The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, who has died after treatment for brain cancer, aged 70, rose to international fame in the 1980s as a leading, perhaps the leading, musical modernist of her generation.
From her student days onwards, Saariaho’s outlook was adventurous. She spoke of the difficulties in being taken seriously in her student years as a would-be composer who was female; and her works of the early 80s were coolly received in her home country. Her move in 1982 from Finland to Paris to work at Pierre Boulez’s research institute, Ircam (the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), was a clear attempt to immerse herself in computer-assisted composition, live electronics and what had by then become known as spectralism.
This is a French compositional speciality that takes the full sound spectrum from pure tones to unpitched noise as its material and turns it to compositional account via analysis of the innards of sounds themselves: techniques that could be achieved via methods originally devised for electronic music.
Verblendungen (1984) for orchestra and tape, and Lichtbogen (1986) for ensemble and electronics, Saariaho’s first works to achieve a wide reputation, set masses of sound into motion, often at slow speeds, and played live instruments and electronics off against each other. By the early 90s she had followed French spectralists such as Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, who used the experience of electronics, and especially the computer’s then new facility in analysing sound, to write music mainly for instruments and voices.
This approach ushered in Saariaho’s fully mature manner, the best early example of which is Graal Théâtre (1994) for violin and orchestra or smaller ensemble. From then on she continued to forge a uniquely powerful idiom from this approach. Her focus dwelt on the conjuring of shimmering, slowly evolving sound worlds whose translucent and dreamy tendencies are frequently likened to visual images: light on water, the night sky, whether starry or black, and the colour spectrum itself.
With her move, in particular, into opera, Saariaho deepened as well as broadened her compositional style still further, taking her a long way from its modernist beginnings.
Starting with L’Amour de Loin (2000) – her first opera, based on the life of the 12th-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel – modal melody and more regular repetition entered her vocabulary. This development also had an impact on her works for the concert hall: Orion (2002) for orchestra is an excellent example. Her next opera, Adriana Mater (2005), dealt with an event with which the audience can identify (“a country at war in the present day”) but remains unspecific about its location.
Subsequent operas address subjects that appear even more remote: the monodrama Emilie (2008), for the soprano Karita Mattila, was based on the life of the 18th-century philosopher and mathematician Emilie du Châtelet; Only the Sound Remains (2015) took Noh drama as its springboard.
By contrast, the harrowing story of a school shooting that drove her last opera, Innocence (2018), recently seen at Covent Garden, led Saariaho towards a more direct and narrative thrust in music that nevertheless stays compellingly true to the sound world that she had long made all her own. This embrace of an all-too-present-day drama, teeming with characters and fast action, tantalisingly suggested new dimensions for future compositions.
Born in Helsinki, the eldest of the three children of Launo and Tuovi Laakkonen, Kaija was a solitary child. The publication last year of a biography of the composer revealed that she had been abused by her father, a wealthy industrialist. In adulthood she donated a million euros she had inherited from him towards a new organ for the concert hall in the Helsinki Music Centre. Her youthful delight in the sights and sounds of Finnish lakes and forests in summer led to a lifelong love for the natural world that inspired her compositions.
Her parents’ private art collection, which included much modern art, steered Saariaho towards the visual arts. Though she took lessons on several musical instruments and even composed music from an early age, she pursued courses in graphic design beyond her secondary school years as well as various musical studies in her home city. She kept the surname she acquired from a brief early marriage to Markku Saariaho.
Her seven-year relationship with the artist Olli Lyytikäinen led her to join a 70s artists’ collective called Elonkorjaajat (the Harvesters). Saariaho’s composition teachers from this period and later – Paavo Heininen at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, and both Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber in Freiburg, Germany – all had radical musical sympathies.
Further support was provided by her fellow students during her years with Heininen, who included the composer Magnus Lindberg and the conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen; they formed another group, with the name Korvat Auki! (Open Your Ears!).
Saariaho graduated from the Sibelius Academy in 1980. Her move, two years later, to Paris turned out to be a permanent one. Grants from Finnish organisations as well as other commissions allowed her to work in France as a full-time composer. Her burgeoning international reputation also furnished extended stays in California and Japan.
Close and long-term associations – notably with the Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen, the American soprano Dawn Upshaw and the American flautist Camilla Hoitenga – stimulated many works for these musicians. Peter Sellars directed the premieres of two of her operas. Honours included the Grawemeyer award in 2003, for L’Amour de Loin, and, two months ago, the title of Academician awarded by the president of Finland, Sauli Niinistö.
Despite her recent illness, Saariaho was able to complete her final work, a trumpet concerto called Hush, in March.
She is survived by her second husband, the composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière, whom she married in 1984, and their children, Aleksi and Aliisa Neige.
Kaija Anneli Saariaho, composer, born 14 October 1952; died 2 June 2023