ANDERS ELIASSON - between everyday and the sea

Published: 2001-10-10 by Stellan Sagvik

By Sören Engblom (transl. Sven Borei) (Published in Nutida Musik no. 1, 1990)


About music, angels and eternity.

Art and music critic Sören Engblom on meeting a solitaire.

In the half-dark of the concert hall, alone, travelling from everyday – tired or curious – the listener. An audience is not a group, it is a grouping of separate listeners. Indeed the very point of music is that it reverberates in a unique moment and that each listener’s experience of it is equally unique and wholly irreplaceable. The performance can be repeated, but alas always too late. For as the communicating spirit has wings on his feet, there will be no discernible trace...
The composer is the first listener. How s/he composes depends then not only on what he has heard, but above all on how he has listened; alone or as one in the crowd, as a superior or as an underling, or in what must be the sweetest way of all, as an equal but solitaire, one among many but not as one of the crowd. How one listens is like how one composes – both depend on who you are.

Akin to Matisse
That is how I want to sketch Anders Eliasson’s background: the man, the listener and the composer. It is futile to separate them. And for those listeners who like this writer are sooner poetic than analytic, more empathetic than critical, Eliasson’s music is amazingly energising. It allows a free flow of thoughts and associations, only to confiscate them all leaving an electric cloud of mysterious scenery, metaphors, light and figures. His music holds paths for nearly every experience, something discovered over time. Still, the sonoral material itself is strict, disciplined and based on the conditions set by the instruments themselves within a principle that reminds of Matisse: the work of an artist can never be separated from his expressive means.
Eliasson takes his music from a primitive musicality he calls either “a musical sea” or “the music angel”, when it isn’t just “eternity”. It represents a condition of pregnant expectation: a potential music larger than his own thoughts, than his language, but with a link, no better yet, a chute to his own reservoir. This chute between everyday and primitive sea keeps him occupied. “A vessel must be filled. It calls for much effort. And it is important to be as distinct as possible.” Writing a score becomes a matter of persuading the music to become a shape in our world, based on the conditions of the instruments, musicians and listeners. Essential because the angel doesn’t deliver music with instrumentation.

I meet up with Anders Eliasson in his small apartment in Stockholm’s old city, a snowy November day in an ageless setting. He’s just received the tape of the first performance of his third symphony in Trondheim. We listen reverently. I watch the composer for a second, leaning forward slightly in his chair, his cigarette building up a long ash. His eyes are open but unseeing. I sense he’s reached into the music, into the musical sea. Then I close my eyes.
The new symphony is dominated by an alto saxophone, even though it doesn’t behave like a traditional soloist. It’s rather the mildest voice among the many the orchestra offers. And as the piece progresses, it plays very much on an equal footing with the oboe, flute and the strings. But even so it is as if the sonoral picture of the orchestra is strongly affected throughout by the presence of the alto sax. For the first time I experience Eliasson’s music as “urban” and its expressive dynamics are perhaps most reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein.

Undiscovered memories
A strongly lyrical section starts out with the warm colours of the harp in a nearly impressionistic tone. The oboe and the lyrical saxophone create a special light of grey transparencies; it is impossible for me to loose the cityscape. The light moves between two houses before the music seeks an Oriental-like sound, with parallel voices and large interval steps. As the drama grows, the impressions shift from a lightning fast flock of musical parts to a strong, active expectation. A massive forte is chopped off as a steep sound wall and all that remains is a single tone issuing trembling from the bass… the harp gives birth to a dark melody and the saxophone, alone and lyrical, shapes a new, exceedingly lovely impression; the pictures in my head melt away or sink under the surface becoming quiet, slumbering memories. The trumpet offers an answering tone and the saxophone closes out, high and alone and intense…
I feel that his thoughts and language have been completely transformed into music, that in a purely metaphoric-erotic sense the music, the original, primitive music has crept under his skin. And so the performers must work towards an incomparable music, something that places high demands on empathy.
The orchestra section is neither traditional in the sense of being authoritarian nor hierarchic, nor is it collective in some levelling meaning. It provides me with the constant perception of a row of voices which each steps forward as a caller, each with his own specific address.
The rich tapestry seems to have place for every experience, for each and every instrument. Eliasson draws a parallel to the biologist who places a biotope under the microscope, either piece by piece or as a whole: a prosaic, but fitting metaphor. Some of the images are noted immediately, others after some study. Some command a more dominant place, but not even the smallest mite is unnecessary! The biotope is actually an excellent likeness of his way of handling the orchestra, a method where the instruments become soloists of a sort, though together.
In part this is a way to compose the movement itself, and in part it provides each musician with something of value to treasure. Intermezzi from 1998 can be used as an example. Here you find a linear style with an exciting voice structure, one where it is just the many who form a multitude but not a group. This is typical of the Eliasson aspect, musical or not.
“There are no Nebenstimmen in my music, no supportive voices. All are leads, Hauptstimmen!”

Constantly in vogue
While talking of many voices, I mention Tider (Times) from 1973, a collage of fragmentary music with a mixed bag of texts, including Dostoyevsky and Virgil (though not Thomas Tranströmer as the jacket says). This work doesn’t have any where near as powerful an inner framework as the purely instrumental ones, such as the contemporary string quartet, one of many disegni. Eliasson explains that there are two ways to compose with two, separate points of departure: “One approaches a cult ceremony where one ritual facet dominates, the other the attitude of the constructor.” The string quartet has exactly one of those self-supportive, seemingly hovering precences, while Tider spreads out over the ground like a labyrinth.
Naturally his production develops, but still remains constantly in vogue for himself. The mythical, ritual and cultic is again present in Sotto il segno del sole (1987) where the wind instruments first acts as a soloist, provoking the percussion section to interact. It is a game of call and response. And in spite of its sunny name, there is something akin to a transfigured darkness about this piece. The Great Voice slides out into a pleasant instrumentarium of two wind instrument groups and a percussion section, each with individually defined, independent voices. The open form allows for a number of disparate themes or parts thereof to be used. Still all find space under the glittering darkness of the horizon…
The composer himself comments:
“It is vital to find out what is sounding within. Listening inwards has an almost religious flavour. What is important is sorting out that which is not part of me.”
Eliasson doesn’t take up any new ideas:
“I work with the eternal questions – I haven’t managed to find any new ones.”
And so he shapes his language from the drops of his musical sea, but with hardly any control.
“I don’t know the breadth of my language,” he says, but continues on to name its centre as a mix of Lydian and Doric sacred modes. It is through this personal ABC that he maintains his contact with the primitive musicality. The musical material can never be totally encompassed, constantly shifting and gliding away. Catching it would be the definitive zero point, comparable in political theory to the end of history.

Irritating self-denial
Which takes us to Joseph Brodsky who insists that the language is larger than he is, that he goes to the language and fetches his poetry. And as Eliasson, Brodsky is a conscious traditionalist with a strict form. He despises free verse, feeling it indicates ignorance.
Anders Eliasson talks with irritation about the 60s, describing it as a period of self-denial. Metric rhythm and melodics were taboo.
“Most of it’s nonsense, a sign of not having studied enough. A game for fake philosophers.”
Naturally it is impossible for him to deny what the music angel proffers as that is how his language changes. This is how he travels new parts of the musical sea, finding many things:
“Why should I say no to a lovely melody?”
But he firmly denies borrowing styles or quoting others. What is called for is a thoroughly worked out and strictly personal relationship to tradition. Eliasson talks readily about the great counterpoint composers like Palestrina, J.S. Bach, Mozart and Brahms.
He is at once a mystic and a sensualist. And he composes his music to have it played now, speaking quite coldly about those who “write for history”. As sharply indeed as about groups where everyone covers for the other. The solitaire is apparent.
He knows what his dream for Swedish music is:
“A multi-faceted Midsummer meadow! Sooner that than a coffee klatch by invitation only.” Which picture can also serve to describe his music.


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