Kaija Saariaho’s lasting legacy on electronic music

Dom Aversano

© Kaija Saariaho Photo by Christophe Abramowitz courtesy of Saariaho70.fi

The recent death of the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho represents a great shock and loss for music, as she was so greatly admired for her pioneering spirit and irreplaceably original voice. In 2019 leading composers were polled by BBC Music Magazine to rate composers, with Saariaho emerging as the world’s best living composer. Her diverse repertoire of music touched upon many fields of music making, not least of all electronic music and computer-assisted composing. 

Despite having admired the music of Saariaho for many years it was only in 2021, two years prior to her death, that I had the opportunity to hear her music performed live for the first time. Though I had previously enjoyed listening to recordings of her orchestral compositions, I had a sense this was music that demanded a live setting to bring it truly to life. 

A ripple of excitement travelled through Valencia’s orchestral members at the prospect of playing this music, given they do not often have the opportunity to perform pieces by living composers. Despite the pandemic, as well as the repeated refrain that contemporary music just doesn’t fill concert halls, two-thirds of the seats were filled with mask-wearing audience members. 

The music took on a new life when performed. Far from difficult, it felt enticing and mesmeric, constructed from a sonic language whose subtle logic could be learned in an autodidactic manner, through osmosis and exposure. That evening, I left the concert hall with a strong sense I had only dipped my toe in the music, and that it deserved and required an entire festival. 

If one agrees with the view that her instrumental music thrives in a concert hall, this is not necessarily the case for her electronic music, which can be fully enjoyed with decent pair of headphones or speakers. While I do not pretend to be an expert on Saariaho’s music I have revisited some of her compositions since her death, focusing on a formative time when she had relocated to France from her native Finland and was working at the influential Parisian Centre for Research IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique)I will share my thoughts and reflections about three of Saariaho’s compositions from this period in the 1980s.  

1. Vers le blanc (1982)

As far as enigmatic music goes this composition is right up there as no complete recording of the music has ever been published, with it only having been performed at a select number of concerts. However, the minute score below gives us some conception of the music. 

The score describes a transformation from one tone cluster to another (ABC -> DEF) over a gradual glissando (a glide from one pitch to another) that lasts an unusual fifteen minutes. The influence of French Spectralist music on a younger Saariaho is obvious, but to my mind, she taps into a broader zeitgeist. There is a similarity in the combination of musical simplicity and conceptual radicalism to John Cage’s 1952 composition 4′ 33″ and Steve Reich’s 1965 tape piece It’s Gonna Rain. These compositions are not simply sound worlds (or absences) to be enjoyed, but philosophical questions about the nature and direction of music. 

Despite the fact that no complete recording of the composition exists, in 2017 Landon Morrison, College Fellow in Music Theory at Harvard University, visited IRCAM in France and discovered some original audio of this composition, of which three excerpts can be heard here. Saariaho chose to use synthetic human voices, and is quoted as having said of this piece.

“(it) create(s) the illusion of an endless human voice, sustained and ‘non-breathing,’ which at times departs from its physical model”

I still wanted to hear some approximation of the entirety of the compositions, so could not resist programming something in Supercollider. While the code below is in no sense an accurate representation of Saariaho’s work, not least of all since its timbre is made from sine waves rather than synthesised voices, it does give some sense of the gradual shift that occurs within her composition.

Due to not wishing to infringe on copyright or create an inaccurate recording I am sharing this as code which can be run in SuperCollider.

					var clusterStart = [48, 57, 59].midicps; var clusterEnd = [ 52, 50, 53].midicps; 
var duration = 60*30;
		Line.ar(clusterStart, clusterEnd, duration)
	).sum * 0.3,

2. Lichtbogen (1985/86) 

While this composition does not use electronic sounds, it is composed with the help of computers. Saariaho manages the impressive feat of bringing the often seemingly disparate worlds of computers and nature into harmony. Of the name of the composition she wrote.
‘stems from Northern Lights which I saw in the Arctic sky when starting to work on this piece’.
The sense of Finland’s deep nature combines itself with the exploratory intellectualism of Paris’s IRCAM, where computer music was researched and developed. She describes using two systems for harmony and rhythm, the FORMES system and the CRIME system. Saariaho describes how computers assisted her compositions. ‘These programmes allowed me to construct interpolations and transitions for different musical parameters… The calculated results have then been transcribed with approximations, which allows them to be playable to music notation.’

3. Stilleben (1987/88)  

I have listened to this composition many times and feel it is simultaneously direct and unknowable. The directness is in its autobiographical nature, describing a person living away from their native country, surrounded by three European languages: French, German, and Finnish, all of which had a personal significance to Saariaho. Similarly, the sounds of trains symbolise the cosmopolitan life of an internationally successful composer. It taps into a larger tradition of the use of trains in music, ranging from jazz composer Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train, to Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos’s The Little Train of the Caipira, as well as New York composer Steve Reich’s Different Trains, which was written in the same year. 


The unknowable aspect of the music is the manner in which it has been arranged. It feels somewhat dreamlike, with its radiophonic nature lending it a cinematic element. Yet the recurrence of strings throughout appears to root the piece in the concert tradition. The recent rise of nationalism across Europe makes the piece feel almost controversial and political, as though it were a defence of internationalism, but I have seen no evidence of that being its original intention. Regardless of one’s interpretation, there is an expertise and maturity at work in the piece that is inspiring and beautiful, demonstrative of someone in possession of immense technical and artistic ability.