James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 4. La femme invisible

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The opening three works in the Nine Rivers cycle alternate between homogeneous and variegated timbral groupings; the fourth piece, La femme invisible, continues this using a mixed ensemble comprising the three percussionists from L’ECRAN joined by a piano and wind octet (two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and saxophones, with assorted doublings). Dillon completed the work in 1989, and it was first performed in June of that year by Music Projects/London under Richard Bernas’ direction, and they subsequently recorded the piece for inclusion on the same CD as East 11th St; to date, they’re the only works from Nine Rivers to have been commercially recorded.

While not wishing to get too analytical, one unavoidable aspect is the audibly clear way that Dillon has constructed La femme invisible. There are 10 sections, each of which is initiated in the same way, with a loud strike on a suspended C# bell. The sections are organised with equal clarity, from a small number of basic structural components, which i would characterise as follows:

cadenzas – which always follow the bell strike, a highly florid, rhythmically diverse tutti occupying a single bar of around 10-13 quavers (♩=66)
tuttis – of varying length, usually relatively short and always rapid, in which rhythmic similarities are commonplace (♩=168)
trios – slow, lengthy episodes involving smaller chamber groupings, containing some of the work’s most lyrical material; percussion is always involved (♩=40)
‘stases‘ – brief moments when the music slows almost to a stop, during which sustained notes (sometimes ornamented) are played (♩=26)

Not all the sections in La femme invisible make use of all these components—the sixth section consists of just the cadenzas—but most use at least two. Such overt construction as this is interesting in light of the first line of the relevant stanza from Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre:

At times a martyr weary of poles and zones,
The sea, whose sob created my gentle roll,
Brought up to me her dark flowers with yellow suckers
And I remained like a woman on her knees…
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

“Poles and zones” would be a rather fitting description of La femme invisible, and i wonder whether the eponymous boat’s weariness is reflected in the somewhat repetitive manner with which the piece unfolds. The unrelenting bell notes, always C#, certainly become wearying—or, at least, feel increasingly oppressive—although the content of the work’s modules continues to change and vary throughout. But it would be difficult to describe this as ‘progress’ or ‘development’; perhaps the strongest analogy would be variations, not so much on a theme as on a variety of behaviours, which are subsequently revisited, reimagined and reordered (one thinks of Birtwistle’s Endless Parade, examining a common idea from a number of discrete vantage points). In its own way, this too could be heard to contribute to the aforementioned ‘weariness’, but if that sounds slightly defeatist, it’s simply due to the fact that La femme invisible is a decidedly difficult work to get a grip on; despite the clarity of its structure, and indeed its familiarity (the CD has been available for almost 20 years), the work still seems as impenetrable as ever—fascinating but enigmatic, allusive yet elusive.

La femme invisible brings the first part of Nine Rivers, ‘Leukosis’, to an end. In last year’s world première it was performed by members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (supplemented by a number of ‘guest’ players), conducted by Jessica Cottis.


Full score

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 3. Viriditas

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Having moved seamlessly between its first two components, Nine Rivers enters an entirely new area with its third piece, Viriditas. A work for 16 voices, it was commissioned for the BBC Singers, who gave the first performance in Brussels in early 1994. The word ‘viriditas’—Latin for ‘greenness’—has an interesting provenance, its strongest association being with Hildegard of Bingen, for whom it was a deeply inspiring concept, ubiquitous in her writings. Fragments of Hildegard’s poetry are one of four textual sources used in the piece, together with an “early 16th century alchemical paraphrase of the Latin mass by the German alchemist-astrologer-priest Nicholas Melchior of Hermannstadt” (better known today as Melchior Cibinensis), an extract from a Marian hymn attributed to Albertus Magnus and an “anonymous Hebridean ‘weaving’ song or incantation”, this last being in Scots Gaelic, and as such the only non-Latin text Dillon has used. Inspirationally speaking (Dillon doesn’t set it to music), the relevant stanza from Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre is this one:

I have dreamed of the green night with dazzled snows,
A kiss slowly rising to the eyes of the sea,
The circulation of unknown saps,
And the yellow and blue awakening of singing phosphorous!
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 2. L’ECRAN parfum

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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)

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 1. East 11th St NY 10003

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Having spent last week in the company of some ‘contemporary epics’, and with today being the composer’s 61st birthday, it seems an appropriate time to explore one of the most ambitious compositional endeavours of the contemporary age: James Dillon‘s Nine Rivers. i can’t be the only person for whom Nine Rivers had almost assumed the status of legend. i first read about it in the mid-1990s, in Richard Toop’s article “Four Facets of the ‘New Complexity”, published in Contact way back in 1988. The first work in the cycle was completed as long ago as 1982; over the years i often wondered if Dillon would ever complete the cycle, and one can only imagine there may well have been times when the composer himself wondered the same. Then again, in conversation with Toop Dillon admitted to “a personal problem I have about being incredibly lazy”, going on to explain his method for kick-starting the creative process, beginning with technical considerations, calculations, instrument ranges and characters and so on. “Lazy” hardly seems the right epithet for the composer of a 3-hour cycle of music, although perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised that it took until the year 2000—a period of 18 years—for all nine compositions to be completed. The fact that it then took a further decade for the first complete performance of Nine Rivers is less understandable, and betrays the fact that, despite being one the UK’s most innovative and thought-provoking composers, Dillon continues to receive a feeble amount of respect and recognition on his native shores. Cries of “’twas ever thus” are simply not good enough, and only highlight even more brightly the cultural myopia and intellectual moribundity that has dogged the UK (by which i mean England (by which i mean London)) for as long as i can remember. Nonetheless, apathy towards Dillon has extended north of the border, the most notoriously toxic example being that of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, who failed so utterly in their shoddy, philistinic butchering of Dillon’s Via Sacra in 2005 that the BBC refused to allow the recording to be broadcast. Dillon was quoted as being “left with an overwhelming feeling of sadness”; it was surprising he didn’t just punch conductor Alexander Lazarev’s lights out. Thankfully, last year’s world première of Nine Rivers—which took place in Scotland, in Dillon’s home city, at the Glasgow City Halls—fell to performers of infinitely superior ability and outlook: members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers, Les Percussions de Strasbourg, and the one-man percussive marvel that is Steven Schick, who shared conducting duties with Jessica Cottis. All told, Nine Rivers lasts just a smidge over three hours, and while many of the constituent pieces follow each other without a pause, i hope i’ll be forgiven for breaking that continuity and exploring the cycle over the next nine days. Read more

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George Crumb – Black Angels

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Today is the 82nd birthday of one of my favourite composers, George Crumb. To mark the occasion, here’s a recording of a performance of one of his most well-known and loved pieces, the great and formidable string quartet Black Angels, which received its first performance 41 years ago yesterday (hmm, 82 and 41; Crumb would no doubt approve of the numeric connection). Completed in 1970, Crumb subtitled the work “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”, and the tone throughout is a profoundly troubled one; Crumb hints at an explanation in an inscription in the score—”in tempore belli” (“in time of war”)—referencing the Vietnam War, and it’s that subject matter, together with allusions to Penderecki’s seminal Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima that form the core of the work. The bedrock is structured with Crumb’s trademark fastidiousness and rigour, in which the numbers 7 and 13 are fundamental. Black Angels comprises 13 short sections, grouped into three parts that parallel the Christian notions of falling from grace (Departure), concomitant spiritual poverty (Absence) and subsequent redemption (Return). Throughout, the quartet is amplified, and are required to do very much more than merely play their string instruments. Alongside extended techniques—many of which are commonplace today but were novel at the time—Crumb employs the most imaginative methods to obtain specific timbral colours and effects. Read more

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Semiconductor – 20 Hz

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This has to be the most fascinating and beautiful audio-visual extravaganza since Gantz Graf:

According to Semiconductor (artists duo Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt), “20 Hz observes a geo-magnetic storm occurring in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Working with data collected from the CARISMA radio array and interpreted as audio, we hear tweeting and rumbles caused by incoming solar wind, captured at the frequency of 20 Hertz. Generated directly by the sound, tangible and sculptural forms emerge suggestive of scientific visualisations. As different frequencies interact both visually and aurally, complex patterns emerge to create interference phenomena that probe the limits of our perception.”

More info and images here.

Contemporary Epics: V/Vm – The Death of Rave

Posted on by 5:4 in Thematic series | 5 Comments

In the last few days i’ve highlighted some impressive examples of music composed on an ‘epic’ scale. i’ve saved the biggest until last, but even by saying that, i’ve touched on an inherent danger lurking in a discussion of this kind. When any musical parameter is taken to a compositional extreme, the mere act of doing that starts to rupture a work’s integrity, as much æsthetically as practically. Let’s put it another way; what interests me so much in a work like Robert Rich’s Somnium is both what he’s striving to do and the way in which he’s trying to do it. It’s a piece that requires its duration to be extreme, but it’s not a piece about duration; the danger is to put undue—or, worse, all—emphasis on that one aspect, and thereby fracture one’s holistic appreciation of the piece. One might argue, reasonably, that it’s difficult to ignore the durational aspect of a work lasting seven hours; but that’s not, hopefully, what one’s thinking about as each minute passes in Somnium—or, indeed, in the Trilogy in Three Parts, Blemished Breasts, or July 17, 2010. When setting out to explore these five ‘contemporary epics’, extended duration was my common thread, but i hope it’s been clear that that aspect is ultimately an integral component in a much larger and richer whole; in a nutshell, what these pieces share is that their extensive durations fully support and are at the service of the music. Read more

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