2008 Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition

Kaija Saariaho

2008 Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition Prize

Kaija Saariaho

For transforming avant-garde techniques into a world of luminous, shifting color and emotional depth, mirroring the human experience

Official press release

Born in Helsinki, Finland in 1952, Kaija Saariaho studied at the Sibelius Academy with the pioneering modernist Paavo Heininen. She continued her studies at the Freiburg Hochschule with Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber and, from 1982, at the IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) research institute in Paris – the city which has been her home ever since.

Through IRCAM, Saariaho became allied with the French ‘spectralist’ composers, whose techniques are based on computer analysis of the sound-spectrum of individual notes on different instruments. While there, she developed techniques of computer-assisted composition and acquired fluency in working on tape and with live electronics. She first came to public attention with her compositions “Verblendungen” for orchestra and tape (1982-84), “Lichtbogen” for chamber ensemble and live electronics (1985-86), and “Nymphea” (1987) that was commissioned by New York’s Lincoln Center for the Kronos Quartet. In recent years she has transformed her language into one of transparent clarity that focuses on color, timbre and expressiveness.

With a catalog of more than 80 works of every genre, Saariaho’s major pieces include the violin concerto “Graal theatre” (1994), written for violinist and conductor Gidon Kremer; the vocal works “Chateau de l’ame” (1996) and “Lohn” (1996), both written for soprano Dawn Upshaw and commissioned by the Salzburg Festival and the Vienna Modern Music Festival, respectively; “Oltra mar” (1998-99), premiered by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; a flute concerto, “Aile du songe” (2001) for flutist Camilla Hoitenga; “Nymphea Reflection” (2001) for string orchestra; “Orion” (2002) for the Cleveland Orchestra; and “Quatre Instants” (2002) for soprano Karita Mattila.

Saariaho has enjoyed particular success with her large works for voice. Her first opera “L’Amour de loin” (2000), with a libretto by Amin Maalouf, is based on the life of 12th century troubadour Jaufre Rudel. Commissioned by the Salzburg Festival and the Theatre du Chatelet, it received widespread acclaim when premiered in 2000 with Dawn Upshaw in the leading role and Peter Sellars as director. Two years later the piece won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award. A second opera, “Adriana Mater” (2005), also with a libretto by Maalouf and directed by Sellars, was premiered at the Opera Bastille.

It was presented this spring by the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki and will be heard this summer at the Santa Fe Opera. An evening-long oratorio “La Passion de Simone” (2007), with a libretto by Maalouf, was commissioned by the Wiener Festwochen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Barbican Centre and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts for a 2006 premiere at Peter Sellars’ New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna. The piece centers on the life and works of philosopher Simone Weil. Performances have since taken place at the Barbican Centre in London and in Helsinki,  with future presentations scheduled at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts this summer and in January 2009 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Recent world premieres for Saariaho include “Notes on Light,” commissioned and performed by the Boston Symphony; “Terra Memoria” for the Emerson String Quartet; and “Mirage,” written for soprano Karita Mattila and cellist Anssi Karttunen, by the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. The latter has already been performed 10 times throughout the world. Saariaho is currently at work on an orchestral piece for the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle conducting.

Among Saariaho’s many honors and awards are the designation of “2008 Composer of the Year” by Musical America, the Prix Italia, and the Musical Award of the North Council. Her music can be heard on more than 40 compact discs on the Deutsche Gramophone, SONY, ECM, EMI and Ondine labels, among others.

For more information on Kaija Saariaho visit her bio page at chesternovello.com or contact Ellen Schantz at  the Bienen School of Music at eschantz@northwestern.edu.