Anders Eliasson’s musical material – an attempt at an analysis

By Norbert Florian Schuck


What I do believe to be fundamentally wrong is every attitude towards Classical masterpieces that does not make them a stimulus instead of an oppression.

– D. F. Tovey, Stimulus and the Classics of Music (1914)

Camino entre tinieblas. Pero me guía el olor de la retama.

(I walk in darkness. But I am guided by the scent of gorse.)

 – Nicolás Gómez Dávila


Anyone attempting to analyse Anders Eliasson’s music is immediately faced with the problem of choosing the right words to describe the musical phenomena they encounter. To what extent can it be argued that Eliasson’s works are in certain keys? When is there a “tonic” in his work, when a “dominant”? What names could be given to certain harmonies? What is the name of the chord with which the First Symphony closes, or the one in the second bar of Ostacoli? Eliasson spoke out clearly enough against academics who use ready-made descriptions to confront reality, and his aversion to the fashionable production of ever newer “isms”[1] was no less pronounced. Let anyone who tries to approach him in the role of theoretician take this to heart!

Eliasson listened to, obeyed to, and wrote down the music that came from inside.[2] What was right for him was what his instinct told him was right, both with regard to harmony and voices as well as to the shaping of the musical process. Heinrich Kaminski once told one of his students, “It must be composing in you”.[3] On the basis of his own statements, there is no doubt that Eliasson allowed “it” to be composed within himself following “only the growing and becoming” of his music”[4]. Can we expect a creative musician who, in an “entirely objective process”, listens to the “natural organic growth” of the music that urges him to give it concrete form; and who is always striving to “keep my fingers out of it”[5] so that it is not “I that come to an end; it’s the music itself”[6] – can one expect such a composer, after completing what he has allowed to grow, to attack it with a practical harmony manual, to see whether the music possibly fits into one of the schemes set out there? Eliasson refused to speak of a “system” in relation to his work as a composer. At the very most, it would be a “system that is not a system”, “cannot be a system”.[7] It is not surprising that this word seemed to him to be unsuitable for characterising his work, since it suggested an already existing structure of thought (it does not necessarily have to be built of viable material), in which the artist has made himself comfortable, and therefore does not feel the urge to leave it. The “respect for the unknown, the unexpected”, however, was an integral part of the idea of organic growth that was characteristic of Eliasson’s thinking. True, his aversion to inappropriate attempts at systematisation did not prevent Eliasson from reflecting on the stylistic means of his music and trying to explain musical phenomena. In what follows, they will serve as starting points for further considerations on how to approach Eliasson’s music, bearing in mind that they were not formulae for the composer but rather intimations and food for thought. First of all, it is important to note that Eliasson did not attempt to shun tonality. For him, there was no question that music is still related to a tonal foundation even when it has strayed “a long way, a very long way from its foundations – but one is always aware of these foundations.”[8] Music needs “harmonies, and thus different spaces”[9], between which it can move. At this point it is worthwhile mentioning a thought by Heinz Tiessen:

Vielleicht gelingt es einmal einem Wissenschaftler, das alte System der begrenzenden Auswahl verwandter Zusammenklänge umzuwandeln in ein umfassendes, auf unbegrenzte Gültigkeit bedachtes. Ausgangspunkt kann einzig die naturgegebene Grundlage der Naturtöne sein und bleiben, die wir so wenig leugnen oder ignorieren können wie der Maler die elementaren Gegebenheiten von Sonnenspektrum, Licht, Farbe. Von diesem Zentrum aus müssten im Fortschreiten zur Peripherie hin (die im Unendlichen liegt: Vierteltöne, Zwölfteltöne usw. mögen dies andeuten!) allmählich alle, auch die atonalsten Tonverbindungen als entferntere Ausstrahlungen, restlos erfassbar werden; es dürfte grundsätzlich keine Möglichkeit ausgesperrt bleiben: Der Aufenthalt des atonalen Komponisten an der äußersten Peripherie müsste in einem grundlegenden Tonsystem, das nicht Auslese als Stilabstraktion, sondern Kosmos sein will, ebenso enthalten sein wie das Verharren des Volksgesangs im Zentrum.[10]

The term “atonal” seems unfortunate in this context since Tiessen’s thought boils down to the fact that all harmonic structures can ultimately be traced to tonal tensions – as he himself put it, “Alle Formungsarten sind als geistige Funktionsmöglichkeiten zugleich verschiedene Abwandlungen des Steigens und Fallens.“[11] It is from this point of view that one may also view Eliasson’s music. As is well known, Eliasson coined the term “triangulatory”[12] so as to describe his harmonics and to elucidate the relationships of the individual tones to one another by means of a sketch consisting of several interlocking triangles[13]:

Eliasson Dreiecke.PNG

To what end did Eliasson draw these triangles? Let us first dwell on the sketch, bearing in mind that the music actually composed is in a similar relationship to it as Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” is to the circle of fifths. To be sure, Eliasson’s sketch is a circle of fifths, too, but Eliasson rearranged it. With him, the sequences of fifths do not form a circle but a series of triangles. While the circle is a visual depiction intended to make it clear that the closer the tones are to each other on the circle the closer they are on the corresponding edges of the triangles, the pattern is overlaid by another pattern in Eliasson’s sketch of triangles. If these tones are combined, we get three groups of successive minor thirds:

c flat – e flat – f sharp – a

c sharp – e – g – b

d – f – a flat – b flat

These are the three possible tonal reservoirs, as it were, of the diminished seventh chords or, from a linear point of view, the three possible manifestations of what Christoph Schlüren identified as the only possible atonal scale of the twelve-tone system besides the whole tone scale.[14] (In order to dispel any misconception, it should be noted that Eliasson did not sketch a counter-model to the circle of fifths – tinkering with jejune theories – but merely gave the circle of fifths a different shape. The fact that tonality is generated from the fifth can be seen from the triangular sketch as well as from the familiar circle. Eliasson’s sketch is not based on the wrong assumption that tonality could also be based on thirds.) Now then, what does the sketch depict? Just like the circle of fifths it displays the key tones of scales. The reference indicated by the position in the triangles results from the fact that on each tone of one of the three groups an eight-step scale can be constructed, which also includes the three other tones of the respective group, and which contains the same reservoir of tones as the scales. Each of these scales consists of alternating half- and whole-step intervals. Theoretically, it would also be possible to form them in whole- and half-step intervals but stable scales can only be created if the half-tone step is followed by the whole-tone step because only then does the scale contain a fifth above the tonic. This would create conditions for considering them as modes according to John Foulds’ definition:

Modes exist by reason of the relation of their component notes to a tonic, and in only slightly lesser degree […] by the stabilizing influence of the dominant. Once this latter is withdrawn or tampered with […], the mode, as such, completely disintegrates.[15]

Whereas in the familiar circle of fifths there are twelve (major) scales, which all have different reservoirs of tones, the triangular cycle also allows twelve scales but only three different reservoirs of tones, which can be represented as follows:


The tones in this musical example are not to be read as chords but rather as lines. In this representation, however, the fifth intervals between the scales become evident. We get the circle of fifths by joining the notes of a bar, reading them from top to bottom, and continuing in this way for another two bars. In each odd bar of the example we see a new scale, each containing eight tones. These scales include a minor second (sounding almost Phrygian) above the tonic, a minor and major third (or augmented second and diminished fourth), a major fourth, and a minor seventh. What is striking is that their reservoir of tones does not offer any possibility of creating an indisputable functional dominant harmony (dominant or subdominant) by means of melodic or harmonic combination. If, for example, one takes D as the tonic, the scale contains the tonic of the dominant, A, but not the leading-note C sharp, and the dominant fifth only in a lowered form as E flat. The tonic of the subdominant, G, is missing entirely. In the scales, minor and major elements blend together. Depending on the use of the notes one or the other can be accentuated, but in any case major or minor is altered (the major-character is mainly created by leaving the minor second above the tonic.) Both the simultaneous association with major respectively minor and the combination made up of the invariably same constellation of the intervals makes the scales appear fraught with tension within, and reduces some of their stability. If a major scale continues through the octaves, it still remains related to one and the same tonic. The semitone-whole tone scales, if continued in the same way, can eventually settle on one of four different tones, as their structure is not necessarily centred on a single tone. These four tones are the tones of one of the groups resulting from Eliasson’s sketch. Although there are twelve different scales in the triangular cycle, each scale contains three tones, which can be played without elaborate procedures and can also become a tonic, while in a major scale one or more notes need to be altered in order to arrive at a new tonal foundation. The stability of the semitone-whole tone scales is not complete as in a major scale but is rather a relative one. Suppose the question now arises as to how these observations are to be related to what is actually composed, it must first be noted that Eliasson does not treat these scales as modes. They are tonal reservoirs from which harmonies can be formed. Also, a harmony containing notes from one set can be immediately followed by another, which is fed by another set just as in ordinary functional harmonic music one major or minor chord can follow another. The following page from Ostacoli exemplifies such a shift of tone reservoirs:

Eliasson Ostacoli Beispiel.PNG

Notice that at the end of bar 282, two tone reservoirs briefly overlap as the harmony E-C-D is formed, which cannot be derived from any of the semitone-whole tone scales. In other words, Eliasson does not schematically keep apart the two reservoirs. Their overlapping in turn results in new possibilities of harmony formation. An example of a harmony not fed by the tone reservoirs of the semitone-whole tone scales is what Eliasson called a “round” harmony, which are juxtaposed by “angular” ones.[16]

Eliasson rund eckig 2.PNGEliasson rund eckig 1.PNG

The example on the left-hand side shows the harmonies as chords, while the one on the right-hand side shows them in motion. It is not difficult to see that the “round” chord consists of superimposed fifths. It is so to speak generated directly from the circle of fifths, without its triangulatory variant having to come into play. It is a different matter with the “angular” harmonies. In both examples they are built up from tones of the semitone-whole-tone scales. To a certain extent, the “round” and the “angular” harmonies stand for the two models of the arrangement of fifths.

Finally, let us take a look at the beginning of Ostacoli. In just a few bars it can be seen that the compositional practice is much richer than our theoretical considerations. When working with the term “tone reservoir” we should keep in mind the fact that the semitone-whole tone scales carry tonal tensions and constantly evoke associations with major (less often in Eliasson) or minor (rather more often). Tone sequences and chords derived from them are a result of the tonal relationships within themselves, and their context. Thus the first notes of Ostacoli can readily be localised in the context of G minor:

Eliasson Ostacoli 1.PNG

The purely melodic continuation can be explained by means of our “tone reservoir” but what is more important is that it digresses briefly to B minor before the first harmony of the piece allows another tonal centre to emerge:

Eliasson Ostacoli 2.PNG

The chords are undeniably “square”, the first one containing only notes of the semitone-whole-tone scale. The second and third ones, on the other hand, by adding the E, create a constellation which, similar to a “round” harmony, cannot be derived directly from the semitone-whole-tone scale. This example illustrates the fact that it is not enough to name tones and synchronise them with a table. In order to be able to explain the harmony, we have to examine its tonal nature. Hence, let us listen to it and ask ourselves what we hear! The ears of the author of the present study locate the first chord in the range of C minor – i.e. simultaneous sounds of the tonic (E flat) and its dominant (F, B, D). Neither C nor G are heard, nor are the notes arranged in such a way that a resolution of the dissonant chord to the basic position of the C minor triad would be possible via a fifth jump or second step in the bass. Both contribute substantially to the “hovering” character of the harmony. The following chord intensifies the degree of dissonance of the previous one by adding the E a ninth above the remaining bass note E flat. B is replaced by A flat. What is the effect in relation to the previous sound? There is basically no change in the keying in C minor. The leap B → A flat reinforces the reference because the leading-tone to the indicated fundamental (C) is followed by the lowering leading-tone to the indicated fifth (G). The range of the dominant of C is still represented by three notes: that is F, A flat and D. But what role does E play? Standing above F and A flat, it could be interpreted as a leading-tone to F minor, which would suggest that the chord is the subdominant of the root in C minor. But in the bass there is E flat, which consequently has a greater impact on the E. Thus, the E would be read as F flat, as a suspended note whose dissonance tension would resolve in the E flat – but in the context of C minor. This is where the semitone-whole-tone scales come into play again because the scale that looks similar to C minor, i.e. beginning with C and containing G, also contains E resp. F flat. The second chord of the above example could thus be explained as having been produced by a mixture of the dissonance relationships of ordinary C minor with those of the altered C minor from the triangulatory cycle.[17]

Ultimately, the harmonies can be traced back to simple basic relationships. They have a clear tonal orientation yet are different from ordinary functional harmonic chords and are different enough not to give the impression of sounds where one immediately feels the compulsion to use a cadenza. Eliasson keeps the music both “hovering” and in movement by constantly bringing tonal centers of gravity into play, allowing them to change in swift succession without actually consolidating any one key. His music is a permanent oscillation of tonal gravity.

[1] Anders Eliasson, … provided that the norm is humanism. In: Finnish Music Quarterly 2/1991, 35 (?)

[2] Peter Kislinger, Anders Eliasson. In: CD booklet (Double Concerto. Sinfonia per archi [Ulf Wallin, violin; Roland Pöntinen, piano, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Johannes Gustavsson, cond.]), cpo 2008, 21

[3] Walter Abegg und Erich Doflein, Heinrich Kaminski als Lehrer. In: Heinrich Kaminski (= Komponisten in Bayern 11), hrsg. von Alexander L. Suder, 83-86 (86)

[4] Kislinger, 21

[5] Kislinger, 21

[6] Kislinger, 21

[7] Kislinger, CD booklet (cf. footnote 3), 22

[8] Kislinger, CD booklet (cf. footnote 3), 22

[9] Kislinger, CD booklet (cf. footnote 3), 22

[10] Heinz Tiessen, Zur Geschichte der jüngsten Musik (1913-1928). Probleme und Entwicklungen, Mainz 1928, 14

[11] Heinz Tiessen, Zur Geschichte der jüngsten Musik (1913-1928). Probleme und Entwicklungen, Mainz 1928, 11

[12] Kislinger, CD booklet (cf. footnote 3), 7.

[13] Images of Eliasson’s sketches with kind permission of Peter Kislinger and Christoph Schlüren.

[14] Christoph Schlüren, Symphonische Formung in freitonaler Linearität. Eduard Erdmann und Heinz Tiessen. In: Eduard Erdmann (= Archive zur Musik des 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts 15), hrsg. von Werner Grünzweig und Gerhard Gensch, Neumünster 2018, 13-38 (14).

[15] John Foulds, Music To-Day: Its Heritage from the Past, and Legacy to the Future (Opus 92), Binsted 2010, 48f [= Facsimile reprint: first published 1934.]

[16] Kislinger, CD booklet (cf. footnote 3), 6

[17] Once again, it should be pointed out that we are not claiming that Eliasson assembled his harmonies according to preconceived models. Any attempt to distinguish between different levels of the composer’s harmonics is intended only to illustrate the multi-faceted nature of Eliasson’s creativity.