Despite their official numbering, the last two string quartets written by Scotland’s most brilliantly inventive composer, James Dillon, were actually composed the opposite way round to how they appear. His String Quartet No. 5 was originally begun as a gift for the Arditti Quartet, to celebrate their 30th anniversary. However, Dillon ultimately put the work aside unfinished, before returning to complete it a few years later, sending it to Irvine Arditti unannounced, now as a gift for their 35th anniversary. In the intervening period, Dillon had already completed what would subsequently be called his String Quartet No. 6. Regardless of the numbers, though, the two works have much in common, in terms of duration (each lasting around 15 minutes) as well as the type & treatment of their material.
Both, i think it’s fair to say, have melody at their core, but it’s more obvious in String Quartet No. 5. The opening sounds like a strained dominant chord, followed by a progression flecked with sharp cuts, which is about as much leeway as Dillon affords such moments of half-clarity as this. The texture breaks apart into frantic pointillism & is thereby brought to halt; a collection of distinct strands is discernible within a dense polyphonic melée; the quartet softens to a light collection of glinted flutterings, separating & becoming sparse—through all of these & other manoeuvres, the traces of melody are constant although kept very much at arm’s length. Dillon occasionally focusses sharply, bringing the players into marked, measured order, heavily emphasising certain pitches, but taken as a whole, String Quartet No. 5 displays a relationship with its melodic centre that’s perhaps reluctant but certainly volatile.
String Quartet No. 6 takes an approach that’s both more & less direct. The behaviour & interaction of the quartet feels more solid, more obviously grounded; rhythmically it’s relatively simple, & despite a heavy pizzicato leaning at first this is matched with lyrical bowed material. But the presence of melody becomes somewhat compromised by the demonstrative air of pensivity that overtakes the work, initiated just a couple of minutes in when the players switch to using mutes. This reflective quality also dissipates a lot of the bluster emanating from the more aggressive outbursts, & what comes across is a fascinating sequence of episodes that seem to take stock of something essentially unsaid. When melody dares to obtrude it is rudely swept aside in fractured gritty blurts & obsessive pluckings; for the most part, the source of the work’s preoccupations keeps itself (or is kept) at bay, & having passed through an extensive period of waxing & waning & arrived on a rather messed up unison, melody feels like a very distant memory indeed. Perhaps, in contrast to String Quartet No. 5‘s overt ruminations about melody, No. 6 is about the ruminations themselves. Only towards the end is melody allowed to make its presence felt—following in the wake of an assertive, heavyweight tutti—but this only provokes havoc; the quartet finds itself chirping inwardly, then grappling awkwardly with a series of chords. It all seems like a formidable struggle, one that doesn’t so much end as collapse, its closing gesture less forceful than just forced.
Both of these performances took place—where else?—at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. String Quartet No. 5 was given its first performance in 2009 by the Arditti Quartet, while No. 6 was brought to the UK in 2011 by the Diotima Quartet.