HCMF revisited: James Dillon – Piano Concerto ‘Andromeda’

by 5:4

Scottish composer James Dillon is a regular fixture at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and the last few years have included several of his larger-scale works. Of these, the performance of his Piano Concerto ‘Andromeda’ at HCMF 2014 was one of the most striking, and has remained vividly in mind partly due to how difficult it seemed to parse, and as a consequence was a tricky piece to write about in my original review. The work isn’t performed often and no recording yet exists, so it’s one of a number of Dillon’s major works that remains in relative obscurity.

That’s unfortunate in any case, but particularly so because of the level of ambition Dillon brought to this piece. His long programme note describes the points of inspiration that led to the work’s subtitle, citing Greco-Roman mythology – Andromeda was the daughter of Celeus and Cassiopeia and personifies the dawn; like Prometheus, she was chained to a rock, eventually rescued by Perseus – and astronomy, referring both to the constellation (which was originally seen to represent Andromeda, and named ‘the chained woman’) as well as the galaxy – the nearest major galaxy to our own – that lies within it. Dillon also talks about the the legacy of the piano concerto idiom, describing the increasing emphasis on soloistic virtuosity that “remains one of its most attractive and repulsive features”, which perhaps explains why the pianist in his piece, save for a short opening cadenza, bears no resemblance to a conventional concerto soloist.

As in so much of Dillon’s work, these disparate inspirations are less signifiers than relatively passive elements that provide an allusive and/or metaphorical influence on the nature and behaviour of the musical material. Dillon isn’t particularly seeking to enact or depict a mythological dramatic narrative here (despite the fact that the music very occasionally takes on a superficially filmic character), though the astronomical references offer a more direct albeit generalised connection, particularly the idea of star formation and (galactic) arrangement. Dillon describes how the piece, which is in a single, continuous movement, comprises 15 sections, which are

the result of a division and re-ordering of larger stretches of material, the sections are arranged as a series of imaginary waves, one section giving birth to the next. […] Form cannot be separated from its activity and here this activity is a playful reality, an incandescent tension between renewal and suspension.

This idea, very heavily borne out in the music, is redolent of the intense periods of star formation that are a pivotal point in the history and development of any galaxy, and which gives rise to its shape as well as its rich chemical diversity and distribution. It’s this particular aspect of the piece – new ideas continually being created – that time and repeated listenings have clarified was what made and continues to make Andromeda such a challenging listening experience. i’ve often remarked on how further listenings are a necessary part of any meaningful engagement with a piece of music, but it’s rarely so emphatically the case as with Dillon’s Andromeda. The work’s invention is remarkably convoluted; to call it an ’embarrassment of riches’ is tantamount to an understatement.

First, there’s the fact that the connection between its ideas is often impossible to grasp – indeed, there may well be no connection, its ideas springing forth seemingly spontaneously from a spuming epicentre of formative stuff. So we find ourselves passing from the Romantically-charged opening cadenza – largely consonant, filled with arpeggios, trills and runs – to a sequence of rude orchestral blows, to plucked and bowed cross rhythms, to a lovely dense string episode that’s beautiful but feels hemmed in on all sides, to another outbreak of blunt force impacts that break everything up, dissolving into general orchestral vagueness with horn accents deep within. And so on and so on – yet none of this seems remotely superficial: every new development, each new idea feels supremely important, and as it unfolds it occupies the focal point of our attention.

Second, though, is the fact that the perspective of this stream of invention is such that as each new idea is placed front and centre, previous ideas are continuing to be active at the periphery, still evolving before dying away, while yet newer ideas are starting to bubble and froth into existence deep in the music’s core. This leads to a marvellously disorienting sense of perspective in which we experience multiple layers of material, not only from this concentric arrangement of idea formation, but also from the fact (at least, i think it’s a fact) that some of these ideas have multiple facets, where parts of the orchestra operate differently (though not exactly independently). Thus, the distinction between what constitutes either the entirety or a part of an idea becomes impossible to disentangle. This is another nice parallel with astronomy, the way that at first glance we perceive stars as being arranged a certain way, but when their individual distances are established ostensible connections are proven to be non-existent. So too in Andromeda, connections and associations may well be similarly spurious. Hearing the work multiple times in different performances might provide something akin to parallax, but the extent of its convolution is such that arguably the better course is simply to revel in the beauty and mystery of its organisation.

That’s not to suggest that Andromeda is a work that can’t be followed, or that it’s nothing more than a cavalcade of disparate, unpredictable ideas. Time and repeated listenings do make its machinations more familiar, though in much the same way as a supernova is familiar: the mechanisms are known but the details remain chaotic and capricious. The piece is unquestionably an enigma – one of the most elaborate you’re ever likely to hear – but in some respects that only makes it the more marvellous to behold. As such, i’ve resisted the urge to look at the score and peer within; for now at least, i’m content to continue grappling with its dazzling array of ideas and each time to hear them anew, and thereby find myself lost again in the heart of its spiralling arms of endless invention.

This performance of James Dillon’s Piano Concerto ‘Andromeda’ was given during the closing weekend of HCMF 2014 in Huddersfield Town Hall by pianist Noriko Kawai and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Steven Schick.

Programme Note

Andromeda; the offspring of Celeus and Cassiopeia (night and darkness) is a personification of the dawn. To atone for the vanity of her mother, Cassiopeia, who claimed she was fairer than any of the sea nymphs. She was chained fast to an overhanging rock where the foaming billows that their spray continually dashed over her fair limbs. Eventually she is rescued by the Perseus’ irresistible sword – the piercing rays of the sun. (H.A. Guerber)

Andromeda; V-shaped constellation in the northern hemisphere said in ancient times to represent the outstretched arms of Andromeda ‘the chained woman’. The Andromeda galaxy a spiral galaxy like our own Milky Way is the most distant object to be seen by the visible eye. (Times Atlas to the Universe)

The impact of the modern piano concerto from Beethoven onwards reflects the increasing virtuosity of the performer which pushes the genre in an idealised and dramatic direction and this drama perhaps remains one of its most attractive and repulsive features. However the etymology of virtuosity originally referred to the subject and not the execution and by the late 19th century and early 20th the ritualised and heroic struggle of the post Beethoven concerto is transformed from the ‘allegory of romance’ to a kind of ‘vanitas’; it moves from Prometheus to Narcissus. If the concerto during the early period of modernism inherits and maintains the idea of the heroic struggle, the emphasis often shifts to the level of the material itself. The displaced elements of concerto form, cadenza, ritornello, ripieni, etc; its repertoire of gestures function only as a chain of traces in a theatre of memory.

My Piano Concerto is in one continuous movement of around 35 minutes in duration, formally this single movement consists of 15 sections (including a coda). These sections are the result of a division and re-ordering of larger stretches of material, the sections are arranged as a series of imaginary waves, one section giving birth to the next. The displacement of material marks our experience of continuity; the large rhythm of the sections contains a more spontaneous activity. Form cannot be separated from its activity and here this activity is a playful reality, an incandescent tension between renewal and suspension. In some ways for me each new work gives birth to the next and this propulsion from work to work carries with it some mysterious sway. Across this activity the solo piano casts its endless musical nets like some nucleic action, spinning trails into galaxies of sound; the technical demands on the pianist are extreme. However the intention is not one of display I am concerned with a certain strange exchange. The perpetual growth and decay, the vertiginous precision of the moment, the spontaneous nature of sound is reflected in the form. The movement of the waves (sections) remains the same yet the forms are always different. The listening process is omnidirectional and the sound complexes of the work play with this – scale plays an important role in such a work whereby the sweeping movements of large scale textures are mirrored by microscopic shifts of instrumental colour. The solo piano weaves its figural spells around, within and outside of this play which creates a structure that is ambiguous, tries to be flexible, always in motion, seeking contradictions, privileges labyrinthine movement, however mysterious. The relationship of soloist and orchestra is always shifting, is one a part of the other, does one accompany the other? Everything remains unstable remains mysterious; the experience of any unfolding drama will always be set against a silent drama, a silent stage, an unrealised staging. The invocation of the Andromeda myth serves only as an allegory to some protean theatre, whether it’s the uncanny cries of Andromeda or perhaps the echo of the shoreline.

—James Dillon

Full score

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