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Finnish composers remember Kaija Saariaho (1952–2023)

by Lasse Lehtonen

In this article, fellow composers reminisce about the late Kaija Saariaho as a person and artist.
An incomprehensibly idea-rich and multidimensional artist. A forerunner with a voice of her own. A colleague who was always ready to listen.

When remembering Kaija Saariaho, who died in June 2023, Finnish composers paint a warm portrait of an artist whose presence, support and example inspired and helped them move forward.

One of Saariaho’s earliest close colleagues as a composer, Magnus Lindberg, was a co-founder of the Korvat auki! (‘Ears Open’) association nearly half a century ago.

“Kaija was an important central figure in our group, which has been together since the late 1970s. Her passing is a great loss for the Finnish music scene, as she still had a lot to give,” Lindberg says.

Amid the solitary work of composing, a crucial point of light may come in the form of support from a colleague. For Lindberg, Saariaho’s presence was worth its weight in gold.

“As a friend, Kaija represented loyalty and intimacy. At the beginning of our studies, we were united by the experience of Paavo Heininen’s classes, which were quite tough experiences for all of us at times. But in the midst of the crying and struggle, a lifelong bond with a colleague was formed.”

During her return to Finland in 1997-98, Saariaho herself became a teacher to the younger generation. One of her composition students was Lotta Wennäkoski, who remembers that time fondly.

“Kaija was a listening teacher. In my compositions, she drew attention to the aspects that she worked on in her own music. I remember a few concrete pieces of advice: you could compose a kind of ‘shadow’ under this pattern here. Or: visibly add the empty beats that the passage needs here musically, and then fill them in.”

Wennäkoski sensed that Saariaho was in many ways a “direct, straightforward person”. Many remember the perceptive, curious gaze that never allowed generational differences or hierarchies to take precedence over human encounters. Leevi Räsänen recalls an encounter where he happened to sit next to his senior colleague at the Helsinki Music Centre in autumn 2022.

“Kaija showed her appreciation and interest in her fellow composers, and there seemed to be no hierarchy or value barrier between us. Actually, most of the time we talked about completely unrelated things and the only real advice I got from Kaija was to ‘accept the applause really gracefully.’” 

Tara Valkonen, meanwhile, describes how significant Saariaho was to her family during difficult times.  

“When my mother, Jovanka Trbojevic, became seriously ill, Kaija helped her in many ways. I remember asking Kaija for her phone number at the time so I could send her birthday wishes personally. These text messages continued until last year.”

Pioneer. Relentless seeker of new paths. Inspiring role model.

Saariaho moved to France in the early 1980s, but her connection to the Finnish music scene and Finnish colleagues did not fade. The field of composition in her home country remained important to Saariaho until the end.

“The profession must have the strength and vocabulary to speak on behalf of everything valuable upon which our identity and education are built,” says Antti Auvinen, chair of the Society of Finnish Composers. “A truly international superstar like Kaija was, and is, a asset for the society.”

“Kaija has long been a central figure among Finnish composers,” Wennäkoski notes. “Her status is, of course, related to her immense international success, but also to the way Kaija in which has been sincerely interested in composing in Finland.”

In recent years, Saariaho was often named as one of the world’s most important composers. Her international success made her an inspiring example for Finnish composers.

“As a role model, Kaija has of course been extremely important to the female composers who have followed her, but her work ethic and strong will are an inspiration for all of us,” says Lindberg. “Perseverance and diligence are the only way to success.”

Saariaho did not usually publicly emphasise her gender, but it is clear that her influence as a role model in the male-dominated field has been immeasurable. Valkonen agrees, highlighting Saariaho’s importance to the Finnish music scene: “It is a fact that Kaija paved the way for women in the male-dominated world of composers, at least in Finland. She is a role model for me.”

Role model – a term that is constantly repeated. When Saariaho started composing, there were hardly any publicly recognised female colleagues. Even within the Society of Finnish Composers, the only well-known name was Helvi Leiviskä. Saariaho also had to put up with prejudice and deprecation because of her gender, especially in the early stages of her career.

“In retrospect, I wonder how Kaija, as the only woman at the time, was able to follow her own path as a composer – we boys were into serialism and were quite academic,” Lindberg recalls. “Even in the Korvat auki association, Kaija was seeking her own aesthetics and aware of her own direction.”

However, Auvinen points out that Saariaho felt that many things still needed to be corrected. In this task, she saw the Society of Finnish Composers as a particularly important contributor.

“Kaija noted that many inequality issues had improved – but only for her. Around her, she still saw the same structures that needed reform as in the 1980s.”

Wide-ranging, humane thinker. Prominent cultural advocate. Tireless advocate of colleagues’ work.

Especially in her final years, Saariaho became an important voice in the Finnish cultural debate, took every opportunity to defend the significance of art and to comment sharply on cultural policy choices. “Kaija’s humane cultural policy statements on behalf of art and art education have been very important,” Wennäkoski says.

“Kaija’s message to me was that if you want to ‘diversify’ art, it should not be twisted into entertainment whose goal is to serve the masses and thus gain the right to exist,” recalls Auvinen. “Art speaks for itself. But it requires considerable dedication and deep understanding, humanism. Kaija represented all of this. “

Saariaho practised what she preached. This was particularly clear in autumn 2022, which turned out to be exceptionally hectic for Saariaho. The composer, who was celebrating her 70th birthday at the time, was honoured at home and abroad with numerous events, including concerts and panel discussions.

However, Saariaho turned her 70th anniversary into something bigger: by her choice, autumn 2022 became a celebration of Finnish contemporary music.

“Saariaho’s desire was that the celebrations would consist of all music: by her and as many colleagues as possible across several generations,” Räsänen says. “That’s why it felt really meaningful for the anniversary concert to include a work of mine that is an homage to iconic women and forbidden pleasures.” 

Unwavering support for the younger generation was always part of Saariaho’s life. Valkonen had an emotionally overwhelming experience after the anniversary concert in autumn 2022, where she was one of the composers performed: “When I came up to Kaija, she took my hand, which I interpreted as permission to hug her. During the hug, I felt strong energy moving between us – as if Kaija at that moment sensed and understood my gratitude for everything and how much she means to me.”

Many also remember the substantial contribution that Saariaho made to the funding of a concert organ to be built in the main auditorium of the Helsinki Music Centre. As recently as in spring 2023, Saariaho served as jury chair for an organ composition competition bearing her name. The winning works will be performed on the Music Centre’s new organ in early 2024. However, Saariaho herself never got to hear the instrument.

A voice that carries and lives on.

The announcement by the Saariaho family about the composer’s passing on 2 June 2023 came as a surprise to many. In February 2021, Saariaho had been diagnosed with glioblastoma – a form of brain cancer with a very poor prognosis for survival. Despite her illness, Saariaho worked relentlessly until her last days.

Lindberg was deeply struck by the sad news: “For me, Kaija’s passing is a most personal loss – I can only be grateful for all we were able to share and experience. It seems incomprehensible that I can’t call Kaija tomorrow and hear her warm voice and laugh.”

“Kaija’s death felt like the loss of a kind of musical mother. A mother whose work and attitude have enabled me to make my own career choices decades later,” Valkonen says. “I strive for the same work ethic and open curiosity. Kaija’s work as a composer guides me to trust my own path.”

Valkonen’s words inevitably bring to mind late March, when President Sauli Niinistö granted Saariaho the title of Academician of Art. In her written acceptance speech, Saariaho expressed her deep concern about the state of cultural life, but also considered the recognition of the composer-academic to be significant in a larger context – as part of the continuum of Finnish musical art.

It is now easy to recognise her words as a form of testament. In the midst of grief, they remain particularly weighty and meaningful:

“My young colleagues, I dedicate this title to you and share it with you. Through the chain it started – I will always remain with you.”

The text has been produced in cooperation with the Society of Finnish Composers.

Photo: Maarit Kytöharju
Translation: Wif Stenger

The English of this article was slightly revised on 26 June 2023. The changes do not impact the content of the article.