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Kaija Saariaho: 11 Essential Works

Kaija Saariaho, the poetic and powerful composer who died on Friday at 70, was also subtle and suggestive with words.

“Dazzling, different surfaces, tissues, textures,” she wrote of an early work, in language that could describe her style over 40 years. “Weights, gravity. To be blinded. Interpolations. Reflections. Death. The sum of independent worlds. Shading, refracting the color.”

Her music shivers and glimmers but never lacks forcefulness; lush and often ominous, veiled in dark mystery, her pieces evolve with the muscular sinuousness of snakes. Her scores can evoke the glint and glare of staring at the sun — its beauty, its harshness, its burning afterimage — but also the slowly dizzying churn of the depths of the sea.

Saariaho’s preoccupations were clear almost from the beginning of her career until its far too early end: guiding electronic and acoustic instruments into fresh alchemies of color, light and mass; the creation of seething stillness; the swiftness with which seeming solidity collapses into nothingness. Here are 11 works that offer an introduction to her seductive, if sometimes forbidding, world.

Trained as a strict serialist, Saariaho was exposed in the early 1980s to the sonic haze of spectralist composers like Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey. This, coupled with her time at Ircam, the French institute of electronic music, pulled her from her early musical path toward an exploration of the relationship between acoustic instruments and electronic sounds, sometimes taped and sometimes produced live. In “Verblendungen” (a complex word that means, among other things, “delusions”), taped sounds and a live ensemble together take a journey of gradual dissolution from crushing density to spare, quivering particles.

Half of a linked pair of pieces (with “ … à la Fumée”) for large orchestra — her entry into composing for grand symphonic forces — “Du Cristal” also has a crucial part for synthesizer, though Saariaho integrates the electronic and the acoustic into a single, shifting, dangerous mass. Strands of solo instruments emerge from a billowing cloud of sound, poised between meditation and violence.

The rare Saariaho work not to include an electronic component, “Graal Théâtre” (“Grail Theater”) is a haunting violin concerto in an exuberantly virtuosic mode — its calligraphic solo line darting, at the start, amid bells and soft droning that shifts in and out of focus. Near the end, the accompaniment explodes before leaving the violinist alone in the final moments.

Before her first opera, Saariaho ventured into writing for voice, including setting texts from “The Tempest” — among them Miranda’s plea to her father, Prospero, to calm the storm he has created. The chamber instrumentation is intimate and graceful, and the soprano’s line is both expressively pained and plainly lovely, with a combination that long fascinated this composer: contemporary colors mixed with the deceptively simple formality of medieval and Renaissance song.

As sensual as Saariaho’s music gets, the chorus’s sound in this seven-part, 22-minute work hovers like bars of light, the edges smokily blurred. The mood is otherworldly; the subject is journeys, which feel more existential than physical. Electronic sounds rumble in “Memory of Waves”; death, the theme of the penultimate section, is followed by the hypnotic unfolding of “Arrival.”

For her first opera, Saariaho, working with the writer Amin Maalouf, created a stylized vision of the life of the 12th-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel, who falls in love with a countess he’s never met. Luxuriant contemplation reigns; there is little plot, but passion surges in the restraint, with tastes of medieval harmonies and North African rhythms.

For all her skill at handling large ensembles, Saariaho’s solos — including this set of miniatures for cello — have a special focus and freedom, a human rather than mythic scale. And, as with Bach’s cello music, almost ceaseless motion here has the uncanny, unexpected effect of encouraging reflection.

Few contemporary composers have devoted as much energy as Saariaho did to writing for the flute, which she mined for its keening eloquence, its reverberations of the primitive and its human connection: the ever-audible breath. This concerto wanders, dreamlike, fluttering and — in the second part — dancing, its energy infectious.

A majestic use of a sprawling orchestra, complete with organ, this piece — inspired by the hunter of Greek mythology and the constellation that shares his name — begins as a moody nocturne before boiling over into pummeling fury. “Winter Sky,” the second part, is as expansive as its title, with the trembling of infinite stars; and “Hunter,” the finale, is a ferocious dash.

Saariaho was inspired by a cycle of medieval tapestries to write a clarinet concerto — one that asks its soloist to move around the performance space — structured enigmatically according to the five senses: the kaleidoscopic colors of “Hearing”; “Sight” woozy and wailing; “Smell” simmering; “Touch” alert and as bright as Saariaho’s music gets; “Taste” unsettled and grumbling. The sixth section, the title of which translates roughly to “According to my desire alone,” is one of the spookiest and most beautiful pieces in her body of work, a quietly disorienting cave full of otherworldly calls and responses.

Written before the pandemic, which caused its premiere to be delayed until 2021, “Innocence” is as densely plotted as “L’Amour de Loin” was spare. The stark yet sensitive story of a shooting at an international school, and its echoes years later, the score is Saariaho’s masterpiece, confidently guiding the desperate mood in a mixture of singing, speaking (in seven languages) and eerie Finnish folk chant. All these disparate vocal worlds are linked by the orchestra, which wraps around the singers lightly and sleekly — never explicitly underlining them, never competing.

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