As far back as 1988, in his seminal essay on what was, at the time, laughingly called ‘the New Complexity’, Richard Toop described the Scottish composer James Dillon—even within that narrow niche—as an ‘outsider’. Over two decades on, in Dillon’s sixtieth year, little as changed; he remains relatively unknown within the UK, but one imagines this hardly troubles him very greatly; in the pre-performance interview snippet, Dillon comments on how “my references [are] very much not the kind of obsessions that seem to be peculiar to Britain in particular…”. Having heard already in this year’s Proms a fair smattering of the kind of ‘obsessions’ that do occupy the British mainstream, it took no more than a few seconds of Dillon’s La navette (given its UK Première last Thursday) to become aware just how different is the kind of musical language with which he speaks. His is a musical world seemingly without limits, certainly without borders; Dillon’s fascination with all manner of worldwide customs and philosophies informs his work from its conception to its surface.
The opening of the piece is broad and patient, a single drawn-out pitch decorated on all sides by, first, harp, celesta and assorted bells, later followed by more substantial brass chords. It strikes an awkward mood; the sense of soft (even serene) stasis at its centre is increasingly undermined by these satellite sounds, making for a distinctly menacing tone. Sure enough, the sustained notes soon die away, plangent calls on woodwind and brass taking over, slowly deconstructing the music’s layers. Out of this, a pulse emerges in the strings, regular as clockwork, only to be subsumed within a deep, dense texture that passes rapidly between the sections of the orchestra, but paradoxically seems to move very slowly. Loud bangs from the percussion usher in a new episode and an even more intricate texture than before; the ear is pulled all over the place here, never allowed to alight on any particular sound for more than a moment. In lesser hands, this would quickly become tiring (even boring), but Dillon’s acute sensitivity to and control over the multiple timbres he’s wielding keeps it mesmerising.
Without one really noticing, the sense of stasis returns, a new sustained cluster eventually becoming audible at the centre, acting a bit like a fulcrum, about which everything else moves. Faster material begins to assert itself, the initiative taken once again by the strings, leading to a restrained series of surges under which the bass drum can delicately be made out. Passages like this make it immediately apparent just how dynamically moderate Dillon is with the considerable forces at his disposal. There’s a protracted tutti ebb, culminating in a new powerful pulse in the lower strings, echoing that heard earlier (one’s tempted to make a connection at these moments to a literal interpretation of the title, which in one sense, in the context of weaving, means ‘shuttle’). It’s longer-lasting this time, the timpani and brass providing reinforcement, while the winds seek out strange chordal shapes above. A couple of sharp punctuations swiftly brings back the central stasis a third time, the brass and timpani now seeking to form a dense shield around the centre; being fanciful, one might describe them as (forgive me) the ‘warp’ and ‘weft’ of the musical fabric at this point. The work’s closing moments are characterised by fascinating and unusual sounds: curious undulations in the strings, imitated elsewhere, and, finally, a weird, wonderful little flutter somewhere (i think) in the brass.
i’ve made it this far without using the word ‘complex’; but it can’t be denied that Dillon’s writing for the orchestra is, indeed, complex, and, as such—like all his music, particularly the orchestral works—La navette benefits from being heard many times. But the complexity of this music is just a means to an end; and that end is powerfully immediate, surprisingly light and, often, disarmingly simple.