The Alphabet in Motion

By Christoph Schlüren

Fundamental observations on Anders Eliasson’s harmony

For 21 years, I have been concerned with Anders Eliasson’s music, occasionally in intensive periods of work, and have endeavoured to fathom the laws and principles of his musical diction and discover what is essentially new about it. This is based on his treatment of harmony and melody. I seek to find out what Eliasson himself constantly described as a new perspective on the cosmos of harmony and what he attempted to illustrate with a few, seemingly cryptic drawings and the reference to two basic modes – a kind of Lydian one and a kind of Dorian one. At the same time, he always stressed that it was not really these modes and that his approach was ‘a system that is not one at all’. I must confess that 21 years have not sufficed for me to penetrate behind the mystery to take that perspective about which Eliasson spoke from daily experience. It will remain an enigma as to what was essentially the impetus of his music, what serves as the regulatory force behind the infinite diversity of his treatment of the twelve tones, indeed, in general, how the harmony he discovered and explored works, producing one step from another, how the extreme mobility of the modulatory sense of place functions with its constant changes in direction, without confusing the cohesion apprehended.

It is also the case that in terms of the freedom of interval relations and priorities no one piece resembles another. The fact that, in a successful performance audibly and idiomatically unfolding the entire complexity of the composition, we can sense how the context emerges, of what nature and dimension the contrasts are, where structural references and multiple affinities can be discovered, does not yet imply that we are also in a position deliberately to take the perspective on the tonal space from which the composer operated. On the other hand, it does mean that he sends us messages from a world that is not yet our familiar one.

No models, no predecessors

In the case of Eliasson, it must be remarked much more than with other radical innovators such as Mussorgsky or Debussy that there are no concrete models, no predecessors for his music. In its entire energetic composition, in the principle of its harmonic interactions and consequently, of course, in its structure, its form, it is new, and that although – with a few marginal exceptions – in his harmonic and melodic range he employs no other means than the twelve tones covering the complete system of diatonicism, chromaticism and enharmony, first exhaustively explored by Johann Sebastian Bach, i.e. what we think we know better as a stock of material than any other base of tonal relations and what many of us have long considered exhausted and hence no longer beneficial in terms of creativity.

Of course, Eliasson’s music is also very complex on the rhythmical and motivic levels, and it is very interesting and informative to explore it as regards its proportions, organic developments, derivations and all-penetrating lineage. But the true secret lies in controlling the kinetic energy of the harmony, in the subtleties of attraction and rejection, of compression and relaxation, in the drastic unpredictability of the build-up of tension with subliminal and overt actions in inseparably interwoven interaction.

The musical alphabet – a key concept of Eliasson

A key concept of Eliasson, to which I used to pay little attention, is the ‘musical alphabet’ he works with. It is not a musical diction or a style, but merely ‘an alphabet’. We can imagine a painter with a pallet of different colours at hand, i.e. a much simpler point of departure than we are accustomed to from all the sophisticated tonal systems with which endeavours have been undertaken to find a new way out of what is familiar.

If we simply look at the material and its direct combination potential, then Eliasson’s music is not new. There are no chords we do not know, nor any systematically calculated combinations that keep the development in motion like a trick, so to speak, from the theoretically elaborated background. Eliasson’s music is tonal in the comprehensive sense, i.e. not specially related to a specific system like the traditional polyphonic major/minor regime, orientation-providing modes, the chromatic totale or equidistant enharmonic tonal systems. Instead, everything comes into play simultaneously, so to speak, forming an enormous, maximally undetermined space for tonal relations and involving such liberty for combinations that a drift off into chaos has to threaten at every turn. It is a veritable tightrope walk. What is now decisive is how Eliasson moves within this space, a space that always keeps all options open. He maintains the so very different vectors in an always relative balance, deriving the relentless kinetic energy from it. How is that possible?

Triangulatory harmony

When his harmony is termed ‘triangulatory’, this is apposite in many respects. Striking is the continuous co-existence of and the constant leaping between diatonicism, chromaticism and enharmony, i.e. between those three fundamental options offered by the twelve-tone system: diatonicism with its clarity, the precision of the harmonic direction resulting from being anchored in a central reference tone, its direct memorability and the unambiguousness of its effect; chromaticism with its compression, levelling of distinctions, dissonantly passionate drama and propensity towards intricate hyper-complexity; and fifth-less enharmony with its diffusion, lack of contour, directionlessly drifting stasis and effortless circumvention of major harmonic distances by the shortest route.

From the expressive exaggeration and nuanced adornment of the diatonicism of the major/minor system, chromaticism emerged as the first salient prerequisite for Modernism. Debussy took a different course by breaking with Wagner, discovering what Schoenberg called the ‘wandering’ quality of direct enharmony, extracting the expressive pressure from tonal combinations, as is exhibited in purest form in the artistic phenomenon of the whole-tone scale. In the case of Eliasson, we can also see that the enharmonic combinations always so directly expanding the harmonic space and opening it up into a hardly concrete one are accorded a special function, especially in the form of the extreme triad he needs as a particularly expressive element of the melodic progression – in splendid manner at the beginning of the fourth movement, ‘Lugubre’, of his Third Symphony. Here, the thematic form irresistibly recalls the striking main theme in Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, but the harmony is completely different, as it immediately describes an infinite space, in three steps as it were, encompassing the entire spectrum of the circle of fifths, which is only possible for the sequence of three major thirds. None of the three tones is a clear tonic, and any of them can consequently be the relation of the under or upper fifth. Unlike in the second-long filling out of this sound in the form of the whole-tone series, that complete lack of direction does not appear here, it is simply the case that no real grounding of the sound takes place, not even when, as in the example presented, two different augmented triad sequences appear simultaneously. At the same time, in the form of the lying tonic we have a clearly diatonic component or one representing the diatonic principle that concentrates the development, and the saxophone joins in with the purest chromaticism in a wonderfully expressive manner. The three worlds are already there simultaneously, in a crystal-clear and corresponding way.

The real secret

Yet, the triangulatory principle is by no means exhausted with such considerations. The real secret goes far beyond technical and material-related explanations. They may all be explainable, but every time in a different way relating to the concrete case, and then always with regard to the development as a whole, in which the respective moment has its place. Originally, what we term harmony always refers to a tonic. In this sense, the music is undoubtedly subject to laws we can comprehend in analogy to gravity. However, there are interval combinations in which these gravitational conditions are suspended. All of them are generated equidistantly, and here we will leave the nearest form. i.e. the semitone series of all twelve tones, aside, as it is nothing but a totale of the system, consequently containing all options in the closest space. There are the whole-tone series, the minor third series (i.e. the diminished seventh chord or the diminished triad as an excerpt), the major third series (i.e. the augmented triad) and the tritone (i.e. the augmented fourth or the diminished fifth corresponding to it as a sound phenomenon). Of course, the reversals of these intervals, i.e. the minor seventh, the major sixth and the minor sixth are also compatible in this system as representatives of the identical principle, which, with the exception of the minor second and the major seventh as its reversal, can only not be applied to one pair of intervals: the fifth and fourth – i.e. characteristically to that very pair that immediately provides any development with a clear harmonic direction. Here, of course, it must be borne in kind particularly what not only Eliasson defined very precisely: whoever does not comprehend the determined, unique function of the fifth, does not understand anything about harmony – which should really constitute the beginning of any composition and any music theory at all today. But let us return to the equidistant combinations already mentioned: they do not contain any fifths, and neither of the two tones are a tonic. This is most evident in the interval bisecting the octave, i.e. the tritone assuming the same position, maximally distant in both directions of the circle of fifths. The tritone holds the harmonic development in suspense, at least for the moment of its isolated sound. For want of a fifth relation, in general harmonic terms equidistant harmony generates a static limbo, thus forming the only form of fundamental atonality (i.e. unrelatedness) within the possibilities of the twelve-tone system.

The weightlessness of harmony

What does all of this imply in terms of Eliasson’s harmony? The weightlessness, the ‘flight’ of his harmony, results, of course, initially from the fact that it does not exhibit any unambiguous, persistent tonic. At the same time, it generates its kinetic energy from not remaining dangling in the air, so to speak, between two contradictory attractors, but from the fact that a third attractor always acts immediately. Thus, it has the character of a cosmic journey. It always describes its trajectory between all the attracting areas, and only very rarely does it yield in passing to an attractivity, moving short-term into the orbit of a tone, only to free itself immediately and fly out into the open. What emerges is, viewed in a very child-like way, a kind of permanent ping-pong game with the twelve letters of the ‘alphabet’, in which the ball is constantly kept in the air. This may happen both in the immediate proximity of a continuously recurring centre, which is dominant for the time being, and in incessant fluctuation, and Eliasson always has all his options at hand. A very frequent means of producing extreme tension is the collision between tones directly adjacent at a distance of a minor second, which is simultaneously the most dissonant interval phenomenon. Here, the struggle for hegemony takes on its most direct form, like e.g. in Desert Point the central confrontation between the tonal protagonists G and A flat as a reduced intensification of what Eliasson called ‘angular sounds’. In such cases, of course, it is superfluous to speak of triangulatory harmony, and it is replaced by a duel as a simple, dual principle. In many cases, everything centres on one tone for a certain period, yet however much it is expressly held and confirmed, however intensively its hegemony is tugged at, it is exposed to an acid test, finally to be left behind after mobilizing all the repulsion forces available.

What fascinated Eliasson so much about Bach was not just the perpetual flow of music and its perfect form experienced as totality, but also the command of the harmonic space, the ability to move everywhere within an energetic context. He realized this in his music in a completely different way. The concretely instrumental and idiomatic element of the effect played less and less of a salient role in the course of the years. If we take his late trios, for instance, this music, however accurately it is written for the instruments, would not absolutely have to be played by these instruments for long passages. It is a little like in Bach’s The Musical Offering or The Art of the Fugue that quite different colours and a different concrete plasticity of the tonal tissue are conceivable, without anything getting lost in the core.

To prove this, we have produced an arrangement for string orchestra of the third ‘Disegno’ for piano, entitled ‘Carosello’, composed in 2005. Of course, there can be no doubt that Eliasson would have composed this ‘Carosello per archi’ in different details. He would certainly have given the double bass, for instance, a more independent and demanding part. But only somebody like him could take such liberties. So, we deliberately created a ‘trascrizione non-liberamente’, without any free additions, but in the very awareness that much of the lyrical potential of this piece can only be expressed in outline on the piano. It is, like any successful arrangement, e.g. also of organ works by Bach, always a profit and loss statement. Yet, I would suggest, when listening, simply to imagine it were an original work by the late Eliasson and then to ask if it could have been differentiated from such a one without background knowledge.

Christoph Schlüren, August 2017

Translation from German: Ian Mansfield, M.A.