Obituary: Composer Kaija Saariaho Dies at 70

By Francisco Salazar

On June 2, 2023, Kaija Saariaho passed away at the age of 70

The composer’s family released a statement in which they noted that Saariaho passed away in the morning in Paris. The statement also said that Saariaho was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer in February 2021 that was seen as incurable and lethal. They added that the multiplying tumors did not affect her cognitive facilities until the terminal phase of her illness.

Born in 1952 in Helsinki, Finland, she went on to study at the Sibelius Academy under Paavo Heininen. She also attended the Darmstadt Summer Courses and later moved to Germany where she continued her studies at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg. 

During a concert of the French spectralists Tristan Murail and Gerard Grisey, she encountered spectral music for the first time which marked a profound shift in Saariaho’s artistic direction. In 1982, she began work at IRCAM researching computer analyses of the “sound-spectrum of individual notes produced by different instruments and developed techniques for computer-assisted composition, experimented with musique concrète, and wrote her first pieces combining live performance with electronics.”

In Paris, Saariaho developed an emphasis on slow transformations of dense masses of sound, and her first tape piece, “Vers Le Blanc” from 1982, and her orchestral and tape work, “Verblendungen,” were both constructed from a single transition.

She would work with an emphasis on timbre and the use of electronics alongside traditional instruments during the 1980s and 1990s.

She made history in 2016 when the Metropolitan Opera performed “L’Amour de Loin,” becoming the second opera by a female composer ever to be presented by the company. The work would be recorded in the company’s Live in HD series. Other operas included the 2008 work “Adriana Mater,” which was presented at the Santa Fe Opera.

More recently her opera “Innocence” was performed at the Festival Aix-En-Provence and Royal Opera House to rave reviews and is headed to the Metropolitan Opera in a future season.

Saariaho was the patron of the Helsinki Music Centre organ project and endowed the construction of a new organ in the Helsinki Music Centre with one million euros. She was also the chair of the ″International Kaija Saariaho Organ Composition Competition.” Throughout her career, she won numerous awards including the Kranichsteiner Prize at Darmstädter Ferienkurse, Prix Italia for Stilleben, Prix Ars Electronica for Stilleben and Io, Wihuri Sibelius Prize, the Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording (L’amour de loin), the Polar Music Prize and Leone d’oro di Venezia, Biennale della Musica Contemporanea.

Here is the full statement from her family.

Here is an excerpt from “L’Amour de Loin.”