1. The Polar Music Prize Ceremony
2. Musical Education
4. Live electronics
5. Decisive works
6. Illusions, images, music
7. Broad musical landscapes
8. Petals
2013 Laureate


The Polar Music Prize 2013 is awarded to Kaija Saariaho from Finland. After studying at IRCAM in Paris, an institution for research and study of electro-acoustic music, Kaija Saariaho has developed into a unique composer, a metal worker's daughter who re-examines what music can be. When she was growing up, the music that inspired her came not from the radio but from the pillow; that was where she found the music she dreamt of. Kaija Saariaho combines acoustic instruments with electronics and computers. She has written chamber music, orchestral works and operas. Kaija Saariaho is a modern maestro who opens up our ears and causes their anvils and stirrups to fall in love.


Kaija Saariaho receives the Polar Music Prize from the hands of HM the King of Sweden.

Stockholm, August 2013

The 22nd Polar Music Prize Ceremony was held at Konserthuset Stockholm in the month of August. The evening continued with a banquet in Vinterträdgården at Stockholm’s Grand Hôtel.

HM King Carl XVI Gustaf presented the Prize to the two Laureates Kaija Saariaho and Youssou N'Dour.

The citation for Kaija Saariaho was read by Finnish mezzo soprano Lilli Paasikivi. and the citation for Youssou N'Dour was read by Swedish football player Henrik Larsson.

Special arrangements of the Laureates’ music was performed by The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Hans Ek together with an amazing line up of international and Swedish artists honoured the Laureates by performing their music both at the ceremony and banquet.

Kaija Saariaho was accompanied by her son, Alexandre Barriere.

The event was broadcast live on Swedish national television (TV4).

HM the Queen of Sweden, HM the King of Sweden, Kaija Saariaho, Alexandre Barriere, Youssou N'Dour, HM the Crown princess of Sweden, Aida Coulibaly, Marie Ledin

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra - "Misterioso," from Nymphea reflection

Sua katselen, from Leino Songs by Kaija Saariaho and Eino Leino.

Musical Education

Born in 1952 in Helsinki, Finland, Kaija Saariaho grew up with an urge to compose and playing several instruments.

In parallel with musical studies, she started art studies at the Fine Arts School of Helsinki, that she quickly quit to concentrate on music and entered the Sibelius Academy, where she chose the composition teachings of Paavo Heininen. At the Academy she also founded the association Korvat auki ry ("Open Ears Organisation") together with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Magnus Lindberg, to help and promote young finnish contemporary composers.

By the end of the 70s she moved to Germany and started following the courses of Brian Ferneyhough at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg.

The Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, founded as the Helsinki Music Institute in 1882. Finnish composer Jean Sibelius studied there 1885-1889 and later became the Institute's nominal and symbolical figurehead. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Brian Ferneyhough Funérailles. (Source:

Kaija Saariaho on researching at l'IRCAM


Kaija Saariaho's interest in new timbres and her visionary thinking in technical innovations within the instrumental as well as within the computer domain brought her to Paris and studies at IRCAM, l'institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, a center for acoustic and electronic music and sound studies founded by Pierre Boulez in 1982. The mix of acoustic and electronic music would from then constitute an important element of her compositions. Saariaho's studies and research at IRCAM have had a major influence on her music and her characteristically luxuriant and mysterious textures are often created by this combination; live music and electronics.

Machine room at IRCAM, 1989 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Kaija Saariaho in her apartment in Paris. She has lived in the French capital city since 1982. (Source: Priska Ketterer)

Live electronics

During the 80s, Saariaho confirmed an international notoriety with works such as Verblendungen for orchestra and tape (1982-84), Lichtbogen for chamber ensemble and live-electronics (1985-86) and Nymphéa (1987) commissioned by the Lincoln Center for fellow Polar Music Prize Laureate The Kronos Quartet.

The Kronos Quartet

International notoriety

Decisive works

Kaija Saariaho's principle works between 1990 - 2003 include violin concerto Graal théâtre, written for Gidon Kremer in 1995, Château de l’âme in 1996 – two works dedicated to Dawn Upshaw. Lonh, a cycle of melodies for soprano and electronics, premiered at the Wien Modern Festival in 1996 and Oltra mar for orchestra and mixed choir premiered in 1999 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2001, she composed two concertos; Aile du songe for flutist Camilla Hoitenga and Nymphea Reflexion for string orchestra, dedicated to Christoph Eschenbach. Cleveland Orchestra commissioned Orion and Quatre Instants for soprano Karita Mattila, premiered in April 2003.

In the nineties, Kaija Saariaho's music became more expressive, with more rapid melodic fluctuations. Rhythmical elements became stronger, despite the use of regular rhythmic pulsations in contrast to, for example, the serialist movement. Timbre and colors however remained central. During this decade, Kaija Saariaho participated in numerous multimedia productions such as the ballet Maa (1992) choreographed by Carolyn Carlson, and Prisma, a CD-ROM dedicated to her work. In the late 1990s Saariaho began to expand beyond electronics, often writing strictly acoustic pieces, focusing increasingly on melody. Saariaho was influenced by post-serialism, but she grew to find it too restrictive.

Saariaho on her inspiration.

Cover of CD-Rom Prisma, an "original, didactic, creative and playful way to discover contemporary music through Kaija Saariaho's work" (Source: Naïve/Petals)

Major works 1990-2003

You were not allowed to have pulse, or tonally oriented harmonies, or melodies. I don't want to write music through negations. Everything is permissible as long as it's done in good taste.

Kaija Saariaho

Illusions and images shaped by rhythms in music

The music of Kaija Saariaho is often considered visual, because it proceeds from a musical expression which is producing strong images during listening. The Image Auditive project, initiated by Jean-Baptiste Barrière in 1997, develops an aesthetic of the relation between mucis and image which attempts to be particularly respectful of the music. “Before everything else, image must not prevent to listen to the music, as is unhappily often the case in similar experiences”, it says on the project’s website. During the 90s and 00s, the visual music became more and more multimedia with moving images, electronics, instruments and voices. Laterna Magica, an orchestral work for the Berliner Philharmoniker, was premiered in September 2009 in Berlin and Lucerne.

Les Fantômes du Temps, by Jean-Baptiste Barrière

Kaija Saariaho on Laterna Magica

Lonh, by Kaija Saariaho

Broad musical landscapes

Kaija Saariaho has increasingly turned to wider musical forms throughout her career and has for example composed major contemporary opera works. Her first opera L’amour de loin premiered at the 2000 Salzburg Festival. Her second one, Adriana Mater, on an original libretto by Amin Maalouf, merges dark realities of real life and dream and was premiered at the Opéra Bastille in Paris in March 2006, staged by Peter Sellars. La Passion de Simone, a vast oratorio, was commissioned by the Wien Festival, Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Barbican and Lincoln Centers. Amin Maalouf wrote the libretto also this time, around the life and works of philosopher and activist Simone Weil. It was premiered in November 2006 in Vienna - composed for SATB-chorus (Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass), with a soprano soloist, orchestra and electronic instruments.

Simone Weil (1909–1943), French philosopher and activist (Source: Public Domain)

Author Amin Maalouf who has written several librettos for Kaija Saariaho’s operas. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Operas and Laterna Magica

Petals association

Petals is a “non-profit association dedicated to the realisation and diffusion of musical projects through the Internet.” It was founded by Saariaho, among others, and releases albums and helps the discovery of unpublished music via the association’s website. The covers below are: Pablo Ortiz & Anssi Karttunen with Al Compás del Corazón, Messages in Tangos between Argentina and Finland with Helsinki Cello Ensemble, Heininen, Lindberg, Ortiz, Puumala, Saariaho and Taira with Works for 2-8 cellos, Gualtiero Dazzi & Francisco Serrano with La Rosa de Ariadna and Jean-Baptiste Barrière’s Cellitude.

"Notes on light", "Orion", "Mirage"

Covers of albums released through Petals. (Source: © Petals Association)

Content of biography is presented here as it was published in 2013.

Header photo and portrait by Priska Ketterer Luzern.

All pictures from Polar Talks, the ceremony and the banquet by Magnus Liljegren, © Polar Music Prize.

In memoriam Kaija Saariaho 1952–2023

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