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“Known to her friends as Kaija”: A musical journey with trusted interpreters

by Anu Jormalainen

Over the decades, numerous musicians and ensembles around the world have performed the music of Kaija Saariaho. Without long-term relationships with trusted interpreters, the Finnish composer’s music would have travelled quite a different path.

“Kaija.” In this story, Kaija Saariaho, 70, one of the world’s most respected classical music composers, is repeatedly referred to familiarly by her first name. 

And no wonder – the interviewees are long-time friends of the celebrated composer and trusted interpreters of her work: cellist Anssi Karttunen, 62, soprano Anu Komsi, 55, and pianist Pia Värri, 56, who have performed her work together and separately. To all of them, Saariaho is simply Kaija: a close colleague, friend and source of inspiration whose music is inextricably intertwined with their own career paths. 

In harmony

“A 40-year partnership born by chance. We’ve had parallel careers and progressed together.”

That’s how cellist Anssi Karttunen, one of Finland’s best-known musicians internationally, describes his time with Saariaho. The story began in the early 1980s with the meeting of two Finnish strangers who happened to move to Paris at the same time. Regular interaction quickly deepened into friendship.

“At first, neither of us spoke French. We reported to each other daily, had long phone calls and together learned about living in France.”

Between discussions about everyday life, they talked about music. Their first musical collaboration was Im Traume(1980), which Karttunen performed with pianist Tuija Hakkila at the 1982 UNM – Ung Nordisk Musik festival in Reykjavík.

Over the years, the two shared worldviews and grew together artistically as Karttunen helped the composer to understand the cello. In 1988, she dedicated her first solo cello work, Petals, to him. In Karttunen’s words, the piece revealed her “miraculous talent”.

“When Kaija brought me the sheet music for Petals, it was completely ready. She had fully developed her writing for cello, and there was no need to change anything.”

Petals opened a path toward a new type of cello literature.

“It was more like the first fruit of our friendship than a search for collaboration. Our friendship began to generate music, and it has never stopped doing so. Since then, Kaija has written nearly all of her cello pieces for me,” says Karttunen. 

These include six solo pieces, four orchestral works and an innumerable number of duets, trios and so on. The two artists’ connection remains vibrant.

“If you talk on the phone for an hour almost every day for 40 years, then maybe you can call it friendship,” says Karttunen wryly.

Hanno Karttunen. Artist friends Anssi Karttunen and Kaija Saariaho in Helsinki, 1992.

From Paris to the world

Internationally renowned coloratura soprano Anu Komsi has also known Saariaho for more than three decades. They first met at the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle’s M1 music studio in 1988 during a radio recording of Saariaho’s Adjö(1982).

“At the time, I was still a young Sibelius Academy student and active member of the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra. We met again the following year in Paris, where I was studying singing.”

In 1989, at the Savonlinna Music Academy, Komsi met another musician friend and Saariaho interpreter, pianist Pia Värri, who now lives in Paris.  

“We have this Komsi–Värri axis, which just clicked wonderfully, even then. It’s quite extraordinary,” says Värri.

Värri got to know Saariaho in 2000 through Iltarukous (Evening Prayer), a song based on a poem by Eino Leino and dedicated to Komsi.

“I had played some of Kaija’s pieces, and we knew each other because the Finnish circles in Paris are very small,” the pianist recalls.

Värri continued working with the composer in 2007 when “Kaija asked me to serve as a répétiteur” for the premiere of Mirage (2007), featuring Karttunen and Karita Mattila as soloists. Värri also worked with Saariaho and Mattila on the opera Émilie in 2010. 

Saariaho’s work is intertwined with Komsi and Värri’s musical expression, including premieres and recordings. Milestones – and relatively rare Finnish-language works in Saariaho’s oeuvre – are Leino Songs (2000-07) and Saarikoski Songs (2013-20), which can be heard on the duo’s pandemic-era album Sumun läpi (Through the Mist, 2021).

Trust between the lines of notes

Experience from long years of cooperation is apparent in how new works are created.

“We don’t need to discuss much, because Kaija knows my voice so well,” says Komsi.

“It’s such a trusting relationship that you can say anything. At the point when Kaija starts the composition process itself, we no longer talk about the work. I want her to be completely undisturbed without me affecting the composition,” says Karttunen.

Sometimes, though, the composer may approach Karttunen to check a detail, ask a technical question, send a couple of notes or a rhythm. In this case, Karttunen plays her the parts over the phone. The cellist describes the creation of Saariaho’s works in a multidimensional way.

“For Kaija, music is comprehensive and involves so much personal feeling that she goes beyond all the technical issues. What makes her music unique is how she experiences the composition even before she composes it, as a visual or emotional metaphor. I imagine that Kaija’s music comes in through many doors: visual, emotional and practical. All of this brings together music that could not be born otherwise.”

Indeed, Saariaho’s music must be understood beyond what is in the sheet music.

“Kaija has her own unique notes and tone. It’s instantly recognisable. Her music has its own kind of strong expressiveness, harmonies and spectra, which must all be conveyed to the listener. The notes are just a raw copy of a world that is beyond there,” says Värri. Karttunen agrees. 

“Kaija’s music cannot be ‘heard on paper’ in the classic manner. There are so many subtle little colours that vary slightly every time,” he says. “It’s still a mystery to me how a composer can imagine them so accurately in her own head.”

Karttunen offers an example of teaching situations when student are faced with Saariaho compositions.

“The first thing I usually say is that although this may look strange on the sheet music, the piece is built from the same elements as all other music,” he explains.

Saariaho’s music offers a challenge for musicians as it calls for unusual methods of sound production. In the case of the cello, this includes distorting the sound by adding bow pressure.

“It’s not a negative thing; it becomes part of your vocabulary,” says Karttunen. “As performers, we have to learn that the vocabulary of an academically trained cellist suddenly grows ten times larger, and we need to learn to use it. It’s very difficult to make things sound exactly the same every time – but that’s the very element that makes the music come alive.”

Safety in interpretation

According to Komsi, performing Saariaho’s music requires “an excellent ear, an ambitious approach to clear intonation, passionate phrasing and an open mind”.

“Saariaho’s music gives people space to think and listen,” she adds.

Musicians who work frequently with Saariaho often mention the freedom of interpretation. According to Värri, Saariaho’s pieces must be performed with the heart. In addition to sensitivity and self-discipline, they also call for “courage, including inner courage”.

“Kaija trusts our artistic vision of her music. She doesn’t forbid anything; there’s no single correct interpretation. Kaija trusts the performers to give their all, and the music is alive,” says Värri.

Karttunen approaches Saariaho’s work from an emotional standpoint.

“For me, Kaija’s music is pure emotion. I try to convert all the technical and practical things related to playing to the level of feeling,” he says. “Interpretation does not mean trying to add something of my own to it but letting the music flow through me as directly as possible.”

There is also space for fearlessly encountering a unique moment of performance.

“As someone who knows all of Kaija’s music, I can create a collection of emotions that will always form the piece I am playing to be played at that moment. From the practical level of playing, you rise to a slightly more metaphysical level, where you no longer need to be afraid of details or mistakes,” he adds.

Playing Saariaho’s music brings Karttunen a sense of security, as he recognises his friend in the works.

“For me, performing Kaija’s music is a safe place and an experience that’s accompanied by the joy of being able to convey a message and show how important it is to me. Even though I travel the world alone, I’m never alone thanks to the music composed for me by friends. They are always with me on the concert stage.”

Finnish language and premieres

Decades of artistic collaboration include many iconic moments, of which a few stand out for Komsi.

“The From the Grammar of Dreams tour in 2001 in Finland, France and England was important. And the recordings, such as Leino Songs, which I commissioned, and the album Sumun läpi (Through the Mist), which includes the premiere recordings of the Saarikoski songs.”

These two song cycles were born at Komsi’s initiative, after she suggested that Saariaho compose music to Finnish-language lyrics. They are now among Saariaho’s most popular songs.

“I’m very pleased by that. The songs serve as ambassadors of the Finnish language, not just of Finnish composition,” says the singer.

Saariaho’s latest opera, Innocence, premiered in July 2021 in Aix-en-Provence, France, and had its Finnish premiere at the National Opera on 21 October 2022 to great acclaim. The opera depicts events that take place ten year after a school shooting at an international school in Finland. In the work, Komsi performs the role of the mother-in-law, Patricia.

“The subject matter is heavy, of course, but the ensemble is excellent,” says Komsi. “The opera is very timely, although it’s hard to be happy about that when there are still school shootings almost every day and Ukraine is being bombed.”

Maarit Kytöharju. Pianist Pia Värri and soprano Anu Komsi at the Sumun läpi (Through the Mist) album release concert at the Helsinki Music Centre in 2021.

Passing on the compositional torch

Saariaho and Karttunen grew into new music along with composer Magnus Lindberg. A close working and friendship relationship led to recognising the strength of their peers.

“We realised how precious it was that we happened to get to know each other at just the right moment, when we were still young enough,” recalls Karttunen.

The trio hatched the idea of an international Creative Dialogue workshop, which has been organised in cooperation with the Sibelius Academy since 2008. The workshop creates dialogue between young instrumentalists and composers from different countries and offers the opportunity to work on new pieces.

“This is a part of the musician’s life that’s not usually taught at music colleges,” explains Karttunen. “We’ve tried to talk a lot about how the best things can arise naturally. When, through friendship and getting to know each other, you learn everything from each other that you can’t learn from a book. That creates the kind of relationships that I’ve had with Kaija and Magnus for 40 years.”

So far, Creative Dialogue has brought together 166 composers and musicians from around the world. For Karttunen, sharing his experience has become part of his great purpose in life.

“Every day at Creative Dialogue, the musicians are presented with new music that no one has ever played before. We’re there, but not as teachers.”

Border-free role model

When asked to sum up the significance of Saariaho and her music, her regular interpreters do not hesitate.

“Kaija is a role model for all of us: a leading star in art music whose value globally is on par with Jean Sibelius,” says Komsi. 

Värri recalls an experience in the remote French countryside, where a young man commented on one of her concert programmes: “Oh, I would have so loved to hear Kaija Saariaho’s music.”

“I think it’s a sign of a great composer when the audience that enjoys Saariaho’s music is so international and comes from such socially diverse backgrounds,” the pianist adds. 

Värri has been impressed by Saariaho’s exemplary, pioneering career, in which “a creative musical gift that’s so incomprehensible charts its own unique path with no alternatives”.

“She was able to compose in the male-dominated world of the 1980s and ‘90s. Kaija is an extremely important example for the younger generations: a composer who has had success with her own music, and who continues to be successful.”

Saariaho’s background and strength of will have also impressed Karttunen: “She has moved ahead inexorably, based completely on with her music and art, without ever compromising herself.”

As Karttunen sees it, Saariaho has a unique gift for everyone.

“A good way to understand our world just a little bit better is to listen to the music of Kaija.”

Selected works by Saariaho’s trusted interpreters

  • Cellist Anssi Karttunen: e.g. Petals (1988), Amers (1992), Sept Papillons (2000), Notes on Light (2006), Mirage(2007), Cloud Trio (2010), Light and Matter (2014) and Offrande (2014). Saariaho’s latest work for cello is Lullaby (in memoriam Oliver Knussen) (2020).
  • In 1998, Karttunen and Saariaho founded the Petals association, which actively published and distributed CDs, sheet music and other material for 15 years. Karttunen: “Even before social media, we understood that you can find your audience in other ways, besides through the record industry.”
  • Soprano Anu Komsi: e.g. La Dame à la licorne (Petal 003) (1998), From the Grammar of Dreams (2000, Ondine): Anu Komsi (soprano), Piia Komsi (soprano), Riikka Rantanen (mezzo-soprano), Petteri Salomaa (baritone) and the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Hannu Lintu. Innocence (role of the mother-in-law, Patricia, at the Finnish National Opera, October-November 2022.
  • Pianist and répétiteur Pia Värri: Mirage (2007) with soloists Karita Mattila and Anssi Karttunen. Émilie opera (2008). 
  • Komsi and Värri: Leino Songs (2000–2007), Saarikoski Songs (2013–2020), Sumun läpi (Through the Mist) (2021, ColoraMaestro). 
  • The orchestral version of Saarikoski Songs was premiered in Boston by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in February-March 2022. The work’s European premiere will be in Helsinki in March 2023, followed by performances in Paris, Copenhagen and London in 2023-24. 

Translation: Wif Stenger

Featured photo: Maarit Kytöharju. Composer Kaija Saariaho (right) at the Sumun läpi (Through the Mist) album release concert in 2021 with graphic artist Ville Tietäväinen, soprano Anu Komsi and pianist Pia Värri.