To describe the fifth work in James Dillon’s Nine Rivers, La coupure, as being ‘pivotal’ perhaps seems like a truism; it sits, after all, at the epicentre of the cycle. Yet it marks a timbral transition that will be felt on all the remaining pieces, namely the inclusion of electronics. Dillon’s relationship with electronics is not new (he attended IRCAM in the mid-1980s) but is evidently problematic, insofar as his feelings about the general state of electronic music are concerned. In an interview prior to last year’s world première, Dillon summarised that “…the problem with electronics is that it sounds like shit”, which is a refreshingly candid reaction to the bland, generic fare churned out by too many for too long. It’s also a useful caveat when approaching La coupure, a 50-minute work for percussion and electronics, suggesting we’re going to hear something a little different from the norm. The title means ‘the cut’, a reference to, among other things, the way rivers divide, and aspects of division preoccupy the piece throughout. The relevant stanza from Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre is particularly vivid:
I know the skies bursting with lighting, and the waterspouts
And the surf and the currents; I know the evening,
And dawn as exhalted as a flock of doves,
And at times I have seen what man thought he saw!
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)
Almost immediately, La coupure establishes itself as collage-like composition, and as such seeks to align itself less with contemporary electroacoustica than with examples from an earlier age. This makes sense given Dillon’s qualifying remarks that “analogue sound is so much better than digital. I’ve tried to work as much with analogue as possible but it’s very difficult these days. People don’t maintain the equipment”. As hinted by the title, there’s more than a little sense of the cut-and-splice roughness from the pre-digital age in La coupure; although described as a work for “percussion and live electronics”, the soundworld of the piece would be better described as “percussion and tape”. There’s actually not that much in the piece that sounds overtly electronic; for much of the time, what i feel compelled to call the ‘tape part’ comprises a variety of percussive material (enabling it to blend seamlessly with the soloist) in addition to voices and, towards the start, the sound of water. A recurring motif is clearly electronic: a loud bass strike that subsides to a drone, and moments like this declare the work’s contemporaneity, but are nonetheless some way removed from the prevailing tendencies of mainstream electroacoustic music. Indeed, many of the electronic sounds throughout La coupure—such as the hollow wind at the start, and the pointillistic sounds that follow (~3′), plus the faint, metallic noises a while later (~13′), in addition to the drones already mentioned—suggest the kind of soundscapes created by such heterodox figures as Andrew McKenzie and Roland Kayn. and this goes for the collage techniques too, a good example being the episode a little over four minutes in—Dillon’s own voice intercut with loud piano, metal and ratchet noises—which has infinitely more in common with the surreal and absurdist music of Andrew Liles and Matt Waldron than anything else. Simultaneously redolent of its heritage and unmistakeably of its time, La coupure is nonetheless decidedly left-field.
In terms of effectiveness, the collage approach could be heard to weaken the work’s overall focus and flow, although conversely it projects an earnestness in the juxtaposition of material that is intense and engaging. There’s always the sense that everything matters immensely, even though at times one can only imagine precisely what Dillon is striving to convey. Despite the alternations between the odd- and even-numbered pieces in Nine Rivers—Richard Bernas, in the brief notes accompanying the NMC CD, opines that “the even-numbered works [are] more disruptive, the odd-numbered based on principles of continuous ebb and flow” (although, considering this was written before all nine works were completed, it should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt)—La coupure has more than a little in common with the preceding work La femme invisible. Indeed, Bernas writes of La femme being “a single thread of phrases […] disrupted by unexpected juxtaposition and setting. This is a deliberately cinematic technique, the cutting up of a line of film (or of sound)…”. In this respect, La coupure is strikingly similar, its continuity characterised by jump cuts and fades.
La coupure is the sole work in Part II of Nine Rivers, which is subtitled ‘Iosis’, a reference to the reddening of material as part of the alchemical process (also known as rubedo). Percussionist Steven Schick, who’s lived with La coupure for over a decade now – he gave the première in Paris in 2000 – once again took the solo role for the performance in last year’s Nine Rivers world première. Despite the music’s liminal quality – frequently blurring where the electronics end and the live percussion begins – Schick’s mastery of Dillon’s intricate textures is outstanding.