Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Dillon's Dragonflies

James Dillon (b.1950) is Scotland's 'New Complexity' composer par excellence (though I'm not sure how many rivals there are for that title!) 

So what would you expect from that introduction? Music that's scary, difficult, abstract, serious? Well, I've just been listening to three of his pieces for solo piano and I must say that I've found them very easy to listen to. Indeed, if we start with Charm you might be forgiven for wondering why Dillon has a reputation for 'New Complexity' at all. The piece has strong overtones of the music of Oliver Messiaen (especially his Vingt Regards) and more than a taste of Debussy's glorious late Etudes too. Charm is a gentle miniature full of bell-sounds and I find Messiaen and Debussy continue to be felt presences in Dragonfly, another exquisite miniature. The beauty and delicacy of these two pieces is probably not be what you were expecting after I flung that scary phrase 'New Complexity' at you! From these works it is only a step towards the somewhat larger Fujin, a stormy fantasy presumably named after the terrifying Japanese god of the wind (pictured above). 

From there - and to confirm, despite what you might be thinking, that James Dillon really is a 'New Complexity' composer! - you might then like to try the orchestral score Ignis noster (a piece based on the ideas of alchemy). Yes, the sections of the orchestra are tangled in a highly complex weave of barely-interacting, rhythmically-fiendish music and there is a ferocity to the music at times, but the colour and the fantasy of this piece will hopefully win you over. Dillon clearly has an imaginative ear as an orchestrator and that imagination, for me, extends well beyond orchestration. Listen out for little echoes of jazz tunes, hymns and the like amidst the seductive tumult. If doesn't sound remotely abstract to me, more like a sort of sea-scape with huge waves and gulls wheeling and crying overhead. I think this is one of the finest works for large orchestra of the last thirty years. 

So James Dillon's music isn't too tough after all? Well, it clearly can be! Having fallen for those piano pieces and maybe even the orchestral tour-de-force, why not then try the Second String Quartet? Ah, now that's what 'New Complexity' music is supposed to sound like, isn't it? It's intense stuff - tough, fierce, dissonant and full of the sort of unconventional string writing that some listeners find deeply off-putting. You will either love it or hate it I suspect. I love it (though it took me a few listens). 

Dillon's music continues to surprise. I can't link unfortunately to his more recent Violin Concerto (which doesn't seem to have been recorded yet), but that is even more approachable than Ignis noster - combining Dillon's complex orchestral weaves with the ever-appealing sounds of Scottish folk music. It wowed a BBC Proms audience at its premiere some ten or so years ago. I was bowled over by it at the time and would love to hear it again. I suspect it of being a masterpiece.

Back to the piano though for the first volume of his Book of Elements. This volume (out of a total of five) is a set of eleven miniatures and should speak to anyone who loves, yes, the music of Messiaen and Debussy. It might also strike a chord with those who know their Bartok. It's music that swirls and delights and is not to be feared!

If you're liking what you hear, why not also try the magnificent piano concerto Andromeda

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