James Dillon

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) and something entirely new. It was the entirely new piece, David Fennessy‘s Hauptstimme for viola and 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 and dissipates, leaving the viola alone and heralding the work’s final gambit—now that the viola can be heard, “what to say?”. The answer was endless arpeggios and oscillations, perpetuated to the point that soloist Garth Knox began to resemble a folk fiddler who had entirely forgotten the tune. Read more

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James Dillon – String Quartets No. 5 (World Première) and No. 6 (UK Première)

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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 and treatment of their material. Read more

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 9. Oceanos

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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. Read more

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 8. Introitus

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As éileadh sguaibe reaches its conclusion, the electronics seem to catch hold of the percussion; however, a glance at the score of Nine Rivers‘ eighth piece, Introitus, reveals that it is, in fact, its own tape part overlapping the final minute of éileadh. Having been more-or-less dormant for the last 20 minutes of the cycle, electronics now start to return to the importance they had in La coupure. At this stage, the penultimate work brings with it a palpable sense of the end being in sight, although i suspect this is a natural concomitant of Nine Rivers‘ epic scale rather than anything (yet) in the music explicitly heralding or even implicitly hinting at its conclusion. Introitus is scored for 12 strings (to some extent timbrally mirroring the second work, L’ECRAN parfum) plus both live electronics and also tape. In his very lengthy programme note, Dillon characterises the relationship of those components as “a palimpsest of three superposed layers […] interdependent strata [that] function not simply to perform a coherent unity [or] a symbiosis but cite their own deconstruction. Introitus within the context of Nine Rivers may be viewed as an estuary (L. æstuare, to surge, foam as the tide), a tidal delirium opened up by the employment of computer technology”. Completed in 1990, Introitus was composed for the 65th birthday of Pierre Boulez, and was premièred in May of that year by the Ensemble Intercontemperain conducted by Peter Eötvös, at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The tape and electronic parts were realised next door at IRCAM, who also commissioned the work. This time, the relevant stanza from Rimbaud’s La Bateau ivre is this one:

I have seen sidereal archipelagos! and islands
Whose delirious skies are open to the sea-wanderer:
–Is it in these bottomless nights that you sleep and exile yourself,
Million golden birds, O future Vigor?
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 7. éileadh sguaibe

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Having kept the electronics on a very tight leash in L’œuvre au noir, James Dillon reins them in almost completely in the seventh work of the Nine Rivers cycle, éileadh sguaibe. Like its predecessor, the work was also commissioned for the Paragon Ensemble, who gave the first performance in January 1991. The title, in Scots Gaelic, approximates to “gathered up in pleated folds”, referencing the kilt and serving as a descriptor for Dillon’s manipulation of material, which he has described as “folding sound”. The electronics, as i’ve said, are negligible, so the piece is simply heard as one for brass septet and percussion. Despite éileadh sguaibe‘s brief duration (about which more later), Dillon establishes a fascinating relationship between these two groups, which in many ways feels like a continuation from L’œuvre au noir (and almost sounds like a larger incarnation of Richard Barrett’s superb piece for trombone and percussion, EARTH); in part, it’s inspired by this stanza from Rimbaud’s La Bateau ivre:

I, who trembled, hearing at fifty leagues off
The moaning of the Behemoths in heat and the thick Maelstroms,
I, eternal spinner of the blue immobility,
Miss Europe with its ancient parapets!
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 6. L’œuvre au noir

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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. Read more

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 5. La coupure

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To describe the fifth work in James Dillon’s Nine Rivers, La coupure, as being ‘pivotal’ perhaps seems like a truism; it sits, after all, at the epicentre of the cycle. Yet it marks a timbral transition that will be felt on all the remaining pieces, namely the inclusion of electronics. Dillon’s relationship with electronics is not new (he attended IRCAM in the mid-1980s) but is evidently problematic, insofar as his feelings about the general state of electronic music are concerned. In an interview prior to last year’s world première, Dillon summarised that “…the problem with electronics is that it sounds like shit”, which is a refreshingly candid reaction to the bland, generic fare churned out by too many for too long. It’s also a useful caveat when approaching La coupure, a 50-minute work for percussion and electronics, suggesting we’re going to hear something a little different from the norm. The title means ‘the cut’, a reference to, among other things, the way rivers divide, and aspects of division preoccupy the piece throughout. The relevant stanza from Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre is particularly vivid:

I know the skies bursting with lighting, and the waterspouts
And the surf and the currents; I know the evening,
And dawn as exhalted as a flock of doves,
And at times I have seen what man thought he saw!
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

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