"There are no two points so distant from one another that they cannot be connected by a single straight line -- and an infinite number of curves."

Composer Lawrence Dillon has produced an extensive body of work, from brief solo pieces to a full-length opera. Three disks of his music are due out in 2010 on the Bridge, Albany and Naxos labels. In the past year, he has had commissions from the Emerson String Quartet, the Cassatt String Quartet, the Mansfield Symphony, the Boise Philharmonic, the Salt Lake City Symphony, the Ravinia Festival, the Daedalus String Quartet, the Kenan Institute for the Arts, the University of Utah and the Idyllwild Symphony Orchestra.

Although he lost 50% of his hearing in a childhood illness, Dillon began composing as soon as he started piano lessons at the age of seven. In 1985, he became the youngest composer to earn a doctorate at The Juilliard School, and was shortly thereafter appointed to the Juilliard faculty. Dillon is now Composer in Residence at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he has served as Music Director of the Contemporary Ensemble, Assistant Dean of Performance, and Interim Dean of the School of Music. He was the Featured American Composer in the February 2006 issue of Chamber Music magazine.

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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Last month’s survey by the Music Critics Association of North America reported that composers aren’t breaking new ground these days. What does that mean? From a journalist’s point of view, “breaking ground” means novelty, which translates into things that are easy to write about. Putting an unusual sound source on the stage, incorporating new technology or theatrics into performance, even using a catchy or provocative title: these are the things that journalists can grab onto, hooks that make writing a feature or a review on a tight deadline a bit more manageable. None of these things are inherently good or bad, or even inherently new or old, but they can be perceived as newsworthy.

That’s the superficial meaning of “groundbreaking,” but what of the more significant kinds of innovation? Is it true that composers are just rehashing -- or to use a very unfashionable word, developing -- what’s been done before?

That would be a very sad situation, wouldn’t it?

Or would it?

What does the word “groundbreaking” really mean? Everywhere I look, I see broken ground. I see peaceful meadows, teeming forests and weedy lots dug up the name of progress and growth. Growth and progress can be wonderful things, but too often they just serve as a euphemisms for greed and boredom. Ground sometimes gets torn up just to give people’s lives meaning, to mark territory, or to make room for more expensive, expansive automobiles.

These days, I find myself wanting to repair some of the ground that’s been broken, to write music that connects the dots, rather than ever more distantly scattering them. I take special pride in pieces that don’t wear their innovations on their sleeves, music that doesn’t hit you over the head with its newness. I like a piece whose novelty only becomes apparent when you try to peg it on an earlier generation and find it just doesn’t fit.

The perception that great art must be groundbreaking reminds me of the “be fruitful and multiply” dictum from the Bible. Fine, as long as there was a danger of population extinction, and there were adequate resources in the earth to feed expanding generations. At this point, it would appear that there are enough people on this planet that the best chance we have for extinction is self-destruction, so I’m for population maintenance, not growth.

In the same vein, I think we’ve broken enough ground for the time being -- physically, culturally and metaphorically -- to satisfy even the most severe cases of attention-deficit disorder. There is a place now in our world for composers, for artists, who can reconnect us with one another, with the past and the future -- with solid ground.

Mind you, I don’t believe for a minute that there is nothing new to be done. There are so many possibilities, it’s nauseating.

I just feel that novelty is overrated. If we think like journalists, then newness is everything. If we think like artists, then truth is everything, and truth is one of the oldest things going. And it’s one of the few things that hasn’t lost any value over the years.

So if I end up breaking any ground, I’m going to make sure I’m not just marking my territory. If I break new ground, I hope it will be because I have something healthy to plant.