in Columns

My teacher Kaija Saariaho: ”Five Miniatures”

by Juha T. Koskinen

“Studying under Kaija’s guidance proved to be an important experience to all of us who were learning from her – for some of us, you could say it was even life-changing.” In his essay, composer Juha T. Koskinen reflects on how having been taught by Kaija Saariaho has shaped his thinking as well as his compositional output and processes.

I Getting to know Kaija and her music 

I vividly remember a moment in the Finlandia Hall in 1991 when I was an 18-year-old high school student. Throughout my childhood and youth, I would often hear the Radio Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal as my father played in the violin section. The multilayered music played by the orchestra at that particular time struck me as excitingly strange compared to anything I had heard previously. I was already familiar with Paavo Heininen’s opera Veitsi (The Knife), having heard it at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in 1989, but what I was hearing this time was something quite unique, both because of its sound and its sense of time. 

I remember someone nervously running back and forth between the conductor and the sound desk with a massive score under her arm. It was Kaija Saariaho. Esa-Pekka Salonen was conducting the upcoming premiere of her work ”…à la fumée” (1990). Back then, enchanted by the new sound world I had just discovered, I could not imagine that in six years’ time, Kaija would become my composition teacher at the Sibelius Academy. 

II Temppelikatu lessons, academic year 1997–1998

The overall mood during my first composition lesson with Kaija, during the Avanti summer school in Porvoo in 1997, was calm and trusting. I had just returned from France, having spent an Erasmus exchange year at the CNSMD conservatory in Lyon. I had enjoyed a taste from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: the cultural life of Western and Southern Europe. 

Prior to meeting Kaija, I had studied under several other composition teachers. During my studies, I had learned about many of Kaija’s works, and two of them – Nymphéa (1987) for string quartet and electronics and Amers (1992) for cello and orchestra – had provided significant inspiration for my own work as a composer.

I was immediately impressed by the way Kaija took the time to meet me – a wilful young man – showing her genuine presence and respect towards my faltering opinions. I encountered a colleague who challenged me, and who had also managed to build her own, complete and functioning musical world. In addition, she was willing to have a conversation about the genesis of her own compositions, as well as the general difficulties of being an early career composer. 

Our composition lessons continued in autumn 1997 at Temppelikatu Street in Helsinki. Composer Tapio Tuomela was away for a year’s exchange in Paris and a group of students was able to enjoy composition lessons in his comfortable Töölö apartment in his absence. During the lessons, Kaija’s husband Jean-Baptiste Barrière and their children Aleksi and Aliisa were often present. Lessons were often seamlessly followed by discussions and social time together. My fellow “Temppelikatu disciples” included composers Lotta WennäkoskiJohan Tallgren and Paola Livorsi, among others.

Kaija Saariaho and Juha T. Koskinen
Juha T. Koskinen and Kaija Saariaho in 2022. Photo: Pekka Hako

III Soleil noir

The years 1997-1998 were crucially important to both Kaija and me as composers. Kaija’s work from those years laid the groundwork for a large-scale staged composition which eventually emerged as L’Amour de loin in 2000.

My 1999 work Soleil noir (Five miniatures for string quartet) was composed with guidance from Kaija. The work I wrote immediately after it, Hamlet-machine for viola and ensemble, was the first one I composed completely on my own after many intense years of studies, but I have come to understand that Kaija's influence in the compositional process was indispensable. Both works remain the cornerstones of my early output.

My late 1990s notes, rescued from an attic in rural Piemonte in Italy, reveal fascinating insights into my studies with Kaija. The planning process for my work Soleil noir began by creating the overall structure first: I had to decide the number of movements, the duration of each movement, as well as the relevant time signatures. This way, my composition process started from a bird’s eye view. From the larger picture, we slowly began to zoom in towards smaller details. The various aspects of the overall form were shaped through graphic modelling. 

My drafts included a range of descriptive expressions, such as a vibrational field, a compacted section, a Jimi Hendrix climax, effervescent scales, and a luminous chorale. These characterisations spoke of a newly found courage for naming the identities of my music, a final break from the restraints of the classical expression. 

IV When I unexpectedly became a teacher

Our year-long study period with Kaija proved to be an essential experience for all of us who studied under her – for some of us, even life-changing. After my university years, I would visit Kaija in Paris semi-regularly. Kaija has maintained an interest in my compositions and provided tangible support by facilitating commissions and performance opportunities. 

My Italian colleague Paola Livorsi has told me how she discovered her own identity as a composer under Kaija’s guidance. As for myself, I woke up to the significance of the experience nearly two decades later, when I was unexpectedly invited to become a visiting professor in composition at the Aichi University of the Arts in Japan in 2016.

In a faraway land, immersed in a different culture, I had to discover a clear view of why I compose and what I want my works to convey to musicians and audiences. I needed wisdom, a sense of compassion, and sufficient empathy to be able to encounter each of my students as unique individuals. In that moment, Kaija’s example as a teacher and a colleague was activated in my mind. 

Kaija has her own strong ties with Japan, and her compositions are greatly valued there. When I talked with my students, I discovered that most of them were aware of Saariaho’s works. The sense of time in Kaija’s music, and its relationship to silence and timbres, resonate with Japanese musicians and audiences alike.  

Juha T. Koskinen
Juha T. Koskinen with the score of Bushukan. Photo: Pekka Lehtonen

V Saariaho’s 70th anniversary year 

To celebrate Kaija’s anniversary year, I decided to pluck up the courage and finally dedicate a composition to her. The work in question is Bushukan for Buddhist shōmyō singer and string trio, due to be premiered in Tokyo in late October 2022. In this new work, I get to musically explore many topics that are important to me personally, and that refer to Kaija as a composer and a teacher. The work creates a meeting point between the ancient Chinese Shotenzan hymn and expressive string textures. 

There are no direct references to Kaija’s works in my composition, whereas echoes of Modest Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death keep materialising throughout the piece. Our surrounding reality and the terrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine were deeply ingrained within the composition process of the work. In this generally anxious mindscape, the Shotenzan hymn’s message rings especially true. The asura gods and yaksa demons come together to hear the Buddha’s teachings, and gradually learn to live in peace with mutual acceptance. 

This sentiment inevitably reflects Kaija’s significance in my life. The best way to describe this is through the words of the poet Reetta Pekkanen – the final stanza of her poem commissioned for my work Bushukan:

if a hand is held by another hand, and that hand by yet another, 
if what disappears, remains
if what is not attempted, is achieved


Translation: Hannamari Lantham

Featured photo: notes of the compositional process of Soleil noir from 1997.