By Peter Culshaw
From The Telegraph - 07/07/2007
I'm sitting in Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's flat in Paris, which, like her music, is sparsely decorated with occasional flashes of unexpected colour. Now 53, she is recalling with some disbelief an article she read when she was a 20-year-old student in Helsinki.
"It had various composers explaining why women could not be composers - that their hormonal balance was wrong, that they were incapable of abstract thought - and that was how many people thought only 30 years ago, in what was supposed to be a liberal country. Naturally the article spurred me on, and made me angry."
These days, Saariaho is probably the best known female composer in the world. Her first opera, L'Amour de loin ("Love from Afar"), had its première in Salzburg in 2000 and went on to cause a sensation at the Santa Fe Opera in 2002. The story of a medieval troubadour consumed by a love for a woman he has never met, it was directed by the adventurous American Peter Sellars.
Saariaho credits Sellars as the man who inspired her to write opera: it was only seeing his updated, controversial settings of Mozart in the 1980s that she "started to think that opera could mean something in the modern world".
If L'Amour de loin was notable for its shimmering beauty, Saariaho's new oratorio, La Passion de Simone, commissioned by Sellars for his New Crowned Hope festival in Vienna, is tougher in both musical language and subject matter. It recounts the life of Simone Weil, who starved herself to death in 1943 at the age of 34 ("between the ages of Jesus and Mozart" as librettist Amin Maalouf puts it).
It was written for Dawn Upshaw, who was also the stunning, soulful lead voice in L'Amour de loin. Upshaw, who was ill for the première in Vienna, sings it for the first time in London on Tuesday as part of the New Crowned Hope highlights season at the Barbican.
"I read Simone Weil's books as a teenager," says Saariaho, "and they were important to me - I was impressed how she was always trying to find the answers to the big mysteries of life in mathematics, in philosophy."
Weil starved herself "in empathy with those who were not eating in the war, and she had many problems in her life, but I was fascinated by her inner world, her search for the profound, her gravity and her grace."
Saariaho may be angry at what she sees as the "patriarchal attitudes" of the Finnish musical establishment, but in person she barely raises her voice above a whisper.
She spent years living like a musical hermit at the electronic music think-tank IRCAM in Paris (although she did meet her husband there - fellow composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière ) and says that her first thought for a musical career was "to be an organist in some remote village in Finland".
This rather mystical side of her character is reflected in her other-worldly music. Fans often regard her as a spiritual guru. "I have nothing special to teach," she claims. "If there's something spiritual in me it's my search for music and how to create in the very commercial society we are living in."
Though not from a musical family, she remembers being drawn to music as a child, telling her mother that there was "music coming from my pillow. I would ask her, 'Can't you turn it off?' I imagined music all the time."
She lived in Helsinki but spent summers in the country. "I had strong feelings about birds and nature and rain and forests," she says. She took up the violin but was too shy to be a natural performer.
"Then I became somehow diminished in the search for identity as a teenager." By the time she was a student, "I was writing little songs of settings of poems - it was all I thought I was capable of."
She talks of her good fortune to be taught by composer and pianist Paavo Heininen at a heady time in the 1970s at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.
Partly thanks to the Finnish government's establishment of a national network of music schools in the 1960s, a gifted crop of students taught by Heininen emerged - fellow students included the composer Magnus Lindberg and the conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste.
"I had a very strong desire to express myself in music and Paavo gave me the technical tools and the confidence," says Saariaho. "As a woman I didn't have big composers to identify with. But he helped me find my way back to the imaginative world of my childhood."
It's an introspective musical world with an often lyrical, timeless quality. "That is a temptation for me as a composer - to stop time. It's a place I am longing to go always."