Kaija Saariaho, figurehead of contemporary music, is dead

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, in Helsinki, August 18, 2022.

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho died in Paris, at her home, during her sleep, on June 2, at the age of 70, following brain cancer.

Seeing Kaija Saariaho arrive in a wheelchair, on September 17, 2022, at the Palais des fêtes in Strasbourg, to attend the tribute dedicated to him as part of the Musica festival, we feared that the evening would take on the appearance of a vigil. anticipated funeral. Wrongly. The quivering vitality of his music, interpreted in particular by his daughter, the violinist Aliisa Neige Barrière, the naturalness and nobility of his remarks (excerpts from a film by Anne Grange screened for the occasion) and the relevance of the program conceived as a round trip between the two sides of creation (gestation at the table, incarnation at the concert), everything had contributed to simply reminding us who Kaija Saariaho was: one of the greatest figures in contemporary music.

Kaija Saariaho was born on October 14, 1952, in Helsinki, as Kaija Laakkonen, the eldest daughter of a metallurgical engineer from Karelia and a housewife. Her parents not being particularly music lovers, she does not hear much music at home. Except the one that the little girl believes emerges from her pillow when she is about to fall asleep. The dreamlike inspiration is already at work in the mind of the future composer. Very sensitive to sounds, in general, to the point of sometimes perceiving them as attacks, Kaija Laakkonen is considered by those around her as a strange, shy, withdrawn child. Enrolled in a school in Helsinki which applies the principles of Rudolf Steiner, she began the violin at the age of 6, then moved on, two years later, to the piano and even began to compose, trying out the guitar, when she finds herself alone in her room.

Mozart diverts her from music

A discovery, when she passed the milestone of 10 years, will put an abrupt end to these first attempts: the reading of a book on Mozart. When she learned that the Austrian prodigy had already composed a slew of scores at the same age as her, she turned away from music to concentrate on her other passion: drawing. Permanently, since, after obtaining the baccalaureate, in 1972, Neiti Laakkonen (“Miss Laakkonen”, in Finnish) joined the Superior School of Industrial Arts in Helsinki. At the same time, however, she studied musicology at the University of Helsinki and took piano lessons as well as theory at the city’s conservatory. Still a student, she married Markku Saariaho, then separated from him after a year but kept her name.

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