Anderson was born in London. He studied at Westminster School, then with John Lambert at the Royal College of Music, with Alexander Goehr at Cambridge University, privately with Tristan Murail in Paris, and on courses given by Olivier Messiaen, Per Nørgård and György Ligeti.
From 2000 to 2004 he was Head of Composition at the Royal College of Music, and from 2004 to 2007 Fanny P. Mason Professor of Music at Harvard University. He is currently Professor of Composition and Composer in Residence at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He was Composer-in-Association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from 2001 to 2005 and Daniel R. Lewis Fellowship Composer with The Cleveland Orchestra from 2005 to 2007. From 2002 to the end of the 2010-11 concert season, he was artistic director of the 'Music of Today' concert series run by the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. From 2013-16 he was Composer in Residence with Wigmore Hall.
Anderson's former publisher, Faber Music, describes his music as:
... characterised by a fresh use of melody, vivid contrasts of texture and lively rhythmic impetus. He has a continuing interest in the music of traditional cultures from outside the Western concert tradition. He has a special love for the folk music of Eastern Europe–especially of the Lithuanian, Polish and Romanian traditions–and has also been much influenced by the modality of Indian ragas.
These influences combine with elements of modernism, spectral music and electronic music to make up what Gramophone has called "the composer's vivid, transfixing sound worlds".
Anderson's first orchestral piece, Diptych, was completed in 1990, and achieved great success, as did Khorovod (completed in 1994) and Alhambra Fantasy (2000), both composed for the London Sinfonietta. The latter work has been performed by the Ensemble InterContemporain, the Asko Ensemble and the Ensemble Modern, often under the direction of Oliver Knussen, a regular collaborator and continuing advocate of Anderson's music.
His first work written for the CBSO, Imagin'd Corners, premiered in 2002, was described by the Daily Telegraph as "seeth[ing] with variety of texture, dynamics and colour, from the atmospheric stillness of the opening to the high density and tumult as the piece reaches its final climax. This is a fine score, full of optimism and real creative drive." A year later, Symphony was composed for the CBSO and their chief conductor Sakari Oramo. This won the 2004 British Association of Composers and Songwriters Award for Best New Orchestral Piece.
In the last decade, Anderson has written a large amount of unaccompanied choral music, including Sing Unto the Lord (written for Westminster Cathedral), I Saw Eternity (2003, first performed by the London Philharmonic Choir) and the Four American Choruses (2001-4; composed for the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and their conductor Simon Halsey, who gave their first UK performance in 2005). While appearing simpler in style than his instrumental music, these pieces are often related to the larger works, both technically (for example 'At the Fountain', the last of the Four American Choruses, has the same melodic and harmonic basis as a passage from Alhambra Fantasy) and aesthetically (the American poet Emily Dickinson is a recurring presence, as are themes of non-denominational spirituality or a secularised Christianity).
Anderson has also used both live and pre-recorded electronics in his large-scale Book of Hours for 20 players and electronics, composed for the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, who gave the first performance in February 2005 with Oliver Knussen. His third and final full orchestral work composed for Birmingham forces, Eden, was first heard at the 2005 Cheltenham International Music Festival, played by the CBSO under Martyn Brabbins, and is an exploration of the non-tempered tuning of the harmonic series. This preoccupation with fusing tempered modality and non-tempered resonance is continued in his largest work to date, Heaven is Shy of Earth, an oratorio for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra lasting nearly 35 minutes, commissioned by the BBC for the 2006 Promenade Concerts, where it was premiered by singer Angelika Kirchschlager and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. A new version of that work, expanded through the addition of a new (third) movement, 'Gloria (with Bird)', was premiered at the Barbican Centre on 26 November 2010 with Susan Bickley as the soloist.
Further choral-orchestral works came in the shape of Alleluia for chorus and orchestra, composed for the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall ("The London Philharmonic Choir, with nowhere to hide in such a revealing acoustic, maintained pitch admirably and delivered a virtuoso cadenza of animated susurration"), and the shorter Harmony, commissioned as the opening work for the 2013 season of the BBC Proms. In between these came Fantasias, a 25-minute orchestral work premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra in November 2009 displaying a new interest in multi-movement structures, and The Discovery of Heaven, commissioned and premiered as part of Anderson's composer residency with the London Philharmonic Orchestra; the latter two works feature on a recent portrait disc of the composer by the same orchestra.
An earlier portrait disc, Alhambra Fantasy, featuring five of Anderson's orchestral and ensemble pieces conducted by Oliver Knussen, won the 2007 Gramophone Best of Category (Contemporary) Award, from a shortlist which also included the NMC disc Book of Hours. (Both CDs were released in 2006, and were the first two commercially available discs entirely devoted to Anderson's work.)
In May 2014 Anderson’s first opera, Thebans, received its world premiere at English National Opera, conducted by Edward Gardner. Playwright Frank McGuinness wrote the three-act libretto based on Sophocles' three Theban plays: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. Pierre Audi, Artistic Director of the De Nederlandse Opera, directed the co-production between English National Opera and Theater Bonn. Thebans won a 2015 BASCA Award in the Stage Works category.
Anderson's music is published by Schott Music. Works written before 2014 are published by Faber Music.String Quartet No. 1 "Light Music" (1984)
Diptych (1990) for orchestra
Khorovod (1994) for ensemble
Poetry Nearing Silence (1997), commissioned by the Nash Ensemble [7 short movements; also exists in a continuous version for ballet titled Towards Poetry]
The Crazed Moon (1997) for orchestra
The Stations of the Sun (1998) for orchestra, commissioned by the BBC Proms
Alhambra Fantasy (2000) for ensemble
The Bird Sings with its Fingers (2001), four choreographic sketches for chamber orchestra
Four American Choruses (2001–2004)
Imagin’d Corners (2002) for five horns and orchestra
I saw Eternity (2003) for unaccompanied chorus
Symphony (2004) for large orchestra
Book of Hours (2004) for ensemble and electronics
Eden (2005) for orchestra
Heaven is Shy of Earth (2006, rev. 2009-10) for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra
Alleluia (2007) for choir and orchestra, commissioned for the Royal Festival Hall's reopening concert
Fantasias (2007-9) for large orchestra
The Comedy of Change (2009), co-commissioned by the ASKO Ensemble and Rambert Dance Company
Bell Mass (2010) for choir and organ
The Discovery of Heaven (2011) for orchestra
Thebans (2013-14), for English National Opera
String Quartet No. 2 "300 Weihnachtslieder" (2014)
In lieblicher Bläue (2014–15) for solo violin and orchestra, co-commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Catalan Peasant with Guitar (2015) for solo guitar, commissioned by the Julian Bream Trust and premiered by the guitarist Laura Snowden at the Wigmore Hall
Van Gogh Blue (2015) for ensemble
Sensation (2015-16) for solo piano
Incantesimi (2015-16) for orchestra, co-commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Royal Philharmonic Society
1993 Royal Philharmonic Society's Young Composer Prize
2001 South Bank Show Award for the Best New Dance Work for The Bird Sings with its Fingers
2004 British Composer Award for Symphony
2006 Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Large-Scale Composition for Book of Hours
2007 Best of Category (Contemporary) Gramophone Award Winner for the recording Alhambra Fantasy (BBC Sinfonietta / Oliver Knussen)
2011 British Composer Awards for Fantasias and Bell Mass
2013 South Bank Show Award for The Discovery of Heaven and for education work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra
2015 British Composer Awards for Thebans and String Quartet No. 2
2016 Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Small-Scale Composition for Van Gogh Blue
2017 BBC Music Magazine Premiere Award for In lieblicher Bläue and Alleluia (LPO Label)