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Four measures of Kaija Saariaho
Kaija Saariaho is one of the most significant composers of our time, and inspires listeners, critics and scholars alike. How did she manage to win them all over?

Tapio Ollikainen

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Finnish contemporary music has made a powerful impact on the international music scene.

In addition to Kaija Saariaho, who won the 2003 Grawemeyer Award, one of the most prestigious international awards for composers, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen's works are widely renowned.

Of these, Saariaho has also caught the attention of musicologists.

Saariaho research is particularly intense at the University of Turku, but the University of Helsinki has also witnessed a small Saariaho boom, when Auli Karra, Tanja Uimonen and Marja Minkkinen completed their Master's theses on Saariaho for the Department of Musicology last year, and Liisamaija Hautsalo's doctoral dissertation on Saariaho's first opera is underway. For this to happen in 2003 was more than fitting, as that year the University also awarded Saariaho with an honorary doctorate.

Extra-musical factors affect the popularity of a composer as an object of research. The more previous research, the more easily a composer is chosen as a subject for theses - it gives one somewhere to start. An inspiring teacher also plays a role in the choice of topic. The University of Helsinki has Anne Sivuoja-Gunaratnam, who is currently Professor of Musicology at the University of Turku, to thank for the boom. Her Saariaho lectures were frequently mentioned when I had interviewed the thesis writers. The composer has also herself written and lectured about her works and composing. This, too, helps attract scholarly attention.

Modernism with a feeling

There is no doubt, however, that it is Saariaho's music that impresses scholars the most. What is Saariaho's music like then? "Saariaho has succeeded in creating music that is uniquely hers, that departs from the surrounding tradition. It is made particularly interesting by her ability to make her art approachable for wider audiences, although it is firmly founded on modernistic traditions," says Liisamaija Hautsalo.

In modernism, the accepted starting point for composing is that music simply is so complicated and mathematical that understanding it requires deep theoretical knowledge. In this respect, Saariaho has done quite a trick: her works are enjoyable both intellectually and emotionally.

"When tonality, or adherence to scales, was rejected in music, the search for new principles around which to organise tones began. Some composers focus more on the tone than form or composing technique, while others, such as composers of serial music, organise tones with interesting methods, but the end result may not sound that good. Saariaho has managed to combine interesting methods and appealing results," summarises Auli Karra.

In Tanja Uimonen's opinion, Saariaho's music is colourful in its ideas and straightforward in its execution. "Her music has something really amiable and accessible about it. As a composer she seems not to be overly critical about her ideas. She has no need to sit in an ivory tower and pretend to be a composer who is difficult to approach."

For Marja Minkkinen, Saariaho's Lichtbogen made a very strong impression at the Time of Music festival held in Viitasari four years ago. She felt that the calming music, which played with tones and mass of sound, reached deep into her emotions. "I was left to wonder, what it was in her music that would bring tears to the eyes of such a 'hardened' listener as I am. From that moment on, it became quite obvious for me to study Saariaho's music," Minkkinen says.

Talk and bodily sensations

The equality of all tones is one of the key principles of modernism. Talk, a clanking train, as well as the noise from an aircraft can work as sources of music just as well as a violin or cello. Or is, for example, Saariaho's Stilleben not intriguing? The work incorporates extracts from Franz Kafka's works read aloud in Finnish, French and German by people at railway stations and airports.

Minkkinen thinks it is, and decided to study in her thesis the interaction between text and music in Saariaho's works. Many poems and novels from different periods have inspired Saariaho, ranging from the Bible through Shakespeare to Mika Waltari.

"For example in From the Grammar of Dreams the vocalists repeat Sylvia Plath's poem Paralytic and extracts from her novel Bell Jar. The music lives in a close symbiosis with the dream-themed texts. The work has a nightmarish, in places even psychotic, atmosphere," Minkkinen says.

From the Grammar of Dreams is a very "bodily" work: it has no instruments, just vocals, and one of the effects used is the emphasis on the sound of breathing. "The singers over-articulate, which heightens the physicality of voice production, especially with the sounds h, r and s."

Visual or not?

Saariaho is often described as a visual composer. She began, in fact, studying fine arts but found it an insufficient form of expression for her. Still, visual arts have a place in Saariaho's creative process. "Saariaho has often used the idea of transition in her compositions, a gradual shift from one space to another. She says the idea is based on the borderline between shadow and light in Goethe's theory of colours," Minkkinen says.

Saariaho has, however, sometimes needed to restrain the media's eagerness to emphasise the visualness of her music. A well-known example of the influence of visual arts in Saariaho's music is the work Verblendungen, in which Saariaho used two brush strokes as a draft. The composition begins with a loud rumble and gradually quiets down - not unlike a stroke of a paintbrush. The visual idea of the work has in Uimonen's opinion been over-interpreted. "The image of brushstrokes does not explain the whole work. They only illustrate the dynamics of the work, the long diminuendo, the gradual decreasing of volume. The important things happen on other levels, such as the rich harmony."

The idea behind Verblendungen, the brush stroke, does not indicate a direct connection between Saariaho's music and visual arts, Uimonen points out. Rather she sees strong parallels between Saariaho's thinking and the ideas of the early 1900s avant-garde artists, such as the rationalist worldview and emphasis on dynamism. "In this comparison, Saariaho's musical thinking can be understood through visual language," Uimonen says.

Heyday for opera-lovers

A couple of years ago, Saariaho conquered a new field as an opera composer. Her first opera L'amour de Loin, which was premiered in Salzburg, has received wide critical acclaim and has been staged in such important cities as Paris, Santa Fe, Bern and Darmstad. The much-anticipated Finnish premiere will take place next autumn.

Again, Saariaho has done something a modernist probably should not: it was, after all, Pierre Boulez, the father of modernism, who said all opera houses should be burnt down, and Saariaho herself doubted very much in the early 1980s whether she would ever write an opera.

That Saariaho should do an about-face like this is not, as such, something to be amazed at. This seems to be a rule rather than an exception among modernists. In addition to Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jouni Kaipainen have also ventured into opera, although at the moment their opera projects are on hold.

Hautsalo, who teaches opera studies and history at the University of Helsinki and writes articles and critiques on contemporary music, welcomes the change in climate. "Those who like opera and contemporary music are having a heyday, now that modernists seem to have accepted opera as a fruitful form of music. I, for one, could not wish for a better topic of research than Saariaho's opera!"

Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de Loin at the Finnish National Opera. Premiere in September 2004.

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