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

by 5:4

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 In taking the decision to withdraw ‘Part I’, I have also decided that this part of the score would remain withdrawn.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’.

But this is all by the by; infinitely more important is what Physis, now comprising just the more lengthy second part, sounds like. There are two broad observations to make, the first being that the orchestral forces used are huge. So huge, in fact, that the majority of the seats in Huddersfield’s Town Hall had to be removed in order to accommodate all the players of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (the percussion section alone occupied the entire stage), with the audience reduced to just a few rows at the back plus the side galleries.

This is worth mentioning not because size means anything, but because it’s never really abundantly clear from Dillon’s music just how many players are at his disposal. His use of the orchestra is utmost restrained, the vastness of the instrumental palette more to do with achieving a subtlety and complexity of timbral combinations than anything else. Put simply, in Physis, Dillon doesn’t do tuttis. The second thing to say, which relates to this, is that i can’t help feeling the broadcast of Physis, exposing considerable intricacies of detail, actually works against the piece to an extent. i wouldn’t ordinarily say such a thing, but heard here there are plenty of times when all that clarity, paradoxically, makes it unclear precisely what—if anything—is currently demanding one’s uppermost attention. Having not spent much time with the score (which can be viewed below, including the now-deleted Part I), that’s either down to Dillon or the BBC, but either way the music often speaks with a kind of vagueness, its busy textures drifting to us as from the middle-distance.

All the same, it’s a pretty wondrous work to get lost in (in every sense). From an accented opening, full of strange, angled prolongations, it immediately opens out into something almost Romantic, a melody making its way over reassuring bass pizzicati. But as this becomes dissolved into, first, a more pushy episode with two snare drums and then into a sequence of brass chords, it becomes obvious that the material wants to push on, concerned less with obvious development than evolving into something else or shifting in favour of something else entirely. Perhaps this accounts in part for the vagueness i mentioned before; it’s difficult to get a foothold on its smooth, shifting surface. Because of this, the occasions when material really does move to the fore are very striking, and subsequent lyrical outbursts from the violins extrude strongly—yet it’s the brass that seem to be marshalling Physis (the winds sound like their sidekicks), muddying things repeatedly and revealing the strings to be assertive but fragile. In this respect, there’s a sense of the sections of the orchestra not exactly working to differing ends, but having discrete and really quite different (even opposing) modus operandi; what’s so telling about this is that Dillon’s compositional involvement oftentimes seems to be entirely passive, allowing these separate organic entities to work things out on their own. This, too, accounts in part for the pervading vagueness—there isn’t an obvious hand guiding everything from on high. The repeating octave unison report that ushers in the work’s final section is unexpected, and the orchestral unity it requires sounds incredibly strange in such a context as this. It’s like an instance of deus ex machina, instigating something new from an initially artificial situation; but in no time the music sags back into ambiguity, metallic percussion and piano firing out notes from left and right as the brass surge and the strings shimmer. The work’s increasingly radiant conclusion, surrounding the musicians in a kind of aural halo, becomes genuinely other-worldly in its ethereal closing moments, glockenspiel and bass drum causing it to glitter and shudder.

The world première of Physis was given at Huddersfield Town Hall by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Schick.

Full score

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