamism, Respiration, Color
Publish date
Feb. 8, 2017

Kaija Saariaho, how does one become a composer?
In my particular case, the road was a long one. My family wasn’t a musical one. During my childhood, I spent a lot of time in forests. I was always sensitive to sounds and I loved the sounds of nature. I was an only child and also spent a lot of time listening to the radio. When I went to school, my music teacher suggested I study the violin. When I was 8, my parents bought me a piano and I could compose a little bit. Then, around the age of 11 or 12, I started the guitar. But during my teens, I lost all self-confidence: I didn’t perform well in public, I was really too shy. So, I turned to the organ. I wasn’t religious; sitting at the keyboard, I understood that music was my religion. After finishing high school, I studied music at the conservatory and musicology at the University of Helsinki and fine arts at night. I ended up giving up the university and fine arts, telling myself I needed to compose, that that was my path.

The composer Paavo Heininen took me as a student at the Sibelius Academy. I still didn’t have a lot of self-confidence, but Heininen had me analyze several scores. He was strict, very exacting, and always reminded me that we don’t go into this field if we aren’t ready to give everything, to be critical of one’s self. After four years of this, I was ready for something else. I went to Fribourg in Germany to work with Brian Ferneyhought and Klaus Huber. There, I learned that it was possible to sign up for an internship at IRCAM. I had already worked in studios in Finland and Fribourg and thought that an internship would be very beneficial, so I came to Paris.

How did you feel when you arrived in Paris?
Finland and Germany are connected culturally and religiously, but in Fribourg, the German stiffness started to become tiresome. In Paris, I discovered an intense artistic life, full of controversies, where very different things coexisted, but also a way of life where, for example, you take time to have lunch, which is not so obvious elsewhere. Seeing a fashion show on the evening news was very exotic for me because until then, I had lived a fairly ascetic life. I only realized later how much of a bureaucratic jungle France is, I also understood later the humanistic side of Germany. In France, some things are left unsaid whereas the culture from where I come is extremely direct which led to a certain number of snubs! It was also in Paris where I met my husband, and even if I was unknown here, I was lucky enough to have my music performed quickly in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy. It was only a few years later, without anything intentional, that I realized that my life was here in Paris.

Intriguingly, French literary works have influenced a number of your works like Amers by Saint John Perse...

Yes, every text has its music, like every language suggests different music. The poetry of Saint John Perse has a particular respiration that awakens my musical ideas; this is how Amers, my concerto for cello, was born. Behind the style, I look at the personality. Jacques Roubaud, for example, was an important author for me. I used his texts in Nuits, Adieux, and I imagined that he could write the libretto for L’Amour de loin. It was finally Amin Maalouf who wrote it, as well as the libretto for Adriana Mater, the Passion de Simone et d’Émilie. It was an exalting and rich collaboration because Amin has a fine-grained perception of music. Nevertheless, at a certain point, I felt that even though our individual projects we different, his words always influenced the music to some degree because his style is so strong.

After Émilie, I understood that I needed to step back a little to renew my music. This is why my following opera, Only The Sounds Remains, is inspired by two pieces of No Theater adapted by Ezra Pound. I wrote for the Amsterdam Opera where it premiered in March 2016. It will be performed at the Palais Garnier in 2018. I am currently working on a new opera that should premiere in 2020 at Covent Garden, with a libretto in several languages. I think it is important to give oneself challenges to continue growing.

Is it possible to distinguish different periods during your career?
I see everything I’ve done as a continuum, like my life. I don’t have the feeling that I have changed styles, even if various requirements led to different works. When I arrived at IRCAM, I was concentrated on timbre and harmony, rhythm was less important for me. And then I became interested in a more physical writing, and this is how my first concertos, like Amers and Graal théâtre, were born. The concerto, a form that demands more dynamism, led me to more dramatic structures. I used electronics a lot in the beginning, but when I started writing for large concert halls and operas, I had to think technology differently, if only for the singers’ voices. But all my operas have an electronic facet, including the latest one: Only The Sound Remains.

 Does this edition of the Présences Festival cover your whole carrer?
Yes. For example, there are very old pieces that I’m happy to hear again like the violin concerto Graal Théâtre that is about 30 years old and will be performed during the opening concert. Also Lichtbogen. These works will be played alongside scores that are premiering in France such as Adriana Songs, Figura, True Fire, that was created thanks to several commissions from Radio France. The Tempest Songbook, concerto for Trans harp played by Xavier de Maistre with the Philharmonique de Radio France, etc. The Radio France orchestras perform my music on a regular basis. Four years ago, the Orchestre National played the French premiere of Circle Map. Présences is also an opportunity to meet with regular performers of my works I wanted there: Anssi Karttunen, who I already mentioned, Camilla Hoitenga, the conductors Ernest Martinez-Izquierdo and Clément Mao-Takacs among others.  Even if my notation is pretty conventional, it is important to have experience to understand my concern for dynamism, respiration, color, etc.

By Christian Wasselin, September 26, 2016