Sweden is mourning Anders Eliasson, who until his death on Monday night was arguably the country’s greatest living composer – an artist who combined a rigorous and very Nordic anti-establishmentism with a stringent sense of compositional discipline.
Eliasson was born in Borlänge in central Sweden in 1947 to a metalworker and a hairdresser. One of his earliest childhood memories was of marching his toy soldiers around while imagining sounds – a striking image which is often so impossible to divorce from the music he would go on to produce. After a period of psychological illness Eliasson began private study with Valdemar Söderholm at the aged of 16. He moved to the Royal Stockholm Academy of Music in 1966 to study with Ingvar Lidholm, a member of the modernist ‘Monday Group’ collective.
Eliasson experimented with electronic music, but it was the acoustic work Canto del vagabondo (orchestra and choir, 1979) that first brought him to the attention of the Swedish musical community. His First Symphony (1989) alerted the international music scene to his relevance and talent; the piece won the Nordic Council Music Prize in 1992.
Eliasson went on to write three more symphonies, numerous chamber and vocal works and a number of concertos for varied instruments including saxophone, trombone and bass clarinet. He referred to an inner ‘musical alphabet’ which informs his writing: ‘it is simple to the extreme, consisting of two modes, a Lydian and a Dorian one, horizontally and vertically.’ He acknowledged the seeming limitation of this system but claimed that in ‘trying to exhaust it, you will never push it to the limit.’
There’s no denying the utterly original feel of the resulting sound world, marked out by its marrying of emotion and tension – expressive but taut, regimented but never constricted, with no wasted notes and a discipline which reflected the Baroque music and jazz Eliasson so loved. At the time of his death he was composer-in-residence at the New York-based Arcos Orchestra.
There was a feeling that Eliasson felt himself somehow at odds with the more esoteric elements of the compositional community. That feeling is encapsulated in the account of his arrival at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki in 1993 to begin a stint as guest professor of composition. ‘I’m Paavo Heininen, modernist’ proclaimed one of his colleagues by way of introduction. ‘I’m Anders Eliasson, normal human being’ the Swede replied.
Recommended recording: Bassoon Concerto, Symphony No 1, Ostacoli. Various performers. Caprice CAP21381