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The quest for identity – Kaija Saariaho spends a year in Finland

by Anni Heino

Kaija Saariaho, who settled in France in the early 1980s, spent the 1997- 98 academic year as visiting composition professor at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland. The FMQ asked her how she felt at the end of her stay.

A dark autumn day in 1997 found composer Kaija Saariaho ensconced in her temporary study in Helsinki. Her decision to return to Finland for a whole winter seemed to have taken its toll, because try as she might, she just could not compose. Through the window she could see dark clouds building up with a promise of snow, and as she gazed at them, the idea for a new work at last seemed to take shape in her mind. The result was Neiges (1998), a work for eight cellos premiered in France at the beginning of May. 

By May the snow has long since melted in Helsinki and her year is drawing to a close. Saariaho gives the impression of being simultaneously both relieved and stressed. Relieved because she has successfully met her teaching commitments at her former seat of learning, the Sibelius Academy, and stressed because the year in Finland has completely disrupted her well-organised daily routine. 

Teaching six pupils was in principle calculated as one day's work a week. In practice, however, each pupil had his or her own ambitions, problems and personal traits that made working to the clock impossible. 

"It's been an interesting experience, certainly not an unpleasant one, but I must say it's been hard work," says Saariaho.

Sometimes Saariaho can see familiar features in her pupils. 

"They've all got their own individual problems. On the other hand, there are features which many young people share. Like having to study for years, to discover their own, personal message and idiom. Becoming a composer is a quest for identity."

Teaching not a vocation 

The search for her own personal identity is a what originally persuaded Saariaho to abandon the study of art in favour of music. It led her first to the Sibelius Academy and Paavo Heininen, then to Freiburg and Brian Ferneyhough, and finally to Paris IRCAM. Kaija Saariaho has been congratulated on her fearlessness in taking bold steps, but she herself merely smiles. 

"I've always been guided by my inner compulsion. I just do what seems right to me, and this has nothing to do with being bold. I simply knew I HAD to study with Paavo [Heininen], and that I couldn't leave the room until he had agreed to take me on. And I HAD to go to Freiburg, and I HAD to get a place at IRCAM. The fact that I managed it is perhaps a result of my determination." 

When it was first suggested to Kaija Saariaho that she might like to try teaching, the very idea seemed totally impossible. One of the reasons was the sovereign attitude of her own teachers. 

"Paavo Heininen has such an analytical mind and a highly developed method, while Brian Ferneyhough has such a passion for his work, drawing out the personality of his young pupils, that I never thought I myself could possibly teach composition one day. I didn't feel I'd have anything to say as a composition teacher." 

Saariaho did not exactly go back on her decision, but as time went by, young composers began knocking on her door asking if she would take a look at their scores. 

"It gradually dawned on me that I did fact have quite a lot to say, experience I had gathered over the years of the various levels of composition, and I'm not talking now just about technique but about the whole picture of composing. And little by little I did discover a side of me capable of assuming the role of an authority," says Saariaho. "Admittedly not an authority in the traditional masculine sense," she drily adds.

The Sibelius Academy’s offer of a year’s professionship came at a good time. Saariaho and her composer husband Jean-Baptiste Barriére had been thinking it might be a good idea for their son Alex to spend even a short time in his mother’s homeland. The result was that the whole family – Kaija, Jean-Baptiste, eight-year-old Alex and three-year-old Aliisa – shut up their Paris home and moved to Helsinki for a year.

Saariaho’s homecoming did not pass unnoticed by her fellow countrymen and women. A concert of her works held in the autumn played to a packed hall and the media vied with one another to interview her.

At the Sibelius Academy Saariaho shared the professorship with her husband. Her composition pupils were already well advanced: Lotta Wennäkoski, Juha T. Koskinen, Jani Kääriä, Jovanka Trbojevic, Paola Livorsi and Johannes Frost.

"I had asked not to be given any complete beginners, because I thought I would have more to offer a more advanced pupil. Because, you see, I don’t have any teaching method proper. In my teaching I have tried to cover things of which I have a lot of personal experience, such as various ways of approaching harmony, and the resources of electronic music."

Many of the pupils are interested in vocal music, which coincided with Saariaho’s own ambitions of the past few years. In preparing the series of lectures accompanying the tuition Saariaho looked back over many of her own compositions and went through the texts of the vocal works she has composed at different point in her career. 

"I almost felt ashamed when I realized just what they revealed about my own problems and life; beginning with the poetry of Edith Södergran, which seems to reflect the period when I felt a burning need to compose but did not yet posses the necessary technique. And ending with Chateau de l'åme, in which a mother blesses her child. Well actually that was a song dedicated to Aliisa. Different poems have caught my fancy at different times, and it would never occur to me now to choose the same poems by Södergran as I did when I was young."

Vocal music and ancient texts

Chateau de 
l'âme, premiered at the Salzburg Music Festival in 1996, used ancient Indian and Egyptian texts. The soloist in this work scored for soprano, eight female voices and orchestra was the American Dawn Upshaw, who also premiered Saariaho's Lonh (1996) for soprano and electronics only a couple of months later. 

The text of Lonh is based on the words of songs by the medieval troubadour Jaufré Rudel, whose life has also provided the substance for the opera L'amour de loin (Love from Afar) which Saariaho is at present working on and which will be premiered at Salzburg in the year 2001. The libretto is being edited by the Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf. 

"I don't quite know how these particular texts found their way into my music. I just got hold of them, or perhaps the texts chose me rather than me them. Composing is a constant dialogue between the subconscious and thought. Many major decisions are often made on the sly, as it were, and it sometimes terrifies me to think what I may be letting myself in for. Take, for example, the linear element that has acquired such prominence in my music recently that it makes me wonder myself."

Dawn Upshaw, who will also be singing the forthcoming opera, is one of Saariaho’s trusted musicians. Saariaho often composes with a particular musician in mind, such as cellist Anssi Karttunen, violinist Gidon Kremer and flautist Camilla Hoitenga

"A musician of a rare kind is a source of inspiration. The very thought of writing for musicians like this gives me energy and enthusiasm. I do not usually consult them at the writing stage, but it's important to be able to think of a concrete instrument. So it's not just any cello: it's Anssi's cello. Which does not, of course, mean that no one else could perform the work.

"Nowadays this famous partnership with Anssi mostly means that he performs my music well while I listen. The better I know the musician, the less labouring work there is," adds Saariaho. 

Vital to be organised

The opera commission is at the time of writing still only in the early stages. This and other commissions will leave no time for teaching.

"I'm very behind with my composition, and this has been a horrible blow, especially as it's rare for me. I have to have things organised; I need order in my life. Good sense tells me I must stop teaching for the time being if I'm to get the major works I've promised finished on time." 

Despite all her other commitments, Saariaho has been closely involved with the Prisma CD- ROM of her musical worldview. This CD-ROM, shortly to be released in French and later in English, has been made in Paris as a joint project carried out by IRCAM, Saariaho's publisher (Chester Music) and the Finnish Music Information Centre. Prisma approaches the music of Saariaho by, among other things, presenting its interpreters and its technical solutions, but also by taking a look at the works of art, the poetry and films close to the composer's heart. The composition techniques are illustrated by means of a game in which the user of the CD-ROM can build a composition of his or her own using blocks provided by Saariaho.

Also featured on the CD-ROM is Kaija Saariaho's closest critic and colleague, her composer husband Jean-Baptiste Barriere. Together husband and wife also solve various technical problems and exchange ideas. 

"The criticism is mostly pretty strict, but there's actually surprisingly little time for talking about musical issues proper. I know lots of composers like explaining the pieces they are working on, but I don't. Sometimes it's nice to be able to discuss things, and Jean-Baptiste has naturally helped me to no end, especially with problems of technology. In return I have helped him with questions related to certain instruments. Sometimes it's difficult, because it's always so easy to take criticism personally, especially when it comes from someone very close.

"Constructive criticism as a whole is a very complicated matter. If people like my music, they come and thank me after the concert. If they can't think of anything positive to say, they don't come, or they say something half-hearted. There's seldom any discussion about why a piece was a problem. And I'm not at all convinced that the moment after a concert is the best possible one for receiving criticism. I would, however, welcome a chance to discuss the problems posed in the music occasionally," says Kaija Saariaho. 

Records on the Internet

In late spring 1998 Kaija Saariaho and Anssi Karttunen embarked on a personal expedition into the commercialised music industry jungle. One of the objectives of the Petals project is to offer records via the Internet ( which for some reason or another do not interest the commercial labels and distributors. 

"The fact that a record is good gets you nowhere these days. If an American distributor can’t sell 500 copies of a CD in six months, he sends them back and refuses to keep them in stock. So there are people in the States who would like to buy my music but cannot get hold of it. I began getting email enquiries from them, and the logical answer seemed to be to offer them on the Internet."

Saariaho also protests at the tendency to try to turn music into a standard product. 

"This market orientation that is gaining ground in all fields of music and in all contexts is so exhausting. There is a constant tendency to standardise and set norms for things that simply can't be standardised. Take the playing time on a disc, for example: why try to pack as much music onto a record as possible rather than producing something that is an interesting artistic entity?" 

"And even more important, a disc is nowadays measured according to its novelty value and not as a lasting, independent artistic product. The whole identity of the disc has changed; it's simply become a commodity." 


Petals is a non-profit association dedicated to the realization and diffusion of musical projects through the Internet. 


For different reasons, important artistic projects do not reach their whole audience through the existing distribution channels. Commercial companies are forced to renew their catalogues constantly and certain published CD's are withdrawn from the market after a relatively short time. 

Experience has shown that many people cannot find CD's they know of, nor get information about the existence and availability of music they are interested in. 

At the same time, it has become much easier to produce CD's independently and to distribute them through the Internet. 


Responding to this situation, Petals plans to concentrate on conceiving, producing, realising and distributing CD's through the Internet, allowing people around the world immediate access to them. Petals also aims to promote and give information about artistic projects that its founders believe strongly in. 

ln the beginning, Petals will incorporate programme notes and texts about the pieces found on our CD's, but aims to evolve with time and technology. We plan to include also sound and video extracts of concerts and music not available on the CD's.

The production costs of the CD's will be kept as modest as possible in order to keep them affordable to all. 


The name Petals comes from a piece for cello by Kaija Saariaho, dedicated to Anssi Karttunen. This piece, together with the other two pieces for cello by Kaija Saariaho, can be found on the first CD issued by Petals, played by Anssi Karttunen.

Petals was founded by Kaija Saariaho, Anssi Karttunen, Muriel von Braun and Jean-Baptiste Barriere, in Helsinki in 1998. 

Featured photo: David Reid