The Music – an introduction

When, in later years, Anders Eliasson discussed music, it was only with some reluctance, and he used the same kind of imagery on which, before him, Mahler, Sibelius, Elgar etc.  also stumbled: ”I do not compose – I am composed.” For Anders Eliasson, music was ”the absolute source of wisdom – possibly the only source capable of supplying an answer to existential questions: of the Individual, and of our time.”

Eliasson became familiar with classical and modernist aesthetics while still a student. ”I was initially happy to be allowed to be a student in the proper way. But when I compared what was then fashionable to the classical period, the latter seemed so much better!” When he was accepted for Ingvar Lidholm’s composition class, he was, he says, shocked, because ”when I came into contact with luminaries such as Erhard Karkoschka or Roman Haubenstock-Ramati – who were delightful people – I suddenly lost all contact with the music I had inside myself.”

At that time, Stockholm was ”a modernist fortress: dodecaphony, serialism, aleatoric music, musique concrète – there was every technique and trend and fashion. György Ligeti, John Cage and Terry Riley all taught in Stockholm. It was no big deal to master all that – it was only a question of techniques, not of music, nothing about it was authentic. [….] It was a time of unbearable self-denial. Metrical rhythms, melodies, even particular intervals were all taboo in contemporary music. This was a catastrophe for the human voice and the human ear – was then, and still is.” Anyone stepping out of line, he said, was immediately banished. He mentioned an example from Sweden, Allan Pettersson.

At the beginning of the 1970s Eliasson ”discovered, and ever since then continuously researched and developed” his own musical language which is nourished on the simplest modal foundations. This cellular approach is subjected to a process of continual transformation, one evident even on first hearing. Narrow intervals are often minimally varied: seconds, augmented unisons, leaps of an augmented fourth, sevenths.

His ”system that is not a system” is based on two modes, the one tending to the Lydian, the other Dorian – ”but for me they’re neither Lydian nor Dorian!” It’s easy enough “to stray between modes – the possibilities are limitless, despite the apparent limitation. My tonal system can stray a long way, a very long way, from its foundations – but I am always aware of those foundations.”

His harmonic system is ”triangulatory” (it was Christoph Schlüren who coined the term). The basis of his “different tonality” is not the circle of fifths. Every third 5th is directly juxtaposed: in the sphere of ideal, naked music, this would yield pure, non-tempered intervals, but in the mundane business of notation, in the practice of composition understood as ”a matter of persuasion”, the ideal has virtually to be sacrificed.

The new and audible tonality that results comes across as “hovering freely, as if continuously in flight, the driving force of its melody yielding to no particular gravitational field” (the description is Christoph Schlüren’s) – it can never reach its objective. Eliasson thus arrives, not just at a music that alternates between extreme states of tension, overloaded and almost bursting under its own energy; he also discovers “new melodic forms.” To know this is entirely superfluous for the direct understanding and effectiveness of his music. But it does help to explain the paradoxical impression of listening to something that is at once completely new and yet familiar.

Music, Eliasson continued, needed movement above all; it needed ”harmonies, and thus different spaces.” The problem, he said – ”our problem, in contemporary music, has been for centuries that of harmony.” One of the solutions was ”sound surfaces.” But this solution was ”contrived, artificial, cerebral exercises without content – mere façade. Instrumentation, primarily. None of the tension which is a prerequisite for movement coming from within.”

He did not dispute that there were examples of ”magnificently orchestrated music – above events that are static. Fantastic examples. They are the aftermath of dodecaphony.” Eliasson’s utterances were made firmly – yet they sounded neither dogmatic nor polemical. Not even his assertion that Schoenberg’s 12-note system is ”very limited in its expressivity” and that it has ”never quite got away from the duality of major and minor.”

Music, he would often finally say ”is quite simple! It’s like water: H20 equates to melody + harmony + rhythm! That’s just how it is! Most of what counts as innovation in today’s music is actually defined by other extra-musical parameters.”