James Dillon’s Nine Rivers

James Dillon
Nine Rivers [world premiere of complete work]

Part One (Leukosis)
1: East 11th St NY 10003
Les Percussions de Strasbourg
2: L’ECRAN parfum
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Jessica Cottis
3: Viriditas
BBC Singers
Simon Joly
4: La femme invisible
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Jessica Cottis

Part Two (Iosis)
5: La coupure
Steven Schick (percussion), Ross Karre (video-design), Jaime Oliver (software / sound-design / audio engineer)

Part Three (Melanosis)
6: L’oeuvre au noir
7: Éileadh sguaibe
8: Introitus
9. Oceanos
Carl Faia (software / sound-design / audio engineer), Ian Dearden & David Sheppard (sound projection)
BBC Singers
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Steven Schick

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 November, 2010
Venue: Grand Hall, City Halls & Old Fruit Market, Glasgow

Those who have followed the contemporary music scene over the last three decades may well have come across one of several works by James Dillon that were intended to be part of the large-scale cycle entitled Nine Rivers. Although all of the component parts had been realised by the turn of the new century, a performance of the complete cycle continued to prove elusive: Paris and Strasbourg both planned for one, and even advertised it as such, but neither of them came to fruition. That such a performance has had to wait until now is a little regrettable – not least given the temporal and also aesthetic ground that Dillon has since covered – but that it should take place around the time of the composer’s 60th-birthday is appropriate, and that it should be in his home town of Glasgow is fitting given Scotland has rather downplayed the achievements of its most significant post-war composer.

While none of its individual works features outsize forces as such, the requirements of Nine Rivers – which vary greatly from piece to piece and latterly includes an extensive role for live electronics – are still formidable. As are the demands on a conductor and tribute should be paid at this juncture to Jessica Cottis, Simon Joly and, above all, Steven Schick, who between them replaced an indisposed Rolf Gupta at a few days’ notice and so prevented this ‘world premiere’ from falling by the wayside. No less vital were the contributions of the BBC Singers, Les Percussions de Strasbourg (an all-too-rare UK appearance) and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – its service to present-day music (not least under former Principal Conductor Ilan Volkov) equalled by few other British orchestras. They, along with sound projectionists and engineers, gave their collective all over the three hours of this performance.

As might be expected, the concept of Nine Rivers is as diverse as it is complex. That said, the ‘rivers’ of the title can be understood both as an outlet of water (i.e. – the French ‘rivière‘) flowing towards another and greater source, and as a physical means of rending apart (the French ‘rive‘) through aggression or violence: so making for a progress-through-conflict scenario that fulfils the ‘united as opposites’ maxim defined as far back as Heraclitus. The nine constituent pieces themselves fall into three parts that are each informed by a transformative quality most often associated with alchemy, though the degree to which this is discernable in the music varies from piece to piece as it also must from performance to performance. Each piece is prefaced by lines from Rimbaud, whose visionary poem “Le Bateau” throws up parallels – tangible and otherwise – with the course of the cycle as a whole.

Part One (with a duration of around 69 minutes) centers on the process of Leukosis (whitening) and consists of the first four pieces that follow each other with only minimal pause. The first piece, ‘East 11th St NY 10003’ (1982), is for six percussionists and unfolds as a productive confrontation between the logic of a grid-like metrical framework and spontaneity of the assaults that intervene with increasing frequency to instil a sense of accumulating momentum. This latter carries over into the second piece, ‘L’ECRAN parfum’ (1988), scored for six violins and three percussion in which the ongoing conflict is diffused onto the level of timbre and texture. Further diversification is ensured by the third piece, ‘Viriditas’ (1994), for 16 solo voices (4 each of SATB) with two percussionists and an unusually elegant handling of the concept of semantic disintegration (too?) often favoured in the post-war era. In particular, the individuation of individual parts builds on that of its predecessors, as well as preparing for the polyphonic intricacy of the fourth piece, ‘La femme invisible’ (1989), scored for chamber ensemble and which remains as alluring and as evocative a work as Dillon has composed.

Part Two (with a duration of around 51 minutes) centres on the process of Iosis (reddening) and consists solely the fifth piece in the cycle. ‘La coupure’ (2000) is for a single percussionist and live electronics and was the last of these works to be realised. Moreover, its relative length is mirrored by the wholly different formal and expressive trajectory pursued over its course: one whose progress is as much visual, even theatrical, as aural. Thus the percussionist moved between several pools of instruments illuminated by lighting of varying colour and intensity; the sound being spatialised around the auditorium as well as being complemented by video screens – projecting abstract and graphic imagery as well as ‘blow-ups’ of the performance taking place and visuals that paralleled the sounds on tape – which were placed at various angles around the performing area. That it coalesced so effectively (demonstrably so given that many such audio-visual undertakings fall down in precisely these respects) was partly owing to the understated commitment of Steven Schick but equally to the acoustic of the Old Fruit Market, a spacious and atmospheric venue as if made for such events.

Part Three (with a duration around 66 minutes) centres on the process of Melanosis (blackening) and consists of the final four pieces that proceed each other as a continuous and cumulative whole. The sixth, ‘L’oeuvre au noir’ (1990), is scored for chamber ensemble and live electronics that, in context, felt as though a compacted and heightened précis of its predecessor. The seventh piece, ‘Éileadh sguaibe’ (1990 – the Gaelic approximating to ‘folds upon pleated folds’), is for brass ensemble, percussion and live electronics, and intensifies accrued momentum by means of implacable opposition between its sound sources. The eighth piece, ‘Introitus’ (1990), is for 12 strings, computer-generated tape and live electronics – and unfolds akin to an aural ‘delta’, with all the intricacy of detail and the fluidity of motion this implies – on the way to that ‘greater source’. Which duly arrives with the ninth piece, ‘Oceanos’ (1996), for 16 voices, chamber ensemble and live electronics – the culmination in all respects with its bringing together of almost all the earlier sound-sources and musical processes in a vast yet cohesive ‘action’ whose monumentality is shot-through with a finally pervasive intimacy.

Assessing a concept so all-embracing in its scope is far from easy, but the present account seemed unfailingly well executed in terms of the realisation of each piece in the context of the larger work – impressively so, given the ‘eleventh hour’ preparation accorded the conductors. Again, it is possible to feel that certain pieces were too long or short given their respective place in the overall scheme, though this was perhaps inevitable given the protracted genesis and no single work failed to make at least a relative impression. What really mattered is that Nine Rivers was finally given complete and to the standard this ceaselessly fascinating music warrants – vindicating Dillon’s long-term ambition as well as the efforts of those who made its performance a reality. Further hearings will inevitably be infrequent but the practicality and, above all, necessity of doing so can now no longer be doubted.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 11 December

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