Year of Election: 2012
Born on October 14, 1952 in Helsinki, Finland, Kaija Saariaho lived a childhood embedded in music, playing several instruments. In parallel to musical studies, she started art studies, at the Fine Arts School of Helsinki, that she quickly quit to concentrate on music.
Saariaho studied at the Sibelius Academy under Paavo Heininen and while still a student there founded the progressive “Ears Open” group together with Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen. After attending the Darmstadt Summer Courses, she moved to Germany to study at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg under Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber. After attending the Darmstadt Summer Courses in 1980, where she heard a concert of the French spectralists Tristan Murail and Gerard Grisey, she decided to attend courses in computer music that were being given by IRCAM, the computer music research institute in Paris, by David Wessel, Jean-Baptiste Barrière, and Marc Battier. In 1982, she moved to Paris where she would be based for the rest of her life and began work at IRCAM researching computer analyses of the sound-spectrum of individual notes produced by different instruments. She developed techniques for computer-assisted composition, experimented with musique concrète, and wrote her first pieces combining live performance with electronics.
In 2000, Saariaho completed her first opera, L’Amour de loin (Love from Afar), featuring a libretto by Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf, and it received its world premiere performance later that year at the Salzburg Festival in a production directed by Peter Sellars. The opera went on receive the 2003 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition and the world premiere recording of the work, featuring Daniel Belcher, Ekaterina Lekhina, and Marie-Ange Todorovitch with the Rundfunkchor Berlin and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under the direction of Kent Nagano, received the 2011 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. In 2016, L’Amour de loin became the first evening-length opera by a female composer ever to be presented by the Metropolitan Opera House. Saariaho went on to compose four additional operas, two of which were also in collboration with Maalouf with whom she also created the 2006 oratorio La Passion de Simone.
In 2013, she was awarded the Polar Music Prize and in 2007, she received the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Contemporary Music. She died on June 2, 2023.