Composer  Anders  Hillborg

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


One of Sweden’s leading composers, Anders Hillborg is that rare artist whose music strikes a chord across many different countries and cultures. Born in Sweden May 31, 1954, an early interest in electronic music developed from a beginning as a keyboard improviser in a pop band, but contact with Ferneyhough, and the music of Ligeti quickly led to a fascination with counterpoint and orchestral writing. Since then, Hillborg’s love of pure sound and the energy that he gives it, has appealed to many major conductors including Alan Gilbert, Sakari Oramo, Kent Nagano, and Gustavo Dudamel.

Peacock Tales, Hillborg’s theatrical clarinet concerto for Martin Fröst, displays another strand of his large and varied output: a sense of humour and the absurd. The piece has been taken up with enthusiasm in several different versions and has received a staggering number of performances. Mouyayoum for 16-voice a cappella choir is one of his most popular works, riffing on a rhythmically complex overtone series unadorned with words. Here, as always Hillborg’s ear for the subtleties of the voice and his natural lyricism are unmistakable. Above all, his music is borne out of a refreshing stylistic freedom matched by an innate communicative ability.


Hillborg’s sphere of activity extends well beyond the concert hall to embrace a wide range of Pop and Film music. In 1996 Hillborg won a Swedish Grammy for his work on "Jag vill se min älskade komma från det vilda" ("I want to see my beloved coming from the wild").

2011 saw the premiere of Cold Heat by the Berlin Philharmonic under David Zinman, and Sirens – Hillborg’s largest work to date – by the LA Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen. The advocacy of Esa-Pekka Salonen [shown below (left) with the composer] has resulted in numerous works, including Dreaming River (premiered by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in 1999), Eleven Gates (2005–06) premiered and commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and most recently Sirens, a joint commission from the LA Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra.


With each passing year, Hillborg’s international reputation grows apace. His music has twice been the subject of a Royal Stockholm Philharmonic’s Composer Festival (1999, 2014) and he has also enjoyed residencies at Soundstreams, Toronto (2003), Avanti! (1995, 2005), Aspen (2008) and most recently in Hamburg (where he is Composer in Residence with the NDR). An extensive discography (at least 24 recordings) includes four portrait discs on BIS.

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Hillborg was in the Windy City in February of 2005 to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra play his Exquisite Corpse, led by Alan Gilbert.  We met between the first and second concerts of the series, and here is what was said that afternoon . . . . .

hillborg Bruce Duffie:   You’re from Sweden.  Is there anything particularly Swedish, or even Scandinavian, about the music you write?

Anders Hillborg:   Probably I’m not the person to answer that because it’s difficult.  As Fellini said, he can’t describe what he’s doing; other people can see what he’s doing.  I suppose if can make an attempt to describe my art, there is a Scandinavian voice.  There are certain things pertinent to Scandinavians.  If you take the music of Sibelius, in which some people think there’s nothing happening, in fact we Scandinavians think there are lots of things happening.  Maybe this kind of thing is Scandinavian.

BD:   But you don’t try to write that into your music?

AH:   No, not consciously.

BD:   Is there anything that you consciously try to write into the music?

AH:   My personality is more towards making slow, meditative music.  It’s an interesting question.  Consciously I try to write fast music, or music with lots of movement and lots of pulse.  This is something I try to conquer.

BD:   Have you succeeded?

AH:   Again, how can I answer that question?  [Both laugh]  I don’t know.  I remember meeting Tōru Takemitsu.  I had the privilege to know him a little, and he said once that he can only make slow music.  It was a very honest commentary, and I think he was right.  He was a slow-music maker.

BD:   Even if you can’t talk about the results of your music, are you happy with the music that you hear coming off of your page?

AH:   It depends.  This piece I’m very happy with.  Then again, it’s very dependent on the performers.  If it’s badly performed, I think it’s a bad piece.  If it’s a bad performance for the audience, it is a bad piece because it’s hard to distinguish between the work from the performance of the work.

BD:   Then do you go back and tinker with it, or do you try to find a better ensemble?

AH:   Maybe, but sometimes I don’t know what is wrong.  Is it the piece or it is the performers?

BD:   I can see how you would say that on a first performance, but when you know the piece works, then if it doesn’t work, it’s the ensemble?

AH:   Or I’ve written music that is too difficult.

BD:   Do you write difficult music?

AH:   I do as I think, and very often it’s quite difficult to play.  In this case, Exquisite Corpse that is performed here now, it’s difficult, but not too difficult.  Its difficulty lies on a level in which you feel, as a musician, that when have you played once, twice, a third time, it improves all the time.  But there are difficulties that never improve, however much you practice it.  For a musician it doesn’t get easier, and that’s problematic.  Maybe I have some other pieces which are like that.

BD:   So why do you do that?

AH:   Because you might have an idea, a vision that is so important that you prefer to do that anyway, but I try to not do it.  Much of my time goes to simplify.  Once I’ve sketched out the score, I try to simplify as much as I can.

BD:   Simplify the idea or simplify the technique?

AH:   Simply the technique without compromising the idea, which is the core of my work.  I try to do that without hurting the idea.

BD:   So you wrestle with yourself?

AH:   I do.

hillborg BD:   Who wins?

AH:   Sometimes I win, and sometimes I win!  [Gales of laughter]

BD:   When you are writing and have the original thoughts of the piece, are you controlling where they go, or do they lead your hand across the page?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Gardner Read, and Christian Lindberg.]

AH:   That differs very much.  Because we’re talking about this piece, Exquisite Corpse, which was the first idea of a piece to use that technique to compose it, that idea faded the more I composed the piece.  In the end it was not a very important thing, so sometimes you have an idea, and, as you say, after a while the pen on the paper takes it to other places.  It’s a very complex interaction between intuition and rational determinationwhat you want to do, what you aim to do, and what actually happens on the way.  That is the core of creation, to get that balance.  There’s an article by Marcel Duchamp about the creativity question, which is very funny.  I don’t remember it exactly, but it’s basically that a painter aims to do something with his painting, and he realizes maybe sixty per cent of these aims.  Then there is forty per cent which he’s not even aware of, but that people who see the painting note.  The relation between these twowhat you aim to do and what comes there without your conscious knowledgecould be the creativity, perhaps.

BD:   When you make a painting, it’s there and the audience looks at the painting.  When you make the music, there has to be the performer of the music, so there’s an extra level.

AH:   That’s true, that’s another extra level.

BD:   Do you build in a little bit of creativity on the part of the performer?

AH:   Do you mean improvisation, or something like that?

BD:   No, but do you allow them freedom within your structure?

AH:   Sometimes, yes.  It depends.  The conductor may choose a tempo, and there’s a lot of creativity involved for the musicians
how to form a phrase, what dynamic to pick.  That is there for them.

BD:   What I’m looking for is how far is too far.  At what point is it stretched too far for you?

AH:   It would be different if I, for example, would incorporate improvisation, but that’s something I almost never do because I’m working with music that is not in that idiom.  I subscribe very much to what Lutosławski said, when he compared music to architecture for a composer of today, and a composer of Mozart’s time.  The architect nowadays would not only make the plans for the building, he would also be the mason and the carpenter, and he would also pick the grains of sand from which you mix the concrete!  In other words, there is no idiom; there is no musical grammar or syntax that you can rely on.

BD:   Are you inventing the wheel each time?

AH:   Yes, it feels like that sometimes.  I do not come to a laid-table as Mozart did.  He never had to question the framework of music-making, as I have to do.  He learned a craft in the same way as Schumann was made to learn a craft.  But I have to question the framework.

BD:   So he pushed the framework, but you have to create a whole new framework?

AH:   Yes.

BD:   Are you at all part of a Scandinavian lineage, or a world, global lineage of composers, a history of generation to generation?

AH:   Oh, I suppose so.  I can relate, but again, I don’t know if I can answer that.  I would say I am very much in debt to Scandinavian composers like Per Nørgård and Sibelius, so I suppose I’m part of that tradition.

*     *     *     *     *

hillborg BD:   When you get a commission, how do you decide yes, you will do this one, or no, you’ll turn this one aside?

AH:   I’m in the very lucky position now to be able to take basically what I want.

BD:   So how do you decide which ones you want?

AH:   If I like it, I take it... if I have time, of course.

BD:   What is it that you like?  What is it that intrigues you about it?

AH:   There’s a challenge in almost everything, although I can hardly imagine doing a piece for double bass solo, for example.  That would be too difficult.  But otherwise, I try to see everything as a challenge, especially if there is an orchestration that I would not immediately have chosen myself.  I try to get into that.  It can be absolutely anything.  Something that it typical me, I know I write very different music.  I write pop songs and I write experimental orchestral music, so I like a lot of different challenges.

BD:   Is it whatever strikes your fancy at the time?

AH:   It could be that.  It could also be like some of the works I’ve done with film and the pop music, which is also an economical thing to survive.

BD:   Once you accept a commission, are the ideas already there, or do you wait for some of the ideas to come?

AH:   That depends.  Usually, for the last ten years, the commission is signed before I even know what I’m going to do.  Sometimes I’ll have something maturing inside for years, which I’m just waiting for a commission to do.

BD:   Then you know what it is, and you’re waiting for a chance to pounce on it?

AH:   Yes.

BD:   I assume you still use pen and paper, or pencil and paper?

AH:   Yes, but more and more computer, actually.

BD:   Do the ideas always come?

AH:   No!

BD:   Are there times when you just know the idea, or that there is no idea?

AH:   Yes.   [Laughs]  It is sometimes very difficult, and that’s different.  If you perform, you can always practice.  You can always play, but to compose you have to accept when you’re creative, and sometimes you are less creative.  You can’t really get ideas.  This is difficult.

BD:   When the ideas are coming, do they keep coming so you stay up for two or three days?

AH:   Sometimes, yes, although I try not to because I have a family now
a wife and sonso I need to sleep.  They won’t let me sleep, so I try to keep business hours.

BD:   Are you able to balance the home life and the creative life?

AH:   It’s difficult, really.  I realize that sometimes I would like to be more present with my family, with my son, but when I’m in certain a phase of composing, I can’t.  It’s painful, but I realize that this is actually unavoidable.  It’s the problem of being creative, of being an artist.

BD:   Does your family understand that as creative artist you need to have time, and also the freedom to travel the globe?

hillborg AH:   To a certain extent, they understand that, yes, but not my eight-year-old son.  [Laughs]

BD:   Is he proud of you?

AH:   I don’t know.  I think so, but I’m not really sure.

BD:   Have you written anything specifically for him?

AH:   Not yet, but I will.  He’s playing the saxophone, but I will do something.

BD:   I wonder if he and his saxophone eventually will influence what you put on the page for someone else.

AH:   That’s very possible, yes.

BD:   We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

AH:   [Sarcastically]  Oh, that’s a very easy question!  [Both laugh]  Thanks, Bruce!  [More laughter]  Oh, come on!  What’s the purpose of music???  [Becoming serious]  What’s the purpose of art?  Again, I can be jealous about periods of history when art had a clear purpose or function.  It wasn’t even art then.  Look at pre-Columbian sculptures, or hear the music of Bach.  I don’t think he considered it art.  It was craft.  He was supposed to deliver a cantata every Sunday, and this was a perfect situation because he didn’t burden himself with questions about the purpose, like the one you gave me.  [In a calm, reflective manner]  The purpose seems to be to give people joy from the experience of music.

BD:   Is there a balance between art and entertainment?

AH:   A balance?  It depends on the context.  Sometimes I deny that there should be a difference at all, and sometimes I’m very firm saying that the kind of so-called entertainment industry today
Britney Spears and all that crapis really something we don’t need.  But any kind of music can be entertaining.

BD:   Is the music that you write for everyone?

AH:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s for everyone who is curious or interested.  I’m not trying to salvage anyone.  I’m not trying to be pedagogical, or trick people into this.  If they want to hear it, they can hear it because it is interesting.  The
70s in Stockholm in Sweden was very much about composers having to write music for the people, music everyone should understand, which led many composers really not to write at all, because we couldn’t compose simply.  We could only do simple crap in that case.  I was very filled with these problems about reaching the audience, and everyone should be able to hear and understand.  Just at that time I visited Buffalo, New York, and heard Morton Feldman speak about all this.  He got fed up and stopped, and said that Boulez was all right, and Stockhausen was all right!  It’s the audience that’s got to change.  So and I agree completely with him.  We are supposed to teach them.

BD:   Little by little, or in one grand gesture?

AH:   Little by little, of course.  We spend all our time with this music, so there’s no way that someone goes to concerts now and then would have the same connections.  So, I believe in the teaching.  But if they don’t like it, I wouldn’t change my music because of that.  I wouldn’t sell out because they don’t like it.

BD:   For whom do you write?

AH:   For those who are interested.

BD:   Are there enough people interested?

hillborg AH:   [Hesitates]  I think so.  There’s many more than you think.  Of course, if you compare it to pop music of today, it’s not considered enough.  But many people are sitting by the radio when the music is played.

BD:   Does it please you that your music can be heard at various times on the radio, even then you’re not there, and even once more removed on a disc at individual listener’s discretion?

AH:   Of course.  The more people hear it, the more pleased I am.

BD:   Do you have any expectation of the listeners?

AH:   I expect them to give it a chance.  So much today, people expect to be able to talk at the same time as they listen to music.  That’s the way people consider music very much, but someone said that popular music is already chewed.

BD:   Oh, pre-digested!

AH:   Pre-digested, like children’s food.  If that is what people expect, I expect much more.  They need to really digest it themselves.

BD:   What can the audience, especially those that like your music, what can they expect of you?

AH:   They can expect me to do a good job, to be a good craftsman, and to be honest.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances that you’ve heard of your music over the years?

AH:   No!

BD:   [Surprised]  Really???

AH:   No, I’m usually not pleased.  I write very much orchestra music, and you get ridiculously little rehearsal time, and it’s usually not good.  Mostly I never dare to ask my friends to come the first time a piece of mine is played because I know it will be bad.  This (Chicago Symphony) is such a fantastic orchestra, though, so I was pleased at the first performance here.

BD:   When it’s a great orchestra and a fast orchestra, do you have a greater expectation of being pleased?

AH:   Yes, I have, but I have to say that when it comes to orchestras, it’s crucial that so much of the new music is read by the musicians.  Otherwise, it doesn’t come to the next level when they actually play it, where they have digested it and can really communicate.

BD:   It needs to be brought back in the next season and the next season?

AH:   Yes, if they play it a lot that happens.  This happens all the time with old music because everyone in the orchestra has played that piece, or if they haven’t played that piece, they’ve played a similar piece.  Anyway, the piece is of a musical language, a grammar that they know, so they can communicate.  When the piece is new, they can’t do that, so then you need much rehearsal and many concerts before it starts to shine.

BD:   Do you feel your new pieces of music are in a family with other new pieces of music?


See my interviews with Vinko Globokar, Betsy Jolas, Fred Lerdahl, Roger Reynolds, and Steven Stucky

AH:   No, I think I am a strange bird, really.  I never felt at home with musical modernists, and I never felt at home anywhere.  I realized in Sweden that maybe I don’t belong in a column as I understand it.  I don’t belong to modernists, and I don’t belong to the minimalists.  I don’t know where I belong.

BD:   Is there any label we can give you?  I know you hate labels, but is there any label that you might accept?

AH:   Well, try some!  [Both laugh]  I don’t know.  I would be happy to hear some...

BD:   Let’s go the other direction.  Would you be pleased if others adopt your sound, and it becomes The Hillborg Style?

AH:   Why not?  It would be something to be proud of if you influence those people, of course.


BD:   I asked if you were pleased with performances.  Are you pleased with the recordings, because they have a universality?

AH:   I think they’re pretty decent.  Were you referring to some special CD?

BD:   No, just the recordings in general.

AH:   In general, I can’t say.  Some recordings are good, some are better, some are bad, some not so good.  But when there’s a recording I try to really have lots of rehearsals.  I ask for that, but it’s not always granted.

BD:   Do you ever conduct your own music?

AH:   No.

BD:   Do you want to?

hillborg AH:   I regret that I didn’t study conducting because I would like to be able to.  It would help a lot.  I haven’t totally given it up, but some musicians say that they prefer that the composer conducts sometimes
however bad he isbecause he still communicates what the piece is about.  So, in some context maybe this could be done.

BD:   Do you provide a lot of instruction for your conductor, or do you stay away and let the conductor do his work?

AH:   No, I’m absolutely hopeless.  I’m there all the time.  [Imitates nagging at them]  I’m not the kind of composer that finishes the piece and then it’s flies away.  I stop my pieces all the time until I really know the musicians understand.  Conductors sometimes get very tired of my talking.

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

AH:   Perfect?  No, the word is misplaced there.  What’s the use of an imperfect performance?  It must not be about being perfect; it’s about being true.  For example, if a musician knows the piece very, very well, they can also do mistakes.  It doesn’t cost so much because, as they know it very well, they communicate the essence of the music anyway.  So that might be a good answer to your question.  Then it’s not perfect, but I’d rather prefer that the musicians give everything, take risks, and maybe miss some notes, but they communicate the soul of the piece.  That is something you can do when you know the piece.

BD:   Are the performers starting to really get to know your pieces?

AH:   You mean here in Chicago?

BD:   Any place.

AH:   [Laughs]  I don’t know.  I don’t think they know anything of mine in Kuala Lumpur!  [Both laugh]  Maybe it’s spreading a little now.  There are many performances in the United States.  Actually, almost all the major orchestras are playing this piece.

BD:   Do you want them to play this piece, or do you want them to play lots of your pieces?

AH:   Of course, lots of them!  [Much laughter]  Festivals, everywhere!

BD:   Would you want your music in elevators?

AH:   Oh, no, no, no, no, no!  I want good performances everywhere!

BD:   Let me hear you say your name.  [Being on the radio, I often ask this of my guests.]

AH:   Ahnders Heelbooree.  That is the Swedish way.

BD:   Do you want it pronounced that way, even here in America?

AH:   Oh, here, I say, Anders Hillborg [as written].

BD:   Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

AH:   Yes, I couldn’t ask for more.  I have performances with great conductors and great orchestras.  I’m happy with that.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

AH:   Basically, yes, although, as I said on the pre-concert talk here, I think there has to be a big change of how the classical music business handles the promotion of it.  The phrase ‘classical musical’ in itself is a masterpiece of negative publicity.  It indicates that this is old, something from the past
which it isn’t.  We need to attract young audiences, and make this a venue for people who are really interested in music.  We have a lot of learning to do to change this.

BD:   Do we need to keep the music alive, or do we need to resuscitate it from the dead?

AH:   I feel it’s critical.  I might feel that the last thing we’re reviving is something that is in a critical condition.  It’s fragile.  If orchestras close down, go out of business, it will be very difficult to get them up again.  If the Chicago Symphony went out of business in two years, then to try to build it up again to the fantastic level they have now will take fifty years.  So, it’s very fragile, and it should be supported by governments everywhere.

BD:   One last question.  Is composing fun?

AH:   [Sighs]  It is very often for me hard work, and I struggle with this because I realize I would like it to be fun.  It could be fun, but I have a process of trying to regulate my critical sense against myself .  If I can get over the anxiety to produce something really good, it will be become more and more fun.

BD:   Thank you for being a composer, and thank you for the conversation.

AH:   Thank you, Bruce, and thank you for interviewing me.


© 2005 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 26, 2005.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR later that year, and again in 2010; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2006 and 2011.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website early in 2019.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.