If I want a water of Europe, it is the black
Cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight
A squatting child full of sadness releases
A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)
The penultimate stanza from Rimbaud’s La Bateau ivre, one of the inspirations behind James Dillon’s Oceanos, the climactic work that brings his Nine Rivers epic to an end. Having explored eight different kinds of ensemble, Dillon finally unites them; it’s not explicitly described as such, but with nine woodwind, seven brass, six percussion, piano, harp and 11 strings, plus live electronics and a choir of 16 voices, Oceanos is undeniably a work for choir and orchestra—not a large one, to be sure, but an orchestra nonetheless. As such, captured in that evocative title, it has a breadth of scope far beyond that of its predecessors, a broadness that also results in some of the slowest, most weighty material in the entire cycle.
But that’s not how things begin, with an initial rush of energy from voices and percussion, the latter dominating in a splashy metallic display involving triangles, cymbals, metal sheets, gongs and tam-tams. These gradually become gentler, allowing the voices to be heard more clearly, although the specifics of the text (about which i’ve been unable to find any information; the score clearly shows phrases in Latin, French and Scots Gaelic) remain indistinct. After a few minutes both the percussion and the voices—having turned to hushed whispers—stop, exposing the underlying electronics which, enhanced by a static string chord, sound like an wall of electricity, crackling with energy, wind billowing around it. Then comes something remarkable and unexpected: a slow, heavy, ominously intoned brass melody (strongly redolent of the opening movement from Messiaen’s Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum); the strings continue and the winds get involved but the brass overshadow them all, in what is surely one of the most memorable and striking episodes in all of Nine Rivers. They quieten slightly—the electronics have now become a quiet chugging which barely changes for the remainder of the piece—before a bald major third on the horns ushers in a wildly dissonant conclusion, brought to a close by regular repeating notes on the anvil. Dillon then explores a modified repeat of these materials; the voices return, once again drenched by the percussion (marked “EXPLOSIVE! Attack suddenly and with great violence” in the score). Now, the periodic splashes of percussion are almost like flashes of blinding light, obscuring details in other parts, particularly the voices; only glimpses of an occasionally distinct line or phrase come through, rendering the voices as impenetrable as before. The solemn brass line returns, similar to earlier, while the electronics continually chug away, ticking over beneath; this time, the winds conclude the melody but as they do, splinter into a spritely collection of staccato repeating notes.
When the voices return again, they’re now focussed on a single unison pitch (rhythms and text remain individual), at the heart of what is the first real tutti passage; the winds form shifting chords, the brass present menacingly drawn out crescendi, the strings engage in some detailed slips, slides and stammers, while the percussion persist in soaking everyone nearby with more metallic splashes. Despite the relative distinctiveness of the instrumental groups, this is by far the most dense texture heard in Nine Rivers, a vast sonic miasma in which the only clear object is a loud strike from the suspended bell (once again, C?), initiating a third appearance of the intoned brass melody. An overwhelming percussive outburst then reduces winds, brass and voices to short, halting, rhythmically united utterances, and one by one they disappear from sight. Only the strings remain (aside from the omnipresent electronics, which by now sound utterly benign), and eventually they too slide down to a point of repose. The work’s—and the cycle’s—conclusion brings all the forces together in a final tutti that, while seemingly as dense as ever, is actually more rhythmically clarified. It’s begun by the brass with the winds and strings in tow, whereupon, after a momentary pause, the voices wade in; finally, the percussion switch to dry instruments in a maelstrom of thundering toms, congas and drums (snare, wood and bass). Having brought the cycle into being three hours earlier (in East 11th St), they now herald its end, accompanying the voices’ and strings’ closing remarks with isolated thwacks and, at the last, distant bells.
Oceanos received its world première at the 1996 Proms, performed by Polyphony and Music Projects/London, conducted by Richard Bernas. In last year’s world première of Nine Rivers it was performed by the combined forces of the BBC Singers, Les Percussions de Strasbourg and members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Steven Schick (who must have wished he was playing too).
Few composers even come close to this level of ambition, and even those that do often fall foul of their own aspirations. Nine Rivers, then, isn’t just a herculean act of compositional endeavour, it’s a tour de force of compositional achievement. As with all epics, its size and scale are only a part of its triumph; for me, the really immersive aspect is the plethora of ideas and concepts that swim about in Nine Rivers‘ waters, some much more deeply submerged than others. Earlier this year, Nine Rivers was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society‘s prize for Large-Scale Composition, citing “its sheer ambition and the consistency of creative thought sustaining it”. Having been neglected for so long, this award (which makes Dillon the most celebrated composer in the RPS’s history) together with last year’s stunning world première of the complete cycle—an incredible act of dedication and faith, recently repeated in the US—perhaps affords room for a little optimism, that James Dillon is finally beginning to be recognised for what he is, a composer of the most dense, evocative, intricate, taxing and brilliant music of our time.