James Dillon

Gigs, gigs, gigs: Spring 2017

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There are lots of exciting events coming up in the next few months, approaching new music from a plethora of different angles.

Next month the Royal Opera House will be giving the first UK performances of Thomas AdèsThe Exterminating Angel, based on Luis Buñuel’s splendidly off-kilter movie. Premièred last summer in Salzburg, it’ll be receiving half a dozen performances at Covent Garden from late April to Early May. With a libretto by Tom Cairns, featuring the likes of (among many others) Anne Sofie von Otter, Christine Rice, Sophie Bevan, John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen, and directed by the composer, it should prove quite a spectacle. Well over a decade after witnessing the first performance of Adès’ last opera, The Tempest, i’m still somewhat in two minds about it, so it’ll be fascinating to see where he’s coming from in this new operatic work.

The Another Timbre label is taking over Café Oto for three days at the start of May, with a series of concerts to tie-in with their new five-disc set of music by Canadian Composers (a review of these is coming soon). Works by Linda Catlin Smith, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Marc Sabat, Martin Arnold and Chiyoko Szlavnics will all be featured in these concerts, plus a couple of pieces by fellow Canadian Cassandra Miller and not-remotely-Canadian Jürg Frey. Tickets are £8 a pop or £21 for the lot.

Looking ahead to July, the details of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival have been announced this week. The festival’s engagement with contemporary music – which, let’s remember, was its original purpose – has become highly tenuous in recent years, but there’s one or two concerts to look forward to. At the safer end of the spectrum, Estonia’s E STuudio Chamber Choir will be showing there’s more to their country than just Arvo Pärt, also featuring music by Estonians Cyrillus Kreek and Veljo Tormis. As someone who’s spent a fair bit of time with Estonian music during the last year, this is going to be good (though, fair warning, you’ll also need to contend with some Whitacre). Pianist William Howard is performing a recital titled ‘Love Songs’, including works by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Piers Hellawell, Howard Skempton, Joby Talbot, Judith Weir and Michael Zev Gordon, a number of them receiving first performances. Joby Talbot’s music is also being performed by vocal ensemble Tenebrae, presenting his hour-long Path of Miracles. And towards the end of the festival, the Piatti Quartet will be presenting music by Joseph Phibbs and Mark-Anthony Turnage plus a new work from Darren Bloom. There are other assorted new works dotted elsewhere, and as ever there’s the annual Composer Academy for early-career composers, this year being mentored by Michael Zev Gordon.

And there are some extremely interesting events beyond these shores. Next month, Louth Contemporary Music Society is presenting the world première of James Dillon‘s latest piece, The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments. A work for soprano and a small ensemble of five players, as the title implies Dillon has drawn on ancient texts attributed to Orpheus, alongside poetry from the father of the sonnet, Petrarch, Apollinaire and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The concert is being given by Crash Ensemble with soprano Peyee Chen, who will also be performing a rendition of the Three Songs by Ukeoirn O’Connor (actually by Jennifer Walshe), of which Chen gave a fittingly weird and wonderful performance at last year’s Alba New Music festival. Taking place as part of the Drogheda Arts Festival, on Ireland’s east coast, the concert is on Saturday 29 April in St Peter’s Church and tickets are a measly €10.

And in May there’ll be the annual Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik, which i’ll be experiencing for the first time. This year’s sextet of concerts is jam-packed with exciting propositions: i’m particularly looking forward to three premières: Brian Ferneyhough‘s Umbrations, The Tye Cycle by the Ardittis, Paul Hübner and the JACK Quartet performing Timothy McCormack‘s Your Body is a Volume and Clara Iannotta‘s piano and ensemble piece Paw-marks in wet cement. Above all, though, it’ll just be great to have the opportunity to encounter totally unexpected music from composers whose work is entirely unknown to me. That’s definitely not something we get sufficient opportunities to do in Britain.

Apropos: i’ll be heading off to Tallinn again early next month for the Estonian Music Days. The festival’s engagement with new music is exceptionally diverse and forward-looking, very much more so than we usually encounter here in the UK. Among this year’s highlights: vocal group Vox Clamantis who (foreshadowing E STuudio Chamber Choir’s Cheltenham gig) will also be performing Pärt and Kreek, together with a new work from Galina Gregorieva; the first performance of Peeter Vähi‘s An April Night’s Dream for keyboards, percussion, phonogram and city sounds will be taking place in the late evening on the roof of the Estonian National Opera house(!); and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir will be giving a thoroughly eclectic concert of works by Jonathan HarveyLigeti and Sciarrino alongside premières from local composers Tatjana Kozlova-JohannesEvelin Seppar and Mirjam Tally. But i suspect the biggest highlight of all will be the event given by the country’s National Symphony Orchestra, in an all-Estonian programme featuring three world premières together with the Fourth Symphony by the great Lepo Sumera as well as Erkki-Sven Tüür‘s Cello Concerto. It’ll no doubt be absolutely exhausting, but wonderful. They really know how to do a music festival in Tallinn.

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A mass of miniature miracles: Alba New Music 2016

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A couple of miles out of the centre of Edinburgh, emblazoned in brightly-lit capital letters, is a stark, startling sentence: THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE. Created by Nathan Coley in 2009, and situated outside the Modern Two gallery, the unequivocal message of this bold piece of art rang entirely false in the wake of last weekend’s inaugural Alba New Music Festival. Located in St Giles’ Cathedral, close to the centre of the city’s bustling Royal Mile, the focus of the festival’s main trio of concerts—a stimulating contrast to the hordes of people streaming around outside—was on works for solo instruments, an intense and intimate prospect.

Diego Castro Magas‘ Friday evening recital expanded the guitar by means of both live and fixed electronics (courtesy of Aaron Cassidy). But not in the world première of Wieland Hoban‘s Knokler, a work for acoustic guitar that the composer put on the shelf back in 2009 before returning to complete it this year. Hoban sets up a soundworld of contrasts, alternating between great delicacy and violence, the former characterised by subtle microtonal similarities, the latter by wild percussive bangs and crashes. There’s something definitely ‘magical’ about it, a sonic entity seemingly from the past and the future, speaking with a distinct authority. To behold a single instrument, often played achingly softly, suddenly making the entire cathedral space resonate was impressive to say the least. Was it perhaps a trifle overlong? Maybe, but it seems churlish to say that in the company of such an enchanted stream of ideas. It was a piece in which, at times, its actions literally spoke louder than its notes, and this would turn out to be almost a secondary theme running through the festival. Nowhere more so than in Aaron Cassidy‘s The Pleats of Matter, where it is the physical actions of the performer that are prescribed in the score, not their specific aural result; so, as Cassidy puts it, “while the physical component of the work is entirely repeatable and vaguely predictable, the sonic and timbral component is open to dramatic and indeterminate variation from performance to performance…”. What shocked me—and it’s the first time this particular kind of musical recollection has happened to me—was that, having seen the piece premièred in 2015, i found myself remembering certain collections of actions, and even aspects of their continuity—yet i would struggle to say to what (if any) extent what i heard on Friday night resembled what i’d heard 18 months ago. i was certainly seeing the same piece, but was i hearing the same piece? Yet again, Cassidy’s work repeatedly pulls the rug out from under our notions of what constitutes musical material. As i’ve opined before, i think it’s an approach potentially with inherent limitations, but all the same, witnessing again Magas’ guitar being transfigured into something that, aurally, defies timbral categorisation, was hugely enjoyable. It sets up a complex dialogue where the visual disconnect between actions and sounds throws emphasis directly onto those sounds, making us wonder entirely what they are, how they were made, where they’re going: in short, forcing us to engage with them on their own terms. Yet everything, on paper, is about action! It’s a tension that never ceases to fascinate. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: James Dillon – Physis (World Première)

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To conclude my revisiting of HCMF 2014 for the time being, i have to feature something by the festival’s Composer-in-Residence, James Dillon. There’s much to choose from, but the single work that made the strongest impact on me was Physis, receiving its world première. i’ve said a little about the work’s background (dating back over 10 years) as well as the way Dillon culled one part of the piece in my original review, but here’s Dillon’s statement in full:

In the process of preparing Physis I & II with the orchestra I took the radical decision to cut ‘Part I’ from the score, this was done for purely musical reasons. The two parts of Physis were always intended to work as independent scores anyway, nevertheless taking the decision to cut the work was not taken lightly. The history of Physis is an unusual one, written as it was nine years ago and never performed at the time it seems destined to maintain a strange position in my work. In taking the decision to withdraw ‘Part I’, I have also decided that this part of the score would remain withdrawn.

In a subsequent interview, though, Dillon cited insufficient rehearsal time as a factor for cutting Physis I (not exactly a “purely musical reason”), and also clarified that the piece was not so much “never performed” as not actually completed on time. The complete truth is no doubt to be found in and among these various ‘facts’. Read more

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HCMF 2014: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Arditti Quartet

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The closing weekend of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was dominated by the music of composer-in-residence, James Dillon. Saturday found him represented by two major works performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Schick, the piano concerto Andromeda and the first performance of Physis, a work originally commissioned over 10 years ago by the Orchestre de Paris for the bi-centennial of Berlioz’s birth but, following various organisational machinations, not ultimately performed. Before them both came L’abscencia, a short orchestral work by the 2013 HCMF composer-in-residence Hèctor Parra. If last year established anything, it was that Parra enjoys creating highly intricate textures, and these were to be found in abundance. Particularly interesting was the work’s inherently conflicted nature, where unstable surface elements acted out upon a series of shifting but otherwise stable firmaments. Parra’s approach to orchestration pays attention to the lightest and most ephemeral of sounds, which quite apart from anything else makes his music highly attractive. The work’s closing gesture was pure beauty: a tense pause followed by a kind of accented sigh, faint harmonics ascending into the ether. Read more

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HCMF 2014: James Dillon, Simon Steen-Andersen

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Walking away from a concert feeling perplexed about what you’ve just heard is an understandable and inevitable experience at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Considering how many risks the festival makes, the diversity and juxtaposition of the programming, it’s pretty much unavoidable (“WTF” would make an ideal accompanying slogan should HCMF ever want one). Both of last night’s concerts resulted in precisely this kind of response, although for somewhat different reasons. Of the two, Simon Steen-Andersen‘s large-scale theatrical work Buenos Aires is the easier to qualify. Performed with admirable/abject dedication by the combined forces of asamisimasa and the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, what it demonstrated more than anything was the remarkable breadth of Steen-Andersen’s imagination. Singers and instrumentalists alike were compelled to articulate under various forms of restriction and interference, in a context bounded by three large screens projecting images from various portable cameras, usually physically attached or held by those on stage. But to say what happened is very much easier than to say why; the general undertone is a sinister one, evoking the issue of dictatorship and the way opponents can be dealt with under their regimes and ultimately ‘disappeared’. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Séverine Ballon

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Today’s first concert was given by French cellist Séverine Ballon. Her recital comprised UK premières by Hèctor Parra & Mauro Lanza & a world première by Rebecca Saunders, together with a classic of the repertoire, James Dillon‘s Parjanya-Vata, composed in 1981. It was especially good to hear this again; it’s a long time since i have, & Ballon’s spectacularly fiery commitment to the work’s whirlwind climax left me wondering why i’d left it so long.

Hèctor Parra’s electroacoustic tentatives de réalité is an exercise in frenetic action. Parra’s programme notes always go to great lengths to inform as to the extra-musical points of origin, but on this occasion intention & result seemed insufficiently interconnected. In short, one never felt as involved as Ballon clearly was. The material establishes a kind of monotony that wasn’t especially helped either by the nature of the electroacoustic interaction—cause & effect a-go-go—or by its sonic fingerprint, which in many ways felt like an amalgam or catalogue of a multitude of all too familiar tried & tested (& tired) ideas.

Mauro Lanza’s la bataille de Caresme et de Charnage, on the other hand, appeared at first to be the kind of thing from which i instantly recoil, modestly absurd antics caught up in a continuous state of revolution. But it became rather engrossing to hear the work’s opening pitched utterances becoming increasingly frustrated & thwarted. As the level of implied strain intensified, the cello was reduced to a pathetic figure, grinding out increasingly flatulent parps & guttural blurts (the inclusion of a foot-powered whoopee cushion couldn’t have been more apposite). This extended episode was followed by a short, enigmatic epilogue comprising lightly tapped sounds—hard to rationalise but strangely effective.

Three times Rebecca Saunders has explored the implications arising from a complex variety of double trill (in Fletch, Ire & Still); now, she has added a fourth work, Solitude. The trill itself doesn’t appear until around two-thirds through the piece, & then only fleetingly; most of the duration is concerned with far darker & more heavyweight material, much of it founded upon the special timbres of Saunders’ regularly used de-tuned C-string. The title may invoke loneliness, but the music is certainly not inactive. Unlike some of her work, there is very little silence in Solitude, lending a desperate & somewhat manic quality to the cello’s unstoppable railing. In keeping with Saunders’ keen interest in destabilised sounds, almost nothing in the piece sounds remotely grounded or sure; however, an incredibly poignant exception to this occurs shortly before the end: a snatch of perilously-aligned double-stop unison melody. It’s a very moving moment, all the more so as the music then lapses back into the C-string’s blankest low sounds, played such that they become ridden with overtones, destroying their coherence. Séverine Ballon’s rendition of this highly wrought material was brilliant, as was Saunders’ compositional achievement, yet again following her intuitive nose & discovering shockingly new frontiers of possibility.

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HCMF 2013: Red Note Ensemble

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This year’s pilgrimage to HCMF began, as it always seems to, at St Paul’s Hall, for a concert given this afternoon by Scotland’s Red Note Ensemble, directed by Garry Walker. They performed three works, something old(-ish), something new(-ish) & something entirely new. It was the entirely new piece, David Fennessy‘s Hauptstimme for viola & ensemble, that proved itself the weakest. Britons have long ascribed drab efficiency to being a key attribute of German engineering, yet it seems to be increasingly the preserve of Irish contemporary music. In Fennessy’s case, the music was dynamically neutered, harmonically static, texturally bland—a deliberate conspiracy on behalf of the ensemble in order to present to the solo viola a wall of sound with which it could contend. i’m guessing Fennessy’s intention was to obtain aggression in such an unyielding onslaught, but in practice, it didn’t so much bare fangs as dentures, becoming monotonous, even blank, in its blunt consistency. Ultimately the texture parts & dissipates, leaving the viola alone & heralding the work’s final gambit—now that the viola can be heard, “what to say?”. The answer was endless arpeggios & oscillations, perpetuated to the point that soloist Garth Knox began to resemble a folk fiddler who had entirely forgotten the tune.

Rather less of a failure was Bruno Mantovani‘s 2000 work D’un rêve parti (the title being a tongue-in-cheek allusion to a rave party). i can only assume that Mantovani & i have clearly attended very different raves, as his is a fairly fussy evocation that takes a long time to loosen up. The lengthy set up is occupied with conventional contemporary gestures; in this respect it sounds familiar (depending on your perspective, that’s either a good or a bad thing), but it gradually moves into two episodes where Mantovani clearly seeks to illustrate, even emulate, the party inspiration. It’s impossible not to recall Thomas Adès’ ‘Ecstasio’ movement from Asyla, another work that highlights the problems endemic to any kind of overt translation between musical genres. Adès drew on the anthemic qualities of trance; Mantovani’s interest lies in the nascent synth music from the ’70s (&, i presume, also the ’80s, when it more fully developed into dance music as we recognise it today). Yet herein lies a very specific difficulty; this kind of music is characterised to a very large extent by its timbral qualities, which are essentially lost in a chamber ensemble context. If one disregards the title & programme note & accepts the somewhat twee minimalism of the first episode & its more emphatically rhythmic successor, then there’s something to enjoy in D’un rêve parti; but let’s not pretend it even begins to approximate a rave.

The concert ended with the UK première of James Dillon‘s 40-minute New York Triptych. This is a difficult piece to write about, due both to its length & complex sense of narrative. That in itself brought a tremendous sense of relief following the Fennessy & Mantovani. Immediately, one became more aware than before of how utterly clear they had been, how transparently organised, how obvious their intentions, how entirely lacking they were in the kind of starting-from-scratch, destroy-your-expectations kind of structural thinking. On the one hand, the obvious result of this is that the inner workings of Dillon’s Triptych keep themselves hidden, but that doesn’t equate to a sequence of non sequiturs that one shruggingly has to accept on trust. On the contrary, absolutely nothing felt out of place or even unexpected, which in itself is a testament to the facility Dillon has of forging direct statement from decidedly (& perhaps deliberately) convoluted means of articulation. What came across most on this (for me) first listening was overwhelming lyricism, both in the sensitive restraint of Dillon’s writing (often very quiet, with much use of silence) as well as the poignant flashes of earlier music, both through subtle emulation & glimpsed in faint snatches of recordings, a sotto voce trace that nonetheless permeated the entire texture. Gorgeous & bewildering, it’s a piece that requires considerable further time & thought, which makes it all the more unfortunate that it’s not included in the BBC’s forthcoming broadcasts.

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