An Autobiographical Dialogue
By Christoph Schlüren (1996)
“The reason why interviews have practically never worked is that they’ve all had the standard questions, and I can’t and don’t want to give the standard answers.”
Anders Eliasson grew up in completely uncultured surroundings. His family couldn’t give him any musical stimulation.
“My mother worked at a hairdresser’s. She was very interesting, a very lively woman with lots of esprit. She was also an amateur actress. And she was a very sensitive person, of course.”
Our first interview took place on March 28, 1996, in his Stockholm apartment, next to the Gamla Stan subway station. He freely admitted that nothing in his childhood home pointed consciously to a reality beyond everyday life. Were there any musicians in his family?
“My paternal grandmother’s brother was a fiddler. That was a long time ago, of course, and he died around the age of seventeen. And my grandmother’s father was very special. He didn’t have an actual profession. He tuned pianos. But there can’t have been many pianos for him to tune in the Dalarna [Dalecarlia] region, certainly not back then. People also said he was very lazy and usually lay on the couch. Every now and then he left to tune a piano. He was so mean to his son, the fiddler, that he once smashed his violin. I don’t know why. I received very basic musical stimuli from my maternal grandfather. His name was Helmer, and he played drums in a jazz band. Something like that. And that was it.“
What sort of person was your father?
“He is … he’s uneducated. He never received any training. If fruit can’t ripen …. He never grew up and has remained a mama’s boy.”
Are you still in contact with him?
“Yes. Poor guy.“
Does he admire your work?
“I don’t think so. I don’t know.“
Can’t he relate to what you do?
“No. Absolutely not.“
No social contact either?
Does it leave him cold, as if it means nothing at all?
Was it always that way?
But you sang and loved to play music?
“Yes. I remember it so well, as if it had just happened. I was very young. It was the only way I could survive. Before I was given an instrument to play – a trumpet – I had a lot of ‘make-believe instruments.’ I gathered my toy soldiers into an orchestra, sat down in front of them, and sang, imitating the sounds of the instruments. Even today I can still …”
Please show us how you did it …
“No, no! Not for a recording! But my life centered on this self-created world. It’s a matter of an inner need for expression.“
Was it also the beginning of a sort of polyphonic thinking?
“I can’t say. I tried to imagine what an orchestra might sound like. I’d heard a few instruments – violins, trombones, horns, trumpets …. I really won’t demonstrate it now! But how was I supposed to sing polyphonically? I can’t even sing in two voices. Somewhere I must have picked up the sound of the instruments, of course, on the radio. But I can’t remember where. To me, it was the soldiers.”
Finally Anders Eliasson was given a trumpet:
“But they had no faith in my ambitions – I think I was nine years old. Before the instrument was loaned out to me, I first had to prove I wasn’t totally unmusical. I was at a gathering of children, boys, on my birthday, when my sister told me, ‘You’re going to get a trumpet!’ ‘That can’t be true!’ So I came home, and I still have the smell of the metal in my nose today. It was fantastic! The next afternoon I was sent to a neighbor, a horn player who taught children at the music school. When I came back, they said it was too late in the day to play. The next day I had to play for my mother. I’d learned a few simple tunes that morning: ‘Okay, it’s all right, we can borrow the trumpet.’ That’s how it happened.“
Where did you grow up?
“In a small town in the middle of Sweden, called Borlänge. But I hate these names …“
Did you pick up anything from the local folk music tradition?
“No, I never heard our folk musicians as a child. But once I’d received the trumpet I made good progress. I even persuaded my chums to take instrument lessons at the music school, and before long we began to play music together. So I founded a jazz band at school. I was a conductor at the age of ten! As far as I can recall, we had two clarinets, one trombone, drums, guitar, and trumpet.“
What did you play?
“That’s important. There were many good jazz musicians in that part of Sweden, and traditionally lots of wind bands, especially in the workers’ districts. Some of the old musicians took a strong interest and befriended me. I was the bandleader, and they made sure I held good rehearsals. They even wrote arrangements for us. Those are fabulous memories. When I was eleven, I went to this wonderful bass player. He took his accordion and asked, ‘Tell me what chord this is!’ And I had to answer, ‘C-sharp minor, D-major 7th,’ and so on. He didn’t treat me like a child at all. And I loved it so much, because it was very easy for me to recognize the chords. I didn’t know why. ‘Well, then, he must be very talented!’ Then I started to write my own arrangements. Bad stuff, really bad!”
What about your own compositions?
“One of the girls in my first classes, Nilla Pierrou [b. 1947], developed into a first-rate virtuoso. Later she became an assistant to André Gertler, and today she teaches violin in Belgium. Her sister was an accomplished pianist, and her father taught at the city’s regional music school. He was also my music teacher at the normal school. He said to me, ‘Anders, wouldn’t you like to write a song for the class?’ I said, ‘Yes!’ I was ten years old: ‘I can write my own compositions!’
“I was very interested in jazz at the time. When I was fourteen, I began to study harmony and counterpoint seriously with Uno Sandén [1924-2013], an outstanding organist in Falun, twenty miles away. He was a member of the Monday Group.“
You were lucky to have him as a teacher …
“Undoubtedly. But I wasn’t so lucky with the rest of my life back then. I fell seriously ill when I was sixteen and seventeen.“
What caused it?
“I don’t know. I had to go to hospital. Psychosis.
“Then two years later, right after my stay in hospital, I moved to Stockholm. I had a friend there who had taught me in the final classes at school and was now studying at the Conservatory. He’s an organist, too, a very dear fellow. And he introduced me to Valdemar Söderholm [1909-1990], the head professor of counterpoint. They were so very good to me! I started taking private counterpoint lessons from Söderholm, and he said to me, ‘You need proper training. You should study music education.’ I showed him some simple compositions, and he said, ‘That’s jazz.’“
So you were completely naïve musically when you arrived in Stockholm?
“Yes, I was. It was simply the continuation of what I’d sung with my toy soldiers. But there was a problem: I needed a first instrument. It had to be the piano; they didn’t accept the trumpet. It’s not easy to enter conservatory. Most of those who try have played an instrument for some ten years at least. I’d never even tried to play piano before. So my friend, the home town organist, helped me again. He introduced me to a piano teacher who also taught at the Conservatory. She accepted me. I could only practice at certain times at St. Jacobs’s Church, for I didn’t have a piano myself. So I had to learn and practice every new piece in my head. I sat at the table and drummed my fingers. And I could really play! It was fantastic!“
Probably the best possible preparation and training for …
“That’s the point, though it was extremely tough. But to have it all in my head – of course! So it worked out well. I also learned the cello as my second instrument – or rather, I tried to play it to enter the class, and then to get out again …”
And then you studied music education?
“Yes. And I worked very seriously at the piano. So that’s the story.“
Did you compose during all of this?
“No. At the time I focused on counterpoint with my terrific teacher, Valdemar Söderholm. He showed me what music is! I studied a lot of Bach. I think I spent five years studying with him.“
Only strict counterpoint?
“Yes. Bach. Of course I’d looked at Palestrina before I came to Söderholm.“
Did you ever think of putting it to creative use?
“No. But understand: it’s very creative to study Bach. It’s the greatest energy source you can ever come across.“
But you didn’t compose at all?
“I was so happy to be studying the right way, the true way. Of course I wanted to compose, and I did it, too. But it’s nothing special. Forget it!“
Okay, it was nothing special. But what was it?
“I’d gathered that jazz music had evolved into musical theater, kinetic music, and that sort of stuff, but classical music seemed so much better in comparison. And I thought, ‘Classical music has completely different possibilities, perspectives, horizons …’. And I gradually became familiar with the aesthetics of the classics and the modernists. At the same time I made many idiotic experiments back then.“
“Modernist” experiments? How was that idiotic?
“It was idiotic by its very nature. But I had to study it to become familiar with it. And to know what I’m doing. I was shocked, especially later when I entered Ingvar Lidholm’s composition class. I suddenly lost all touch with music in myself when I came into contact with ‘genuine’ composers like Haubenstock-Ramati, Karkoschka, Ligeti, and so on. But if I wanted to study composition, this class was the only option.”
When did you decide you wanted to study composition?
“From the very beginning.“
How old were you when you felt the urge to become a composer?
“Very young, in my boyhood. It was the only thing that mattered to me. I didn’t fit anywhere else. But today I know that I don’t fit here either … Now there’s no path left!“
Didn’t you have Bach at home?
“Are you crazy? Nothing!“
But how could you make a goal of “nothing”?
“When I was about twelve I was given a record player, and I needed records for it. To get them, I joined a record club. It also had a classical repertoire. I thought I ought to listen to classical things, too, now that I had a record player. The first real piece of music I heard was Haydn’s 104th Symphony – a fantastic piece!“
The first piece of classical music you heard at all?
It must have sparked a revolution inside you.
“It was a revelation. Today this music still has a special nostalgic flair for me.“
Why didn’t you tell me this before?
“It’s in my bones.“
Did listening to this music kindle the urge in you?
“No, I didn’t have any urge. I don’t know where it comes from. I think it’s very simple: it was the only way I could survive. And it still is. But I don’t know what it is. Music is so complicated. And everything was always wrong with me, inside me, no matter when. Even as a child. I started reading things at a very early age. The result was a complete lack of interest in reading. It began quite suddenly with Plato’s dialogues, which I read at school when I was fourteen or fifteen. I can’t say I understood a word of them. It took another eighteen years before I started reading again. Of course I read other things at school as well. But I have to say, the whole of my young years was a period of great hardships.”
But composing was different.
“Yes. I continued to do it. But nobody understood those things. No, they couldn’t. It came from a different universe.“
With Haydn as your personal point of departure …
“Yes. But I have to say, the real point of departure came when I could listen to an instrument, to play an instrument, in an ensemble with other people. When I left my toys for a proper instrument and joined an ensemble. To hear what happens!“
How did you react to the artistic aesthetic in Lidholm’s composition class?
“I didn’t know much about ‘modern music,’ as I called it. I had to learn, to listen, to understand how it worked. But at the same time I lost my actual contact with music. Do you know what I mean? But I couldn’t avoid this training. Naturally I grasped these things; they’re not hard to understand. And I was very interested in electronic music. So I spent a lot of time in the Electronic Music Studio. But at the same time I knew that the way it was done and shown can’t be right. I can’t be so off-base that music loses contact with music. I couldn’t accept that.
“The result was hidden quests in my mind, quests that I never abandoned, that are still working on me, on what I call my ‘musical alphabet.’ It’s very simple compared to ‘modern music.’ My piano is completely out of tune, but I can show you what I mean. There are simple modes, such as D-F-B-C-B-F-D, a sort of Lydian mode. The other one is D-E-A-B♭-A, a typical Dorian mode. Horizontally and vertically. The two modes are very closely related. It’s easy to switch from one to the other. The special thing is, to me they’re not Lydian, not Dorian, neither one nor the other. No other chords harbor so many possibilities. I don’t know of any others that offer so much space. It leads directly to Eternity.”
A new form of tonality …
“Absolutely. There are such funny stories. When Karkoschka and Haubenstock were around, we busied ourselves by drawing up graphic scores. I didn’t want to, but Karkoschka insisted: ‘Finish it by tomorrow!’ So I produced three pages of drawings. And when we approached him with our assignments, he was fascinated: ‘Fabulous! Incredible!’ He performed it with the ensemble. What an imposter! What bloated drivel!“
Successfully fabricated by yourself.
“A joke on my part. A lie and nothing else. And there were many more aesthetics.”
Were you alone in your negative view, or did you find someone you could talk to about it?
“Not really. I had one classmate with whom I later indulged in communist leanings, things like that. And by 1967 I’d met Terry Riley; Folke Rabe introduced me to him. I tried my hand at improvising with amateurs. But I never accepted Minimalism. Everything I tried to do was always related to the foundation.“
Did you reject Minimalism because it’s horizontally atonal, devoid of relations?
“That’s true, but I accepted this drone music. I found it fascinating. It would’ve been very simple to express myself in scores à la Riley. But I didn’t. I sensed an antipathy.“
You didn’t want to march in place?
“Not exactly. I’m sure I was full of vapid phrases, that sort of thing. But intellectual and logical? When we improvise and I give you the rules of this tonal system – say, C-D in the ‘Dorian’ mode, with the C never accented – all I had to do was write the rules down. It was supposed to be an improvisation, and it required a great deal of leeway. My playfellow was Arne Eriksson. He later became a rock musician; today he’s not a musician at all. But we toured to other music schools, and it was almost revolutionary. Viewed in this light, it was a fabulous time.
“But very soon we stopped doing all these things, and I tried to understand what was beneath the letters of my alphabet. It’s very simple, and I’m still trying to find out what it is. The interesting thing about it is that it’s absolutely limitless, yet it’s based on a strict limitation. Only when you enter it and try to exploit it does it become limitless. It’s a paradox. That’s why I think it’s extremely interesting to go beneath the skin of the music.“
What did the limitation consist in exactly?
“It’s limited to the primordial foundation. There are only these two chords, which makes it actually just as simple as major-minor tonality, except that the chords are different in my case. You can also move without limits in the major-minor system if you explore everything inside it. The same applies in my case. That’s all there is to it.“
Tonality is always limited, and for that reason limitless. As with Bach…
“I’m just a little architect …“
It’s a question of principle.
“All right. Music has always been the same. There were only a couple of decades when this wasn’t true …“
That means you’ve never bothered with questions of style …
“No. How could I? Dwelling on questions of style means having to ask someone else what you ought to do. That’s far removed from what I understand by music. It very often happened that I forgot this and tried to impose my will on the music. It was an unmitigated disaster! That’s just not how it works!“
As Sibelius would have said, the point is to be the slave of the themes.
“Precisely. The tonal system can move far away from the foundation, extremely far away, but to me it’s still related to the foundation. I can’t think of anyone who’s discovered this in my music yet. So many people have talked about or reviewed my pieces, but none of them has discovered this most basic thing about them. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter at all. I couldn’t write about it either.“
After all, it’s impossible to capture the essence in words.
“That’s very true.“
So what can one write about? Perhaps about the motivation to start a piece? Is the initial impetus free will, or does it come out of the subway station?
“It makes no difference to me.“
But there must be a starting situation that you either do or don’t bring to completion.
“You’re talking about ideas, inspirations. I don’t know where they come from. They simply crop up in my mind. I can’t relate them to any point of origin. I can’t even say that I willed them into existence. They enter my mind, and I use them.“