Magazine article Gramophone

James Dillon: Embraced by the Proms and Showered with Awards, Here Is an Enigmatic Composer Who Stands Apart

Magazine article Gramophone

James Dillon: Embraced by the Proms and Showered with Awards, Here Is an Enigmatic Composer Who Stands Apart

Article excerpt

James Dillon said nothing publically during the recent debate about Scottish independence, partly you suspect because the wider media weren't interested in soliciting the views of a composer who writes music that obstinately refuses to dance to the mainstream tune--but also because the Glasgow-born Dillon has long lived his life in a state of devo-max from the UK.

In interviews he breaks for the borders. Sir Harrison Birtwistle writes aurally uninteresting music, he says. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's haggis-and-tartan sentimentality makes him want to puke. And interviewers quickly learn the futility of quizzing him about the domesticated new music of Colin Matthews, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Sally Beamish. Milton Babbitt yes, Elliott Carter maybe, John Adams--who? The historical points of reference that count for Dillon are Iannis Xenakis, Olivier Messiaen, Edgard Varese and Karlheinz Stockhausen; his fastidiously scored compositions might look on the page like a conscious attempt to ape the classic-period New Complexity Gold of Michael Finnissy and Brian Ferneyhough, but other compositional priorities and strategies are clearly at work. If Ferneyhough is the anchor back at the newsroom--clean desk, giving a neat run-down of rolling post-Schoenbergian news--Dillon is like the gonzo reporter who works the field, connecting unlikely pieces of information, moving the story on.

Dillon is Composer-in-Residence at this year's Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (November 21-30,, an institution that has remained steadfastly loyal to his work. The first time I heard Dillon's compositions in the flesh was in Huddersfield during the early 1990s when the brute carnality and deep beauty of pieces like Come live with me, hlack/nebulae and East 11th St NY 10003 put clear aesthetic water between him and other featured British composers. And then there was the man himself, a very specific enigma. With his coils of jet-black hair, carefully cultivated moustache and penchant for dressing with just a hint of gothic chic, his image pitched up somewhere between Billy Connolly and Guy Fawkes. Quietly spoken and reticent, Dillon preferred to dissolve into the background as his music blared centre stage.

Music that consciously allies itself to the late 1950s/ early 1960s modernist project can be as retro and quaint as the vision of the future proffered by Thunderhirds. Neo-Modernist scores no longer provoke--they pose, their composers indulging in posturing, the rehashed mantras of Stockhausen or the founding fathers of Dutch power minimalism. But Dillon's devolved independence licenses him to look beyond the usual ideological allegiances. His profile has always been high, his success giving him access to arenas that have remained stubbornly closed to most composers of his modernist instincts. He's been a regular at the BBC Proms, a four-time winner at the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards and then, in 2010, the big one--the BBC Singers, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Les Percussions de Strasbourg mounted the first complete performance of his three-and-an-half-hour cycle of instrumental and choral works with electronics, Nine Rivers. This outsider knows how to sneak back inside.

Nine Rivers reaches beyond an everyday understanding of 'music' to create a sound environment like no other. The idea of a river becomes a metaphor for the flow of time, with currents of memory overlapping or rippling in new directions. Dillon draws on Heraclitus and Rimbaud--both of them elucidating their notions of flux and transformation of time using the symbolism of rivers. The tide turns when electronics, at the midpoint of the cycle, puncture the acoustic sound world, flooding the music with fresh possibility. Neo-modernism can be cool and calculated, rigid and rebarbative, but the music of Nine Rivers is hot, volatile and stylistically impulsive--it is felt.

The early 1980s found Dillon holed up in Cornwall, living in a commune, an existence he admits that was fuelled by excesses of drug taking. …

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