“Reconnaissance” Illuminates the Alluring Vocal Music of Kaija Saariaho (1952–2023)

When news of the untimely death of Kaija Saariaho broke on June 2, a family statement revealed that the Finnish composer had been diagnosed with glioblastoma (a terminal brain tumor) in 2021. That year, Innocence, her last opera, premiered at Festival Aix-en-Provence; it’s perhaps the most intrepid, disturbing, and supremely crafted opera I have ever watched, grappling audaciously but sensitively with gun violence, one of our darkest social blights.

Saariaho was a sorceress of light and shadow, of dazzling luminosity and disconcerting orchestral stasis, all held together by a seductive aural mystique. A relative latecomer to opera, she didn’t compose her first — L’amour de loin — until 2000. In December 2016, it became only the second opera by a woman to be staged at the Metropolitan Opera, after a jaw-dropping gap of 103 years.

Though the news of Saariaho’s passing was unexpected — the illness was kept private, and she was only 70 — it renewed my sense of wonder for her momentous music, from the spectralist Verblendungen (1984), to the sublime violin concerto Graal Théâtre (1994), to the short opera La Passion de Simone (2006). Posthumous album releases will surely add to the simultaneous feeling of perplexity and awe that her music inspires.

Helsinki Chamber Choir–Photo by Markku Pihlaja

The first such album is Reconnaissance, an 82-minute collection of choral works composed between 1991 and 2020, released today on BIS Records. The chorus is the 24-member Helsinki Chamber Choir, directed by Nils Schweckendiek. Saariaho’s choral writing sits somewhere between the perfectly idiomatic and the idiosyncratic: she has a natural affinity for using the voice not as an instrument for channeling feelings and interpreting words — though she does that too — but as one thread in a larger, polystylistic sonic canvas. Her use of electronics, a signature of her music, often creates a shadow of the flesh-and-blood singers, overlapping with their live vocals like a specter, thickening the texture as it builds up to stirring choral climaxes.

In the works featured on the album, this creates a unified choral polyphony that nods to the past — from 16th-century composer Claude Le Jeune, to Messiaen, to traces of Ligeti. Saariaho weaves the choir and its constituent parts into a “multi-layered and heterogeneous whole,” she writes in the liner notes. You’re sometimes left with the impression that she’s dissecting the chorus and assembling it back together in the same breath.

In the oldest piece, Nuits, adieux (1991), the four singers purr, whoosh, buzz, wail, huff, and gargle, but within a softly controlled dynamic range; the atmosphere is eerie but never harsh or unpleasant. The live electronics amplify the voices, adding delay and a long, echo-chamber-like reverberation that makes the singers sound like they’re projecting their sorrow — the fragmented text is culled from contemporary poet Jacques Roubaud and Balzac — into an abyss.

The album also includes an a cappella version of the piece, in which the reverb is recreated by a choir that supports the four original soloists. The substitution of more live voices elucidates Saariaho’s choral writing — the polyphony comes into sharper focus — while keeping the mood of the original.

Nuits, adieux both anticipates and contrasts with Reconnaissance (2020), for choir, double bass, and percussion (Uusinta Ensemble). “The First Martian in a Long Time,” the first movement of the 25-minute piece, emerges from a sepulchral stillness that serves as the backdrop for a sci-fi text about terraforming Mars, but starting long before human explorers discovered its Earth-like valleys and enormous mountains. The writer is Aleksi Barrière, the composer’s son, who was only a teenager when he first wrote words for choral works by Saariaho — first Horloge, tais-toi! (2005, recorded here with tongue-clicking, tick-tocking whimsicality), followed by Écho! (2007), his interpretation of the story of Echo and Narcissus.

Kaija Saariaho - Photo Jean-Louis Fernandez

Kaija Saariaho – Photo Jean-Louis Fernandez

In his note, Barrière explains that “reconnaissance” refers to the contradictory meanings of the word: the military context, in English, of exploration, and the French meaning: recognition, or “the rediscovery of what we already knew.” From that duality, Saariaho devised a “science-fiction madrigal,” which is not as incompatible as it might seem. Dispensing with electronics, the piece has storytelling at its core; inspired by the “star wars” of the Cold War era, Barrière stitches together a futuristic polyglot, in the same vein as in the libretto for Innocence, which he translated into several languages from an original version in Finnish. For the percussion-heavy “Count Down,” he writes:

El Pueblo Unido Refugees Welcome
Charity Begins At Home Det Verkar Alltid
Omöjligt Tills Det Är Gjort And we burn
we burn while we can we burn

It’s a great 21st-century choral piece, rivaled in this collection by Tag des Jahrs (2001), for choir and electronics, created not only from voices but also from sounds of nature. One of the most arresting moments from the album is the second movement, “Der Sommer”; it opens with a ghostlike electronically processed voice resounding over electronics that sound like an organ, or chimes. The phantom voice contrasts wildly with Saariaho’s imposing, monolithic choral treatment that fluctuates between plain monophony and isolated vocal lines that spin off from the main part. The interplay between vocals and the spooky electronics — which return even more pointedly against mostly female voices in “Der Winter” — is rendered exquisitely.

Reconnaissance, the album, will help keep Saariaho fans under her spell until the premiere of her final work (HUSH, a trumpet concerto) on August 24 in Helsinki. And until the U.S. premiere of Innocence at San Francisco Opera in 2024, followed by a Metropolitan Opera run in the 2025-26 season. For now, we can listen with gratitude to the singular body of work that Saariaho left behind.


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