Composer Kaija Saariaho, on stage and in the classroom in Aspen |

Composer Kaija Saariaho, on stage and in the classroom in Aspen

Composer Kaija Saariaho is in residence at the Aspen Music Festival and School this week.
Priska Ketterer Luzern/Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: Aspen Chamber Symphony

Where: Benedict Music Tent

When: Friday, Aug. 5, 6 p.m.

How much: $78

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House & Harris Concert Hall box offices;

More info: The program will feature Sibelius’ “Pohjola’s Daughter” paired with Saariaho’s “Cinq reflects” and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 3 with Saariaho’s “Aile du songe.”

Kaija Saariaho herself sat behind a music stand in the seats of Harris Concert Hall on Wednesday night, tapping on a tablet computer and shaping the textured music filling the hall from Jennifer Koh’s violin as she played Saariaho’s “Frises.”

The acclaimed Finnish composer, winner of the Polar Music Prize and other honors, is in town for a residency with the Aspen Music Festival and School. Her visit has included multiple performances of her work and workshops with composition students.

Earlier this summer, the Music Festival Vice President for Artistic Administration Asadour Santourian underscored the magnitude of Saariaho’s residency here by comparing it to Igor Stravinsky’s visit in 1950.

Her work often incorporates electronic and amplified sound, and groundbreaking techniques like the live mixing of “Frises.” Saariaho, 63, said that she began experimenting with new technology early in her career because she didn’t trust the acoustics of the European halls where her pieces were being played. In the process, she discovered a new realm of composition.

“It feels as if the live-ness is palpable,” she said of the live-mixing Wednesday afternoon in a panel discussion with Aspen Music Festival CEO Alan Fletcher and Koh. “It truly is making music.”

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani led a performance of Saariaho’s “Jardin Secret II” on Monday evening, during which Saariaho and a sound engineer played recorded found sounds and the composer’s voice on speakers. The recorded sounds came from speakers placed around the stage, playing out spatially and swirling through the concert hall.

The festival has assiduously paired Saariaho’s work with her forbears’ in the classical realm. On Monday, “Jardin Secret” was paired with Manuel de Falla’s Harpsichord Concerto. At Koh’s recital, Bach’s Partita No. 2 for unaccompanied violin preceded “Frises,” during which Saariaho layered in live, looped recordings of Koh’s solo performance (the violinist wore a microphone in her hair and tapped a bare foot on a loop pedal while Saariaho and a sound engineer played DJ).

Wednesday also showcased Saariaho’s challenging masterpiece “Graal theatre,” featuring Koh in a head-banging performance among 19 musicians in which she went to sonic battle against the ensemble.

Koh said she took particular pleasure in exploring Saariaho’s concerto with students who had previously been unfamiliar with it, blowing their minds a bit through Saariaho.

“It’s been wonderful working with the students because there is a unique language to Kaija’s music. … It’s exciting to see students discover this world,” she said.

Saariaho’s work is marked by a rich layering of polyphonic textures. But, she said, she wants each part of intricate mosaics like “Graal” to stand out in its way.

“When I imagine my music, I want to hear everything,” she said. “I don’t want there to be things that are theoretical.”

The onstage portion of Saariaho’s residency culminates in a performance this evening by the Aspen Chamber Symphony, pairing two Saariaho pieces with two by her fellow Finn, Jean Sibelius.

Though born and raised in Helsinki, Saariaho has long been based in France and developed her groundbreaking style during her studies at the Institute for Research and Coordination Acoustic in Paris. Still, she said, as a Finnish composer, Sibelius is an inextricable part of her.

“In fact, I had to grow up and move away from Finland before I realized how enormous an influence he had on me and the whole Finnish music life,” she said.

The composer’s residency has included days in the classroom with the Music Festival’s young composition students. Reading their scores and listening to their recordings, Saariaho said, she aims above all to teach the young composers to listen.

“I try to react from my experience as a composer but also as a listener; that what I hear, was that their intention?” she explained.

She’s encouraged students to transcend their technical training and learn to write from the gut, though, she added, that’s often easier said than done.

“We need to have technical tools to write the music. When you’re young, sometimes those tools take over,” she said. “You should really allow your intuition to decide what you do, but it’s difficult.”

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