Where light in darkness lies

My first encounter with the world of Anders Hillborg came a few years ago, through a recording of his Violin Concerto of 1991-92. After being utterly seduced by its luminous, pulsing opening, a headlong post-minimalist rush that still somehow manages breathe in deep, Sibelian phrases, the rug was cruelly pulled out from under me, the wonder of the moment obliterated at a stroke by a grotesque march, the long-limbed melodic line twisted into a limping, wheezing caricature of itself. This experience is, in a nutshell, the essence of Hillborg's work, which occupies a place of perpetual possibility - or perhaps of infinite improbability, to steal a phrase from Douglas Adams. As I came to know Hillborg's music better, it occurred to me that the more unlikely was an event's occurrence within a given context, the greater the chances that it would, in fact, happen. Moments of timeless beauty are abruptly cross-cut with sneering, chattering, hyperactive music that seems to tear at the very idea of aesthetic beauty, calling into question the artifice behind it. A major chord will slowly appear out of a sea of chaos like a guiding star to show the way home.

It would be easy to say that such contradictory impulses reveal a deep ambivalence. Indeed, Hillborg's preoccupation with stark contrasts can appear as a refusal to commit himself to a particular set of aesthetic values, which it is to a limited extent. While certain complex surface textures and background harmonic progressions are generated using simple pitch matrices, in the manner of the twelve-tone school, the composer archly dismisses any rigorously systematic approach to composition (even in his own early works) as a need for "safety in numbers". All languages and gestures are permitted, nothing is ruled out a priori. But this most open-minded of composers is no polystylist, despite his loud collisions of disparate ideas. (If anything, the title of a recent orchestral work, Exquisite Corpse, betrays a Surrealist delight in the absurd, in the placing of a familiar, even clichéd object in an alien landscape.) There is no mere post-modern acceptance of uncertainty in Hillborg's work, no living with insecurity, nor any meaning in simply presenting the choices of our time in some orgy of endless variety and consumption. Rather, by engaging the act of choosing head-on, he enters into an epic battle for truth.

And how victorious is he! In the end, there is wonder, even amid the raucousness, made all the more valuable for having been tested. In fact, if one surveys his work as a whole, there is far more beauty than not, some so exquisite as to not even permit the questioning of it. The work HKK is performing this season, muoaiyoum, is an example of such. Another is his vocal work .Lontana in sonno., which I saw render a row of mildly doctrinaire young composers speechless, so transfixing was its beauty. In such works, the states of suspended animation Hillborg conjures have the effect of telescoping time, making irrelevant any idea of duration. To this day, I have no idea how long .Lontana in sonno. lasts, nor do I want to know. Such music exists as the end point of a celebratory, cautionary heavenward ascent worthy of Dante - another source of inspiration for Hillborg - in which the composer gleefully fills the role of guide. Such unquestioned faith in the existence of a place of perfect beauty is rare enough in this age of cynicism and prevarication that, in my mind, it merits Hillborg a title so overused in modern art as to have been largely stripped of its value, yet which undoubtedly applies here: that of visionary.

Matthew Whittall, The short road to nirvana blog, November 2007