Following the large-scale “triumphant hubbub” that is East 11th St NY 10003, the second work in James Dillon’s Nine Rivers halves the number of percussionists and adds six violins. L’ECRAN Parfum (‘SCREEN perfume’) was composed in 1988, and received its first performance the following spring by the Oslo Sinfonietta. At 10 minutes’ duration, it’s the shortest piece in the cycle, but there’s absolutely nothing slight about it; on the contrary, L’ECRAN Parfum is a searing demonstration of Dillon the dramaturgist, cramming into its brief span a bewildering and almost infeasibly intense dramatic outpouring. In his programme note, Dillon demarcates the piece in two parts, one “constructed around the continuous iteration of three superposed prototypical forms of pattern — spirals, meanders and branching”, the other “constructed upon the iteration of a single texture, gradually altered by a continuous ‘rallentando’”. He also quotes another stanza from Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre, continuing from the previous one:
The storm blessed my sea vigils.
Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves
That are called eternal rollers of victims,
Ten nights, without missing the stupid eye of the lighthouses!
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)
Following seamlessly from East 11th St, L’ECRAN Parfum is thrust into being via a mark tree swish, the strings instantly emerging like a clutch of angry hornets, articulating themselves through unceasing, highly demonstrative tremolandi, riding effortlessly (“Lighter than a cork…”) over the bass drum’s broad and turbulent opening swells. Dillon immediately establishes the strings as a united entity, firmly in the spotlight; the percussion—apart from occasional mark tree rips—promptly retreat to the sidelines. This sense of unity, together with the constant state of high drama, reveals retrospectively how emotionally ‘aloof’ East 11th St is by contrast; this is a very different kind of polyphony from that, its underlying processes working as a means to an end rather than being an end in themselves (that’s not meant as a negative comment about East 11th St). Over the first few minutes, the tremolandi evolve somewhat, becoming rapid trills, shifting in pace, even affecting a momentary sense of line. But as soon as this development becomes obvious, there’s a pause, after which the tremolandi return with gusto. As do the percussion, in a series of wild, undulating bass drum and suspended cymbal rolls, bringing the strings to a single note standstill.
This, i suspect, is the moment where the second part begins, as the minutes that follow certainly have a single texture, the violins high in register, accompanied by just a cymbal. There is, too, a sense of slowing, but this is countered by an apparent urge in all six violins to propel the music on and not permit any retardation. So when Dillon then inserts a rude tubular bell gesture, it’s with more than a suggestion of admonishment; another silence follows, and the strings play out their remaining material in laboured fashion, almost stumbling over each other in a decidedly clumsy kind of homophony. Despite the strings having ostensibly dominated the piece, the percussion clearly pack the greatest punch; a tam-tam crescendo compels the piece to end.
In this performance from the Nine Rivers world première, L’ECRAN Parfum is performed by members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jessica Cottis.