Having spent last week in the company of some ‘contemporary epics’, and with today being the composer’s 61st birthday, it seems an appropriate time to explore one of the most ambitious compositional endeavours of the contemporary age: James Dillon‘s Nine Rivers. i can’t be the only person for whom Nine Rivers had almost assumed the status of legend. i first read about it in the mid-1990s, in Richard Toop’s article “Four Facets of the ‘New Complexity”, published in Contact way back in 1988. The first work in the cycle was completed as long ago as 1982; over the years i often wondered if Dillon would ever complete the cycle, and one can only imagine there may well have been times when the composer himself wondered the same. Then again, in conversation with Toop Dillon admitted to “a personal problem I have about being incredibly lazy”, going on to explain his method for kick-starting the creative process, beginning with technical considerations, calculations, instrument ranges and characters and so on. “Lazy” hardly seems the right epithet for the composer of a 3-hour cycle of music, although perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised that it took until the year 2000—a period of 18 years—for all nine compositions to be completed. The fact that it then took a further decade for the first complete performance of Nine Rivers is less understandable, and betrays the fact that, despite being one the UK’s most innovative and thought-provoking composers, Dillon continues to receive a feeble amount of respect and recognition on his native shores. Cries of “’twas ever thus” are simply not good enough, and only highlight even more brightly the cultural myopia and intellectual moribundity that has dogged the UK (by which i mean England (by which i mean London)) for as long as i can remember. Nonetheless, apathy towards Dillon has extended north of the border, the most notoriously toxic example being that of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, who failed so utterly in their shoddy, philistinic butchering of Dillon’s Via Sacra in 2005 that the BBC refused to allow the recording to be broadcast. Dillon was quoted as being “left with an overwhelming feeling of sadness”; it was surprising he didn’t just punch conductor Alexander Lazarev’s lights out. Thankfully, last year’s world première of Nine Rivers—which took place in Scotland, in Dillon’s home city, at the Glasgow City Halls—fell to performers of infinitely superior ability and outlook: members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers, Les Percussions de Strasbourg, and the one-man percussive marvel that is Steven Schick, who shared conducting duties with Jessica Cottis. All told, Nine Rivers lasts just a smidge over three hours, and while many of the constituent pieces follow each other without a pause, i hope i’ll be forgiven for breaking that continuity and exploring the cycle over the next nine days.
Inspiration for Nine Rivers came from a myriad sources, the most fundamental of which is “the ancient idea of river as a metaphor for time. Perhaps the most famous use of the metaphor appears in the Heraclitus epigram “no man steps into the same river twice”, which encapsulates what has been called his philosophy of flux or change. Lesser known is another of his epigrams on time where he curiously describes time as “like a child playing chequers” and invokes the role of chance in the universe. These two epigrams play both a conceptual and concrete role in the way I approach the cycle. The idea of flux or change captures the very fleeting essence of sound itself, musical form of course engages with memory and renders meaning to a set of emerging or fleeting properties” (from Dillon’s programme note). That starts to explain the rivers; what of the nine? i mentioned above Dillon’s approach to composition—calculations first, getting the ball rolling, significance and subtext later—and it was this way that the cycle obtained numerical meaning: “The number ‘nine’ is seen in most cultures as a mystical number and in classical mythology it was said there were nine rivers of hell. However the number nine in fact emerged organically as I began to make calculations (for a synopsis of the cycle) around the notion of a journey through timbral rivers”. As so many epics do, Nine Rivers falls into three parts, each lasting about an hour; the “timbral rivers” develop through these parts according to Dillon’s interpretation of the principles of alchemical transformation laid out by Heraclitus.
Part 1 is subtitled ‘Leukosis’, meaning “whitening” (also known as albedo) and comprises four pieces, the first of which is arguably the most well-known of all the works in the Nine Rivers cycle. East 11th St NY 10003 was composed in 1982 for the group Lontano, and became widely known following its CD release in 1992 (even back then, such things took a decade to happen). A piece for six percussionists, many discussions of the work reference seemingly comparable works by Varèse and Cage, although the resemblances are more slight and superficial than first impressions might suggest. East 11th St‘s rigorous grid-based foundation perhaps brings the calculated structures of the Constructions in Metal to mind, and the interrelationship of indeterminate and pitched instruments isn’t dissimilar to that of Ionisation, but as Dillon’s preceding comments make clear, the compositional aspect that’s projected with greatest force is timbre. At the risk of making a redundant statement, East 11th St is simply full of timbre; not quite in the sense of texture music—at least, not until the last section of the piece—but as a locus of intense compositional attention, through and by which its processes are worked through. All the same, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to think of East 11th St as a ‘textural’ piece, the intricacy of its processes acting as undercurrents from which the surface filigree emerges.
The work is structured in three sections, the first of which (described by Dillon as ‘numerical’) is dominated by unpitched instruments, particularly the splash of cymbals. Tubular bells and gongs are involved too, at first almost losing their pitched nature, although this becomes more assertive as the section continues. The clearly homogeneous texture, timbrally static, throws attention onto the process, which is here concerned with the gradual extension of repeated rhythmic patterns. Personally, i find listening in a slightly ‘defocussed’ way—with an ear more to how the music is broadly evolving rather than what’s happening moment by moment—to be the clearest way to detect this gradual process. After a few minutes, following a temporary hiatus, the second section begins with a radical shift in timbre, opting now for ‘granular’ sounds: sleighbells, shaker, ratchet, tambourine rolls and dry drum tremolandi, punctuated by the unnerving pair of whip and lion’s roar. This sudden change neatly disguises what will emerge as the most significant material, a timpani duet beginning far off. This second section (which Dillon calls ‘analogic’) involves “a complex retrograde” of the previous one, and this can be clearly heard in the very obvious growing in intensity, as well as the movement from what at first sound like individualistic lines to a powerful tutti, fronted by the two timps fiercely pounding as though at the head of some wild procession.
The third and last section is also the longest, occupying a little over half the piece. It begins with the timpani yielding to a drum kit, and thence to the sound of snares and toms in the foreground. Defined as being “relational”, this section is distinct from the preceding but in a paradoxical way; on the one hand, there’s a less overt sense of process (texture thereby becoming more aurally significant then timbre), yet equally giving the impression that this is precisely the place where processes are being most rigorously pursued. At first, the toms and snares are concerned with alternations between rolls and rhythms, but before long the texture starts to separate, accentuated by occasional loud crescendi. Metallic sounds—sleighbells, cymbals, hard but distant tam-tam strikes— slowly encroach on them, leading to a sudden hushed episode of rolls executed with brushes (a remarkable moment). After a while, rototoms join in, culminating in boisterous rolling crescendi. In the final moments, a glockenspiel incongruously appears in the distance, soon accompanied by bells, disarming the drums—which respond with increasingly sparse fortissimo punctuations—and concluding the piece.
Dillon quotes a stanza from Rimbaud’s renowned 1871 poem Le Bateau ivre (‘The Drunken Boat’) in his programme note; the words give a wonderfully vivid summary of East 11th St‘s soundworld:
Into the furious lashing of the tides,
More heedless than children’s brains, the other winter
I ran! And loosened peninsulas
Have not undergone a more triumphant hubbub.
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)
The performance of East 11th St NY 10003 was given by Les Percussions de Strasbourg. Beforehand, there’s a lengthy introduction from the BBC’s Tom Service (who’s clearly ravaged his thesaurus for as many aquatic terms as possible), but more interesting is the interview with the composer; aside from the fact that it’s rather satisfying to hear Service’s jaunty enthusiasm being confronted by Dillon’s firm, implacable (and at times barely tolerant) responses, when Dillon talks about his music he communicates with a clarity that is much more immediate than in his programme notes and essays.
James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première)
Part I (Leukosis)
Introduction and interview
1. East 11th St NY 10003
For more information about Dillon and his music, it’s best to go to the German Peters Edition website, which has an English text option; Dillon’s biography and links to his works can be found here (steer clear of the English/US Peters site, which is æsthetically-challenged and plagued with textual issues). The justly famous NMC recording of East 11th St NY 10003 is still widely available, and also includes La femme invisible, the fourth work in the Nine Rivers cycle; it can be ordered direct from NMC, but is much cheaper from Amazon.