Dillon’s difficult music, rarely heard, gets big show at Miller Theatre

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Scene from a performance of 'Nine Rivers.' (via guggenheim.org)
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Just before 11 a.m. Saturday morning, in the single-room auditorium that constitutes Columbia University’s small but influential Miller Theatre, the musician and conductor Steven Schick sat quietly for a moment. He surveyed the large score on the music stand before him. Seated in front of him were 12 string players from the International Contemporary Ensemble. (Despite its name, the group plays a consistently large role in New York City’s modern classical music scene.)

It was early going in the musicians’ first in-house rehearsal of Scottish composer James Dillon’s "Nine Rivers" cycle, for which Miller will present the U.S. premiere over three nights this week.

“OK,” Schick said. “Remember we need to change color over the course of these crescendos.”

Next, he began to call out the varying time signatures that individual members of the ensemble would be playing simultaneously.

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“There’s a 3/16 for you; a 5/16 here,” Schick said, gesturing to each player.

These clashing patterns kept piling up—to an almost comical degree.

“This is going to be much more straightforward than it seems,” Schick told them. His faith in the music, and the internal justification for all its requirements, appeared unshakeable.

On his count, the group played for about 30 seconds, before Schick waved them off once again. That brief passage of flurrying time-signatures hadn’t come off badly at all—though, in the space of a few seconds, the group had already moved onto new passages of the music that begged for a different approach.

“Those big beats are so amorphous,” Schick said. “And just so you know, these bow changes for the first and third quartets are in unison; for the second quartet, it’s more disparate.”

AMORPHOUS AND DISPARATE, WITH THE BRIEFEST DETOURS into unison: These are useful words when it comes to describing the music of James Dillon. Most commonly associated with Europe’s “New Complexity” school—and really, that’s as self-evident a stylistic heading as classical music offers—the composer thrills to the constant manipulation of texture for its own sake. His work may be hard to play, and yet, if your ears are primed for the pleasures of severity in any musical genre, it can be paradoxically easy to enjoy for long stretches.

Dillon’s brand of chaos is a musical one; traditional-sounding harmonies will briefly cohere in his scores, only to be scattered to the far corners of listeners’ sound perception. It’s hardcore music that seems suited to our data-overrun culture. More than the fastest-moving social-media timeline, Dillon’s music pummels with information: Two violins scratching and foraging over here, the double basses plucking out a near-jazzy lick, all while one drum in the back of the room has a private fit before going softly to sleep. Any hope of processing every small detail must be abandoned; one must bow to it, be Zen, and catch what one can. Dillon declared to Capital in an interview that he was more interested in ritual, as in Japanese Noh theater, than in music theater proper.

Still, he understands something about dramatic flourish. His lone opera, Philomela (available on a two-C.D. set from the Aeon label), is based on the character of the same name from Greek mythology. A rape victim who subsequently has her tongue cut out by her assailant, she is an odd choice for a music drama, and Dillon has said that the question of “how to compose with that” limitation drove his creative process to a point of denying “the voice’s predominance in opera.”

"Nine Rivers" has a similarly abstract slant on dramatic structure. At Miller Theatre, the music’s nine discrete movements will be broken up into performances on three different evenings, beginning tonight. Each evening, or act, has a heading: the first night’s is “whitening,” the second belongs to “reddening,” while the third goes by “blackening.” Acknowledging the reality of pollution by accretion, the music becomes thicker and more viscous as the rivers progress toward the blackening point.

“But I don’t want to be prescriptive,” Dillon said.

This isn’t a political warning, a Silent Spring set to music. The night of blackening has some of the most compelling music in "Nine Rivers". On that evening, every instrumental group that has played during the prior nights—solo percussionists, members of a small chorus, that triple-quartet, as well as electronic sound engineers—is absorbed into a macroensemble in the final movement. The textures are dark, but also beautiful.

By noon during Saturday morning’s rehearsal, Schick had decided to move on to another part of the cycle.

“Let’s call this an enormous success for the day,” he said to the string players after their run-through. Seated in the front orchestra section of the audience, Dillon clapped for the musicians as they dispersed.

During the break that followed, I asked him how he thought they’d handled the complex turns of the music. The composer said he thought it excellent overall, though admitted he was already thinking about how, on the evening of performance, that particular section was “going to be destroyed by the electronics” that would be layered over the acoustic playing. “I’m kidding, of course,” he said. “A bit.”

IT MIGHT NOT SURPRISE YOU TO LEARN THAT DILLON’S MUSIC, despite its composer’s global reputation, is not performed as frequently as it deserves to be. While the first movement of "Nine Rivers" was completed in 1982, Dillon wouldn't finish the work as a whole until 200. After that, the world premiere of "Nine Rivers" was scheduled and then canceled nearly half a dozen times in recent years. When it finally had its world premiere, in Glasgow last fall, the piece was presented as a one-evening marathon, under the auspices of the BBC. Miller Theatre, however, needs to retrofit its small stage after each section of the piece to accommodate all the piece’s varying requirements. To make up for the staggered nature of this U.S. premiere, Miller Theatre will be giving Dillon something that eluded him in Glasgow—a lighting director to lend each act a sense of visual continuity, in addition to the multiple video engineers who will manipulate and mix pre-recorded visuals with live images.

Melissa Smey, the director of Miller Theatre since 2009, is clearly proud to say that Miller is doing new things to “serve Dillon’s ultimate vision of the piece.” While declining to reveal how much of her season’s budget is tied up by the first week of its calendar, Smey says she’s after “buy in” not just from New York’s classical music audience, but from music audiences on the whole.

“I want people to come to all three nights," she said. "The question we asked ourselves was: can you do the coolest event in New York City this fall, one that has the potential to go beyond the die-hards?”

("Nine Rivers" is happening a week before the season officially opens at the New York Philharmonic or at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, so it has an uncluttered calendar on its side.)

2011-12 Opening Night Preview: James Dillon's Nine Rivers from Miller Theatre on Vimeo.

Even Smey admits that the "Nine Rivers" project pushes her company close to the very ends of its capacity as a staging venue. But that very reach and strain turns out to be something that Dillon can appreciate, too. He talks about "Nine Rivers" as a work in process, a piece all written out on paper that can take on new forms in performance from here on out. The multimedia aspect of this sound cycle was all produced on video—though Dillon has other ambitions here, too.

“We recorded it on video because it was so economical,” he said.

Recalling, though, how he was still in the early stages of composing "Nine Rivers" when the Berlin Wall fell, he says he originally wanted to capture the last remaining reels of old Soviet 16-millimeter film stock.

“Just the grain itself … it’s not Eastman color or Kodak color," he said. "A little like everything is slightly wrong somehow.”

Then he trailed off, spinning his wheels about new textures he could play with if he were given the chance.

It may be true that Dillon’s pieces will continue to change after passing through New York. Though, for the time being, there’s something to be said for having the best science applied to their performance yet, right here.