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

by 5:4

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.

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 and 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 and becoming sparse—through all of these and other manoeuvres, the traces of melody are constant although kept very much at arm’s length. Dillon occasionally focuses 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 and less direct. The behaviour and interaction of the quartet feels more solid, more obviously grounded; rhythmically it’s relatively simple, and 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, and 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 and obsessive pluckings; for the most part, the source of the work’s preoccupations keeps itself (or is kept) at bay, and having passed through an extensive period of waxing and waning and 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 Quatuor Diotima.

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Thanks for the post!


Thanks. Thank You for so exciting music. I look forward to your every post. Some little selection of Polish music for you: http://www.polmic.pl/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=32&Itemid=58&lang=pl


This is just a general comment of profound appreciation — I’ve left similar comments before, but I want to reiterate how in debt I am to your efforts: thanks to you, I’ve been able to get a handle on Dillon, discovered Tansy Davies and Julia Holter and, most recently, broken through a long-standing aversion to Harrison Birtwistle, all because of your advocacy and the Proms (and Huddersfield) broadcasts.

Many many thanks —- also for the Finnisy Second Piano Concerto and the “13 self-portraits”. Strange how subjective the human ear is: the Finnisy string quartet was an immediate “hit’ for me, just the opposite of your reaction on first hearing the piece.

And I’ll never be able to thank you enough for one of the first programmes I encountered at 5:4 — the concert containing Cardew’s “Bun No 1” and Tilbury playing Feldman’s “Piano and Orchestra”.


Vincent Thurgood

Thanks for making so much of James Dillon’s music available. I was in Glasgow in 2010 for the premiere of Nine Rivers so really pleased the recording is here for people to access.


I’ve heard rumours of a recording of all of the Dillon string quartets by the Arditti Quartet waiting for release. I wonder if anyone has any more substantive information on this?

I know that the Arditti performed all of them at HCMF a couple of years ago – perhaps this is where the recording was made, if the rumour is true?


There are 9 quartets now!
Alas, the 9th drifts along in a less than distinctive fashion.
Not this composers finest hour I’m sad to report ( I admire his work) , and nothing to denote “Scotland’s most brilliantly inventive living composer”

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