Kaija Saariaho is not only among the most important Finnish composers of her time, but must be ranked as one of the leading composers of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. Born Kaija Anneli Laakkonen, she began studying visual arts at the University of Art and Design (then known as the University of Industrial Art). She married Markku Veikko Ilmari Saariaho in 1972, but the marriage was short lived, ending the following year. The composer, however, retained her married name.
In 1976, she began composition studies at the Sibelius Academy with Paavo Heininen. She obtained a degree in composition from the academy in 1980, but continued studies there for another year. Afterward, she enrolled at the Musikhochschule in Freiburg, Germany, to study with British composer Brian Ferneyhough and Germany's Klaus Huber. She was awarded a diploma there in 1983. By this time, Saariaho was already turning out some of her earliest works. The most noted efforts from this period include Verblendungen for Orchestra and Tape (1982-1984) and the minimalist piece Vers le blanc (1982). This latter piece was composed with the use of a computer and software developed at the Paris-based I.R.C.A.M. (L'Institut de Recherche et Coordination), where she had begun extensive studies in 1982 in computer techniques as they relate to musical composition. Saariaho had permanently relocated to Paris that same year. In 1984, she married Jean-Baptiste Barrière, also a composer, and their marriage produced two children, Alexandre (born 1989) and Aliisa (born 1995). In the mid-1980s, Saariaho's works began garnering much attention and she received many prestigious awards, such as the Kranichsteiner Prize in 1986, the Prix Italia in 1988, and the following year the Ars Electronica for her works Stilleben (1987-1988) and Io (1986-1987). She also attracted several impressive commissions, including one from the Lincoln Center, which resulted in the chamber work Nymphéa (1987), which was premiered by the Kronos Quartet. By the early 1990s, her music was beginning to appear with greater frequency on the concert stage and with some regularity on record labels. Saariaho had become one of the few composers to write in a modern, though not particularly dissonant, style who has achieved a good measure of popularity. Further commissions came to her, including an important one from the Finnish National Ballet, for which she produced The Earth (1991). Many of her compositions have been written specifically for major artists or groups, as with the violin work she produced for Gidon Kremer, entitled Graal Théâtre (1994), and the song cycle Château de l'âme (1996) for Dawn Upshaw. A 1993 trip to Japan led to a commission from Kunitachi College for which Saariaho composed a work for percussion and electronics, Six Japanese Gardens (1993-1995). The composer spent a year at the Sibelius Academy teaching composition (1997-1998), at a time when her stature could rival that of almost any other composer of the day. This pre-eminence is evidenced by the numerous major performances of her compositions, such as the 1999 Kurt Masur-led New York Philharmonic premiere of her choral work Oltra mar, and the Salzburg Festival premiere of her first opera, L'amour de loin, in August 2000, which featured Upshaw and conductor Kent Nagano. Saariaho also continues to collect prizes, including the German Kaske Prize and the Swedish Rolf Schock Prize, both in 2001. Many of her works have been made available on a variety of labels, including DG, BIS, Finlandia, and Ondine.