The third and final part of James Dillon’s Nine Rivers bears the subtitle ‘Melanosis’, another reference to alchemy, this time ‘blackening’. This is, in fact, the first of the three stages of the alchemical process; Dillon began with the middle stage (leukosis), followed by the final stage (iosis), so the connection he’s making is not a straightforward one. The connotations of ‘melanosis’ (also known as nigredo) are rich and thought-provoking, implying a cleansing kind of disintegration which has a psychological/spiritual parallel in the ‘dark night of the soul’. This is overwhelmingly emphasised in the sixth work of Nine Rivers, L’œuvre au noir. That title—usually translated as ‘The abyss’—comes from a 1968 novel by the Belgian writer Marguerite Yourcenar, in which she sought to allude to “what is said to be the most difficult phase of the alchemist’s process, the separation and dissolution of substance” (from the book’s introduction). This is intense, rather daunting stuff, and a quick glance at the instrumentation of Dillon’s piece makes it clear that this abyss is one into which he intends to dive headlong. L’œuvre au noir is scored for bass flute, bassoon/contrabassoon, tenor-bass and bass trombones, harp, 2 cellos and a double bass—notwithstanding some higher pitched doublings and percussion (plus a live electronic component), this is an utmost dark, bass-heavy ensemble; ‘noir’ is right.
Despite being heard in the wake of almost two hours of incredibly intense and intricate music, L’œuvre au noir comes as a genuine shock; Dillon’s piercing gaze into the abyss, and the sheer scale of its blackness is breathtaking. The opening is merely murky, a thin texture from which the flute swiftly establishes itself as a lyrical protagonist. But suddenly it’s flanked by bass drum thuds and a loud tubular bell—C? again!—heralding the rest of the ensemble, together creating a grey, tenebral polyphony entirely lacking in surface detail. The harp makes a stab at importance, instigating a series of wild fortissimo tutti outbursts that cause a piccolo briefly to freak out. Everything almost pauses, but instead descends into a dense, compacted texture, the instruments moving as though held in a confined space. The muted brass are particularly potent here, their muzzled cries and murmurs lending a disturbing edge to what is already a decidedly unsettling soundscape. A sudden eruption of ghastly, ratchet-like percussive noises—a rare intrusion of the electronics, which are otherwise practically inaudible throughout—unleashes the trombones who now become muscular and violent, bombastically overpowering the rest of the ensemble; even when the atmosphere thins again, shortly after, and they become muted once more, their posturing continues from a distance. Towards the end, both harp and bass drum grow restless, but yet again it falls to the trombones to predominate, in an extraordinary series of downward glissandi. The closing minutes introduce crotales, which in terms of both register and timbre dissipate the gloom, culminating in soft percussive tremolandi.
It’s difficult to articulate just how draining L’œuvre au noir is to experience—and disorienting too; the lack of almost anything beyond obscure, fleeting gestures to grab onto makes its black depths the kind in which one could sonically drown. But therein lies the power of its achievement which, i feel, has more to do with stark asceticism than emptiness. Steven Weigt, writing in Notes in 1998, felt that the lack of harmonic motion in the piece was “disastrous” (he expressed similar concerns about the insistent C? in La femme) but that seems to me a desultory observation, fixating on theory to the exclusion of the visceral, bottomless wrangling that makes L’œuvre au noir such an astonishing sonic feat. The accompanying stanza from Rimbaud’s La Bateau ivre says it all:
I have seen the low sun spotted with mystic horrors,
Lighting up, with long violet clots,
Resembling actors of very ancient dramas,
The waves rolling far off their quivering of shutters!
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)
L’œuvre au noir was commissioned by the Paragon Ensemble, who premièred the work in Glasgow in 1991, directed by David Davies. At last year’s Nine Rivers world première, also in Glasgow, it was performed by members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Steven Schick. Beforehand, the broadcast included another lengthy interview with Dillon, discussing the four remaining pieces.