St Peter’s Church, Drogheda: James Dillon – The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments (World Première)

by 5:4

It shames me to admit that, until February this year, i’d never heard of Louth Contemporary Music Society. On the one hand, it’s ridiculous that i hadn’t: for the last seven-or-so years they’ve been putting on fascinating concerts featuring music by, among many others, Terry Riley, György Kurtág, John Zorn, David Lang, Sofia Gubaidulina, Michael Pisaro, John Cage, Christian Wolff, Tan Dun, Alvin Lucier and Éliane Radigue, performed by the likes of Musicircus, Kronos Quartet, Carducci Quartet, Ian Pace, Trio Mediaeval, Garth Knox and the Hilliard Ensemble, as well as several of the aforementioned composers themselves. Not being aware of such fantastical goings-on seems entirely absurd. Yet on the other hand, not only is pretty much everyone i’ve spoken to about them in the last few months equally unaware of these concerts, i’ve not encountered any promotion or discussion about them in the usual new music places. Perhaps the shame lies elsewhere. Either way, it’s time to shout out loudly about what’s really going on on the east coast of Ireland, and it’s largely thanks to the tirelessly enthusiastic one-man-bandery of Eamonn Quinn, co-founder and curator of LCMS, whose efforts have at last been celebrated with his being awarded the 2018 Belmont Prize for Contemporary Music (Alex Ross won the prize in 2012), a belated but very richly deserved acknowledgement of Quinn’s exceptionally open-minded and energetic approach to concert curation.

The most recent LCMS concert took place last Saturday in the town of Drogheda, around thirty miles north of Dublin. The combined forces of soprano Peyee Chen and Crash Ensemble, conducted by Sinéad Hayes, came together to give the world première of James Dillon‘s new work for voice and five instruments, The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments. It was, in hindsight, a good thing that there had been virtually no information about it prior to the performance, but i wonder whether anything would have been adequate preparation for the experience of this piece. It’s fair, i think, to describe it as an epic—a calm, measured epic, certainly, but one that nonetheless spoke with stunning intensity and, despite the small number of performers and restraint in the music, with remarkable weight. Both structurally and musically, The Louth Work conveys a distinct air of ritual: it’s a heavily articulated piece, segmented and episodic, its sections – six ‘constellations’ comprising 44 ‘scenes’ – at times presented in a halting way that almost implied a long, deep intake of breath before they began. Bells are everywhere, both real and projected: on stage as tubular, Javanese gong and three tam-tams, supplemented with vibraphone, glockenspiel and antique cymbals; emerging from the speakers were sound files of more bells, both similar to those we could see as well as much larger ones that bestowed on the music a somewhat other-worldly loftiness and solemnity. It’s easy to reach for an adjective like ‘other-worldly’ and trot it out without qualification, but in this context it’s entirely appropriate. Because, in spite of the fact that we were sat within the handsome interior of St Peter’s Church, coupled with this sense of ritual and solemnity, there was nothing that could even remotely be described as a ‘religious’ quality. i wonder whether even the word ‘spiritual’ is pushing it; possibly the best descriptor would be ‘metaphysical’. Drawing freely on the Orphic Hymns, with a trio of ‘inserts’ from Petrarch and Apollinaire, Dillon has constructed what amounts to a kind of ‘mystery rite’, a heightened act of abstract ceremony devoid of dogmatic specifics, its credo rooted in poetic passions and evocations.

The music was also rooted: the (omni)presence of bells is one aspect of this, and Dillon also regularly underpins the work with varying forms of drone. Here they act not merely to fix but to transfix, establishing what might be thought of as ‘ecstatic pedals’, extended pitches and chords that allowed filigree movement around them while locking it into a kind of stasis, like motes of dust tumbling in a shaft of sunlight. These passages exhibited a complex consonance that reinforced this impression of inherent equilibrium. While they act as a foundation for the work as a whole, it’s hard to say whether they’re the music’s ‘default position’, as it were; Dillon contrasts these stases with episodes of intricate detail, the players splintering into individuated lines, often florid and gestural, occasionally assertive but – unusually for Dillon – never violent. The fact that the dronal sections consistently felt as though they were reuniting the ensemble is perhaps telling.

Considered from the perspective of both a work described as being for “voice and five instruments” as well as one with an overt demeanour of ritual, the role of the voice is interesting. In no meaningful sense of the word is it a ‘soloist’, acting rather as an integral member of the ensemble; furthermore, Dillon clarifies in the score that the text being sung is “primarily a vehicle for vocal colour” and to that end it is “not desirable to … attempt to convey ‘comprehensibility'”. (Hence why the programme did not include the text; not only would it not have ‘helped’, it would potentially have distracted from and undermined Dillon’s intentions.) This was abundantly obvious in the performance, Peyee Chen seated throughout and for the most part not so much projecting her material as delivering it with the intimate hush of an entirely private activity, as though singing to herself. Not always: she regularly teamed up with other players – the clarinet in particular – in duets and to form intertwined pitch and/or gesture unisons, and elsewhere extruded away and floated above them. But for large portions of The Louth Work the voice is entirely silent, underlining the fact that the work does not revolve around it, while at the same time making its occurrences seem more significant, an interesting ambiguity that added an extra frisson to Chen’s tantalisingly just-out-of-reach performance.

Questions remain. At almost 70 minutes’ duration, one would expect its structure to be micro-managed by Dillon, but the extent to which The Louth Work displays an incontrovertible sense of direction seems minimal. In no way did that come across as a negative thing: indeed, the work’s ebb and flow had an intuitively improvisational character that felt convincingly organic and could have continued indefinitely. Only after it had finished did it become clear how much time had passed; the way it positioned itself ‘outside time’ – as any authentic ritual will tend to do – was very striking and deeply impressive. As the fragile stasis that dominates its closing minutes faded away, one felt simultaneously enervated and energised, diminished by the magnitude of Dillon’s music – which, despite the breaks between sections, maintains an unbroken continuity of atmosphere – yet invigorated by its quiet ardour. The obvious intricacies of the material, continually qualified by a recurrent folk-like sensibility, allow The Louth Work to be elevated yet grounded.

This is seriously taxing music, and despite being at some remove from Crash Ensemble’s more usual fare (the ensemble is aptly-named), they gave a performance that wasn’t merely confident but which allowed the work’s ceremonial sensibility to emerge naturally without ever becoming mannered. Peyee Chen insinuated herself among them perfectly, undaunted by the need to often become a mere ghost, her half-heard material speaking with greater force due to its taciturn sense of reserve. The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments is an important work within Dillon’s output, one that for player and audience alike makes the greatest of demands, but with the lightest of touches.

Chen began the concert with a rendition of Jennifer Walshe‘s Three Songs by Ukeoirn O’Connor. It was a perfect way to establish the tone of the evening, the breathy, dreamy, sensual wonder of Walshe’s music coming across – as i’ve never heard it before (certainly quite different from how it seemed when Chen performed it in Edinburgh last year) – like another kind of ritual, a solitary one as if performed on some remote mountain-top, sung to the wind. Gorgeous, intense, contemplative, the purity of Chen’s voice floated beautifully over the rough twang of her ukulele, communicating something exotically foreign to everyone, yet innately understood by us all.

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