Anders Eliasson

Dancer on the Volcano of Desperation

The Swede Anders Eliasson is a dancer on the volcano of desperation and in this respect the successor of Allan Pettersson. On the other hand his structures are extremely vital and concentrated, without resorting to lengths dictated by atmosphere. The trembling density and shivering complexity of his elaborated architectonics are always emotionally accessible, and the incessantly contrasting rhythmic obsessions never fall into additive isolation; the tearing, torturing tension is under constant formal control, due to the absolute one-pointedness in focussing harmonic development. Eliasson interweaves merciless terror and lyricism from another world.
From the listener Eliasson’s music demands above all unrestricted vigilance and devotion, a basically over-sensitive innocence. There is a complete balance of the intellectual and the emotional aspects, and being too much involved with one of those aspects always immediately means losing contact to the essence of the musical process. In other words, one will not find a minimum of wasted time in Eliasson’s music. And it doesn’t belong to any avantgarde. Of course in the handling of advanced sounds one can find traces of composers like Lutoslawski, Ligeti, Messiaen or Blomdahl. Eliasson must have studied their works very well. However, concerning attempts to categorize his style, it is difficult to disagree with Juha Kangas, who says: "There is no other composer I know where it would be as impossible as it is with Eliasson to find out essential stylistic influences. His is absolute originality." Stylistical traces are not more than a kind of common ground, and in most of the cases they are rather points of departure than places of real coincidence among contemporaries. It was more the music of the renaissance, of the early baroque, of Bach, that left its mark on Eliasson’s mental attitude: not stylistically, but energetically, in the way of using the material’s inherent qualities and not forcing the material. That means: treating the material not in a materialistic, but in a spiritual way, as all the great masters have done. In this respect Eliasson is not a modernist but a composer in the traditional sense: "First you have to be a craftsman". He is always trying to build up a work as a living unity of divergent thoughts and expressions. His approach is deeply organic. It might begin as an experiment, but after having found a beginning it is nothing but the true exploration of this beginning’s hidden dynamics that determines all the new directions afterwards. The composer is all ears to the music’s underlying forces. "I only try to follow the process of the music itself. This is an objective process. Beginning and end are totally interwoven into each other, as is every moment in between. Nothing can be separated. It is not me who is coming to an end. It is the music itself. I’m trying to keep my fingers out!" Eliasson never creates sounds for their own sake. He never builts up so-called soundscapes. From superficial experiencing one can sometimes get the impression of crossing some static areas. But if the listener consequently follows the development of the motivic substance, the way it unfolds horizontally and vertically; if he really allows himself to suffer with the thematic cells, to be their companion in misfortune; then he might be able to join the composer on his journey. A journey where one should be aware of every detail, but on a road with no place to hide, not a single moment to rest, where the listener’s whole attention is unremittently needed to correlate all the gesturally impressive occurences, for not taking them as incoherent events. "There is nothing between me and the music, the theme, the motiv. There is no 'between'. Therefore it is so difficult — so impossible! — to understand what is really going on. The substance, the form, the 'Gestalt', they must be a untiy! If you try to divide, if you stay with the analytical approach, you are lost."
Anders Eliasson was born on the 3rd of april 1947 in Borlänge in the southern part of the Swedish province Dalarna. His father was a normal worker in the metal industry. His mother was a hairdresser and amateur actrice. Eliasson’s earliest musical recollections are his own singing: "I grew up in an atmosphere, in a family with no special preferences, and not at all any sense for classical music. Only popular dance music and such things. No interest for literature, for art. Nothing. Even in this very early stage of my life it was impossible for me to live. Consequently I had to escape into another world." First he formed his tin soldiers to an imaginary orchestra, sitting in front of them and singing, imitating their sound. Then the nine-years-old boy got a trumpet. Soon he founded his own band, a little jazz ensemble consisting of two clarinets, trombone, percussion, guitar and trumpet: "I was only ten, but I already was the leader. In this region were quite many fine jazz musicians. Some of them became interested in our activities and taught me the basics. I started to write arrangements." When he was fourteen years old the respected organ player Uno Sandén, a member of the Monday-Group (the main modernists’ circle around Blomdahl, Bäck, Lidholm and Åke Hermanson), cared about him. "But in those days I suffered extremely. When I was sixteen, seventeen, I became very ill. I had to stay in the hospital: psychosis." Always longing for a conscious approach to his inner problems Eliasson got over the most dangerous phase of his life. Two years later he became a private student of Valdemar Söderholm in Stockholm. For about five years Söderholm taught him classical counterpoint, mainly Bach, "the highest energy you can come in touch with. Söderholm showed me the way. I was so happy to study in the right and true way." In the field of jazz, Eliasson had developed towards so called musical theatre, kinetic music etc. But the gap between what he practiced there and what he aimed to do became constantly deeper. When he joined the composition class of Ingvar Lidholm he was shocked: "When I met the 'real' composers – such people as Karkoschka or Haubenstock-Ramati – I lost any connection to the music inside myself. The first real piece of music I had heard in my life was Haydn’s Symphony no. 104. Very early I decided to become a composer. I still don’t know where the motivation comes from. It simply was the only possibility to survive. And it still is.

But no-one could understand those things. It’s from another universe." Eliasson now acquired not only the classical craftsmanship but also all the modernists’ techniques. "It was not too complicated to understand. For a time I was very interested in the electro-acoustic possibilities, in group improvisation, in Terry Riley’s minimal music. But at the same time I knew that this is not what I really want to do. I missed the real depth. And I asked myself: What is my point of reference in music, from the earliest beginning of my life? This led to hidden researches inside myself, something I never gave up. It developed itself continuously inside me: my 'musical alphabet'. Basically it is simple to the extreme, consisting of two modes, a lydian and a dorian one, horizontally and vertically. They are very close to each other. Therefore it is easy to change between them. For me it is neither lydian nor dorian. But there are no other combinations with such a spectrum of possibilities, with so much space. It leads directly into infinity. There is a strong basical limitation in my music. But if you enter this world and try exhaust it, you will never push it to the limit. It is a paradox. The tonal system can move very far from its fundament, but it will always be related to the fundament. The simpler the fundament is the more manifold the development can be. There are so many systems today, but the more complicated they are the more they restrict us. Many people have been talking and writing about my works but none of them discovered these basic principles." From the beginning of the seventies Eliasson began to explore his 'musical alphabet', to trust in his fundaments of orientation. He became, in the Sibelian sense, a 'slave of his themes'. Since that time it is very difficult to give a general description of what we call 'stylistic development'. This doesn’t imply any point of stagnation. Eliasson is always developing but what is new in his music always seems to be produced by the 'underlying forces', from inside, and not by thoughtful speculations. His is an exemplary case of what could be called an 'absolute musician'. His Swedish breakthrough came with the mighty 'Canto del Vagabondo' for orchestra with choir, and his name was broadly established outside Sweden when his First Symphony received the Nordic Council Music Prize in 1992.
When Eliasson took over the post as guest professor in composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki a respected colleague introduced himself: "I'm Paavo Heininen, modernist." He got the answer: "I'm Anders Eliasson, normal human being." Eliasson doesn’t like to impose upon anyone: "Hopefully you can experience my music as I did myself. If you don’t want to get anything special. I don’t write for privileged people." How does a wider audience react to his art? In november last year Stockholms Konserthus gave an Eliasson-Festival, where nine concerts in eight days provided an extensive portrait, presenting 37 works. Many concerts were sold out, and many people went to every concert. Among them were a lot of not classically trained listeners once attracted by curiosity and then magnetized for one week. Eliasson’s music proves that accessibility is not a question of too complicated or non complicated structures. And it shows that a real artist must not care for being consonant or dissonant on the surface. Eliasson speaks directly to the listener, being his companion in misfortune. His music is naturally existential.
A comment by the late Sergiu Celibidache might increase the reader's expectations. Some two years ago I had given him a score of Eliasson’s First Symphony. I had little hope that he would look at it. But some months later he suddenly asked: "What was the name of this composer?" "Eliasson." "Yes. Not bad at all. It's a pity but for me it is too late to do it. But probably you will see the day when this Eliasson will be recognized as a master as important for our time as Bartók was for his."
Eliasson on CD
So far, no orchestra has managed such a deep, thrilling and self-evident approach to Eliasson’s incredibly dense and difficult scores as Juha Kangas’s Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra from western Finland. For them Eliasson is usual repertoire as for others Tchaikovsky is. They have made fabulous recordings of the string pieces "Ostácoli" and "Desert Point" as well as the concertos for violin, bassoon, and horn (Caprice CDs 21422 and 21381). The Tale Quartet plays the string quartets and the harpsichord quintet admirably (BIS-CD 603). Another portrait focusses on earlier works such as the visionary Linné-poem for orchestra with choir "Canto del vagabondo", or the chamber orchestra piece "Canti in lontananza" (Caprice CD 21402) with its formidable chiaroscuro writing. Other recordings of his works for chamber ensembles include the multi-facetted "Divertimenti" (PhonoSuecia CD 57), the hauntingly angelic "Sotto il segno del sole" (Caprice CD 21355), the austere piano quartet "Fogliame" (Caprice CD 21450), the essentially idyllic "Senza risposte" (Acoustica CD 1010), and the intense "Poem" for saxophone and piano (John-Edward Kelly on Col legno CD AU 31817). Songs with saxophone quartet (Caprice CD 21399) and for voice and piano (Ilona Maros on PSCD 37), and the suggestive Tranströmer a cappella choral work "Breathing Room - July" (PSCD 44) are also available. Some of his key works such as the Third symphony for saxophone and orchestra, written for the outstanding musician John-Edward Kelly, the clarinet concerto, or Sinfonia da Camera, still remain unrecorded. Others, especially the First symphony (Caprice CD 21381), deserve a better performance.

Christoph Schlüren

(A contribution to the music quarterly TEMPO,
London 1997)