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Kaija Saariaho: New York City Reflections

The Cleveland Orchestra's concert on May 23—which included the New York premiere of her Laterna magica—was the final concert of Kaija Saariaho's year as the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall.

Unusually, Saariaho relocated—with her husband—from her home in Paris for the season-long term of her residency. In a recent interview, the Finnish composer reflected on her time as a New Yorker, how the vitality and determination of the city's young people was inspirational, and how she came to a true realization about Carnegie Hall.

Coming to live in New York for this season was not obligatory because of my residency, but it was a great opportunity. For a long time, my husband and I have liked coming to New York, and I do it often. We always said, "It would be great, for once, to spend a little bit more time here." Somehow we felt this was the occasion. I am very happy with the decision to come here and to stay here longer.

I'm sure that the environment where I'm living and composing affects my music. Often, this can be seen in my work. Neiges was written in Finland, when I came back from Paris for a year. It could not have been written in Paris. Of course, it's not only nature, but the whole environment, the surrounding language, the pollution or not, the food you eat, and so on. It wasn't until a certain point—the year I went back to Finland—that I was asked, "How does your environment affect your music?" I always said, "I don't think it affects it at all." Then I spent that year in Finland and started answering, "It affects it very much." I really wasn't conscious of it before then. Now, what will happen in New York? I'm quite certain that there are effects of my year in New York that may be heard later in my music.

I see how different this place is from any place in Europe. It's very strange to suddenly be in a place where I see that people are much tougher. It's so tough for young people. They don't have money, yet they organize all these concerts and they don't complain. They just do things, and through doing things, they make changes happen.

I see how hard it is, and at the same time I see the wonderful energy that is here. People here work more than I've ever seen before. Everybody I know is working so hard. On the other hand, somehow, people don't complain. In France, it's art itself—how to complain!

There is a lot of energy in New York. There are enormous things going on in this city. There's no way to follow all that. You need to make your choices, to be able to organize your life, and also make your own work. There are many dramatic things. I think that these months here have made me reconsider many things in my own life and in my work.

Also, when I prepared this trip, I obviously understood that I would be in residence at Carnegie Hall. I knew that this was kind of a big deal. Only now do I realize at what level it is a big deal. Only now do I realize to what degree Carnegie Hall is a legendary place.

Related: Kaija Saariaho: Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair
Kaija Saariaho Video Playlist on YouTube