Published: 2001-09-24 by Stellan Sagvik

by Lennart Reimers (transl. Sven Borei) (Published in Nutida Musik no 3 1984/85)

The aesthetic pluralism which increasingly characterises highly industrialised countries, is to a certain extent a question of comfort, for by pushing the concept of value to the background, we release ourselves from having to take a stand in relation to the content and import of art. In that sense it lays no responsibility on us. Questions of quality are either attributed to other phenomena or simply quantified.

I should like to make the hypothetical suggestion that even if complexity is not the same as quality, all quality art is complex. It follows then, that if simple musical structures manage to penetrate into the varied corners of our mind, it is so because they are not as simple as they ‘seem’. One can say that we contribute ourselves towards making them complex. The Don Giovanni minuet we hear today is one Mozart never heard, since he hadn’t heard Schubert, Brahms and Schoenberg nor, which is perhaps even more interesting, he hadn’t heard Schütz. For that matter, music doesn’t ‘seem’ at all, for it is the end product of a process, one whose filters consist of our total and collected experiences. Complex quality music can be said to subsume this filtering process by playing on these ‘lives within our lives’. In that way it gains ‘value’, thus becoming valuable.
In this sense, Anders Eliasson’s music is complex.

Disegno per clavicembalo is one of the latest works in the large family of Disegno compositions. In its first filter, also identifiable as the surface layer, the structures are scratched with quick pen strokes in a Presto con brio tempo. As in many other Eliasson compositions, this fast section forms a dense tone swarm whose small parts comprise a type of modus holding the sequence together like some dense cement.

Just as in Disegno for clarinet, the formative and melodic patterns of this modus encompasses all intervals: minor and major seconds, minor and major thirds, fourths, fifths and tritones. The major third is anchored in the right hand, while the rest of the intervals flow from the left hand in constant, kaleidoscopic shifts. Because all six intervals are used in ‘modal’ sub-structures, though never all 12 tones, a ‘tonality’ is created which is neither ‘tonal’ nor ‘atonal’. There is neither diatonics nor a scale system, tone series nor full chromatics (score example 1 illustrates using numbers how the six intervals appear for the first time at the beginning of the piece.) Disegno for clarinet is built on a material base of a tonal series (10 tones), often repeated as a whole or in large part. However, the modus of the cembalo work is fragmented and partially pulverised. Its sub-intervals are not cultivated ‘democratically’: sometimes the major thirds in the right hand dominate (Score example 2), sometimes frequent tritone sequences are inserted like attacking spears (Score example 3), and sometimes the minor thirds fall forwards like inexhaustible miniature waterfalls (Score example 4).

Still, in the longer sections the swarming all-interval patterns live on, giving the oppressive information density that is so characteristic of Eliasson. But it is an information density of another kind than the one met in the ‘old’, through-composed, serial music’s unpredictable moments. Eliasson’s music is not unpredictable in the momentary sense as it always has a strong form curvature. In Disegno per clavicembalo the music is closely tied to the rhythmic and metric sequences, which in turn is the reason that the fragmented all-interval modus still moves to such an inexorable continuity.

Parts dominated by 9/16 alternate with 4/8 sections and in both the odd and the even metric sequences, the figures move back and forth between perfect and imperfect time. Binary rhythms are inserted into the odd metric sequences, while triplets are placed in the even ones. At the apex of the middle section, just prior to the breathing pause comprised by a lento malinconico, the 32:nds fight furiously with simultaneous triplets. The affecting small seconds of the lento even needs a written restatement in common time in order to halt the rhythmic-metric onset.

With that we are already scraping [away] the polish on the surface layer, only to meet a new one: our memories of historic keyboard music. Disegno per clavicembalo is a very playable piece. The all-interval transforms without therefore basically changing manual curves of the Alberti Bass, the mordents and the grace notes. Here are echoes of European ornamental, cultural history between varying sonoral walls. And the keyboard related conceptual structures gain in density as the piece progresses, confirming their conceptual dominance in the final phase. (Score example 5)

Now the third level is within reach comprising the physical movement’s reflections of the passage of time/music. This piece is chockfull of leaps and tension, with its constantly shifting melodic interval kaleidoscope, its rhythmic-metric displacements and the formative ornamentation all closely related to the movement which not only lives in the world of sound, but also in the actions that make that sound real. In other words, the musical structures are in constant motion, vitalising the playing. In this way the motion expresses an animation that transcends the compositional process. It reflects Life.

And life is more than structures, ornaments and playing action: it is feelings. In this fourth level, below the surface and intermediate filters, the music cries out in its desperate battle against the ravages of the playing: sobs in the lento through keening, affective, falling minor seconds. However, this drop towards deeper levels only seems to be an intermezzo. The first, ‘aggressive’ part of the composition empties into a defeat for the upwards striving. Just prior to the intermezzo, the poly-rhythmical climax sinks inevitably down into the paleness of misgivings, leading the piece to an irreconcilability: the nearly fused, dense, falling chords are disarmed in the final bars by a last, attacking leap upwards and forwards. (Score example 6) But even with the sketching of these four layers, we haven’t reached the ‘bottom’ of Eliasson’s musical world at all. As there are worlds to go before we reach the seventh circle, we will continue on through a few other compositions.

Disegno per quartetto d’archi was written a decade ago and is somewhat less complex in its melodic and rhythmic lines. Here he uses other dimensions to create the ‘multi-filter’ structure in the music. Above all, we find a return to alternating playing styles, reflecting characteristic thought patterns from European musical traditions: the transformation of sonoral colour within a unified frame, in this case the relative homogeneity of the string quartet. The piece begins with a combination of sul ponticello (violin I) and pizzicato (remaining instruments), with a sffz articulation and all senza vibrato! A rapid, gradual ‘humanisation’ occurs of the high first violin note (poco a poco sul tasto), as well as in the short second violin attack (transition to arco and con vibrato). In apposition to these short respirations he has placed a profiled, melodic/rhythmic muscularity: the falling, accentuated ‘stroke’ of Eb-D-C (arco) in 16th triplets, first ff and then mf. (Score example 7)

With this opening gambit, it can be said that the ‘battle’ is already won. Against these timbre modulations, he places the kinetic energy and together they become fertile. The vibrato is regularly to resting sonoral colour pictures, which then are continuously attacked by the ‘muscular’, accentuated triplets. Meditation is placed against aggression, atmosphere against profiling, malincoli against vitality.

In the first onset it seems as if vitality wins, driving its energy into the ‘meditative’ sound and making it roll on in trilling figures. It renews its attack in chord-like forms, which however afterwards dissolve in the flageolet setting.

In Disegno per clavicembalo a fragmented melodic modus is combined with the rhythmic/metric stream. Disegno per quartetto d’archi gains its vitality from the conflict between timbre and tempo. Music is time, but all time is not music. And still it moves.

In 1985, Eliasson returned both to the crescendo free keyboard instrument and the highly flexible string sound in his Quintet for cembalo and string quartet. Obviously this combination has no relation to continuo, but still if you burrow down just under the surface structures, you meet ingredients of the composer’s thought processes which do not lack relationships to the manner in which Baroque music thought continuo-sly in a harmonic sense. It is the totality in the multi-voice stream that decides the direction in which the piece travels. I believe that an adequate shaping of the cembalo quintet presupposes an Einfühlung in this ‘harmonic’, a counterpoint to what seemingly occurs on the surface in the constantly ornamented, melodic rippling.

In difference to the cembalo and string quartet pieces, the broadly based intervals are structurally formative here: octaves, sevenths and long arpeggios. (Score example 8) Metrically and rhythmically the sequences have a flexibility reminiscent of the cembalo composition, with its triplets, quintuplets, sextuplets and many other ‘imperfect’ relationships that permeated the melodic inscriptions. The various layers and filterings are joined in what is in reality a work that is hard to describe, one whose stitches are dependent on each other and whose performing gesticulation is complicated by the multiplicity of meanings in the structures. In addition, both are an expression of the vitality in the abstract motion. And finally, down towards the deeper layers there is something that could be called ‘troubled joy’. In other words, the whole is really something other than a game of compositional techniques using rulers and compasses. Still, without these tools, nothing of what actually occurs would occur: life, uniqueness and originality.

In Breathing Room: July, Anders Eliasson speaks out in a music which is filled with multi-faceted content to perhaps an even greater extent than the three pieces discussed above. This 20-minute ‘choral symphony’ goes through an unbelievably dense pre-filtering occurs comprising all the layers which our experience tells us runs through complex music. These include the emotionally coloured memories, the feedback loops and ‘re-flexions’ which all have something to do with the value and quality concepts. It is also a rich, but not gaudy music. The text is an English interpretation by May Swenson and Leif Sjöberg of one of Tomas Tranströmer’s poems. The interpretation stays close to the images of the original whose title was Andrum: Juli (Breathing Room: July) appearing in his 1970 poetry collection called Mörkerseende (Night vision). The Swedish reads as follows:

Den som ligger på rygg under de höga träden
är också däruppe. Han rännilar sig ut i tusentals kvistar gungar fram och tillbaka,
sitter i en katapultstol som går loss i ultrarapid.

Den som står nere vid bryggorna kisar mot vattnen.
Bryggorna åldras fortare än människor.
De har silvergrått virke och stenar i magen.
Det bländande ljuset slår ända in.

Den som färdas hela natten i öppen båt
över de glittrande fjärdarna
ska somna till sist inne i en blå lampa
medan öarna kryper som stora nattfjärilar över glaset
(Who lies on his back under the high trees
is also there. He rills out into thousands of twigs swaying back and forth,
sits in a catapult seat released in ultra-rapid.

Who stands down by the docks squints towards water.
Docks age faster than people.
They have silver-grey wood and stones within.
The blinding light rips its way to the core.

Who sails all night in an open boat
over the glittering bights
will at last fall asleep inside a blue lamp
while the isles creep like giant moths over the glass. SB)

In his music, Anders Eliasson retains the three-verse structure of the poem. The first verse bears the indication tranquillo e bianco (calmly and lightly), the second the indication agile (with mobility), while in the third, the temp and expression are to some extent decided by the key word ‘sailing’ representing the less rhythmic, less onomatopoetic ‘journeying’ of the interpreted Tranströmer original. But within the frame of this larger form is found a swarm of musical events: long melismas as accompaniment to words like ‘rills’, ‘blinding light’ and ‘thousands’; sonorally colouristic madrigalisms to ‘swaying back and forth’; small patterned repetitions to words like ‘twigs and branches’; and musically sweeping expressions for ‘sailing’. The flimmering figures in ‘glittering bights’ also belong to the dense, sensual analogue to the texts. But still, all of this are but surface embellishments, only one of the filters. For once the composer reflects on the texts, he burrows deeper towards an inner reality of another ilk.

In a second layer, the music is driven forwards as lines by the harmonic successions. Of course we are not talking about ‘functions’ here, but about a polyphonic horizontality which is related to ‘harmonics’, though perhaps only as a cousin.

Not until then, in a third filter, is there a possibility [for the music] to mirror in its core the tripartite form-curvature, remembering that it does not ‘exist’, it appears.

In a fourth layer [or filter] we meet the humanely choral-like flavour of the piece: it is a symphony with people. A fifth reveals the ceaselessness where everything floats together, including shaping the segues between the verses using musical overlapping.

A sixth layer finds the conceptual metamorphoses pressing forward: a place where everything changes while remaining the same. And perhaps with this process we are on our way into the world of the last circle, one where Tranströmer expresses in his seemingly separate verses three ways of looking at the same thing:

Du kan se upp mot de höga träden (mot höjden)
kisa ned mot vattnen (mot djupen)
eller förlora dig bland öarna på väg ut (över vidderna)

(You can look up towards the tall trees (towards the height)
squint down towards the waters (towards the depth)
or loose yourself among the islands on your way (over the vastnesses)
[transl. SB]

You remain the same, since the ‘docks age faster than people’. This aspectual formulation of the human condition gains musical meaning in Eliasson’s composition, [specifically] in the broadened tempo when everything breaks loose in ultra-rapid (‘outflying in slow motion’), in the micro-cosmic situations where small figures concertise while ‘standing down by the docks’ and ‘squinting at the water’, and in the long, deep cantus firmus to the words ‘the docks age faster than people’. Here are echoes of ancient symbols for the firm song, that strong word which when it comes down to it may be the only thing that humanity has to clamber to. (Score example 9)

And with that, the musical tentacles are extended towards the totalities. In the second verse, elements are repeated from the first to the words ‘swayed back and forth/into thousands of twigs and branches’. At the same time, elements from the third verse are preceded in the second: ‘he will fall asleep [on the] glittering bights’. Finally, the third verse contains echoes from the second with ‘the blinding light rips its way’. In these and other ways not only is an ‘outer’ context and interconnection shaped out of the swarms of structures and within the harmonic flow. It is also apparent that the composer, like the poet, is reworking this world to other meanings than just the ‘technical’. They are constantly thinking about one matter or, if you will, grasping firmly to the same internal position from which they take time to look upwards, downwards and outwards simultaneously. They have a Breathing Room in the high summer setting on this side of the trees, the water and the open spaces.

I believe that this inner, July-warm density is a general characteristic of Eliasson’s music. It does not invite [the listener] to a party, at least not those of “us who are slow, as people generally are“. But it does invite, even provokes remembering, reflection and feedback. But is not relaxing. It has something missing from value pluralism, namely concentration, ‘re-flection’ and singularism.


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