"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.

Visit Lawrence Dillon's Web Site

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Saturday, May 27, 2006
DJ Masonic

The Winston-Salem Symphony engaged a new – and very young -- music director this season by the name of Robert Moody. I’ve known a wide range of conductors over the years, from dreadful to outstanding, and this guy is for real. The orchestra, without any significant personnel changes, is sounding a helluva lot better than it was a year ago. There are still some weaknesses, but I’m expecting further improvement over the next few seasons as Moody has an opportunity to handpick replacements for departing players.

To celebrate the conclusion of his first season, Moody commissioned a new work by an old friend, Mason Bates. Or, I should say, a young friend – Bates is just 27. At this point, he has already won a Prix de Rome and the Berlin Prize, has received a good pocketful of prominent commissions, and was recently featured in a profile for Symphony magazine by Kyle Gann.

In his other life, Mason also mixes hip-hop and electronica under the dj name of Masonic. One of the focal points of his creative work has been finding ways to combine his love for the textures of electronica with the resources of acoustic instruments.

For the Winston-Salem Symphony commission, Mason came up with Rusty Carolina, a piece in which he performs live electronics from within the percussion section of the orchestra. I was fortunate to hear the piece twice: first at the premiere on Sunday, then in a seminar the composer gave on Tuesday.

Alas, the premiere didn’t go well. The opening section, featuring whirring sounds of katydids and cicadas threaded between the electronics and the orchestra, was fine, but in the middle of the piece, where the electronics provide a groove for some funky orchestra riffs, Mason’s computer shut down. He was able to get it back on track by the end, but you have to feel terrible for the guy – what a nightmare.

The good news is that this was just one of three performances, so Mason had a more representative recording to share with us on Tuesday.

In the seminar, he played recordings of three works: an excerpt from Rundfunk for live electronics and acoustic bass, Digital Loom for organ and electronics, and the dress rehearsal track of Rusty Carolina. Rundfunk showed his purely electronica side, with palpably shifting beat groupings and time-stretching textures. This is a composer for whom melody is treated as a special event – the essence of his work is in the rhythm, harmony and timbre.

Digital Loom is a terrific piece for an unlikely combination: concert pipe organ and prerecorded electronic sound. In five continuous movements, Digital Loom has enormous expressive range, from the rhythmic energy of the second movement (Fanfare with breaks) to the non-metrical haziness of the fourth movement (Geraldine’s parlor). The fifth movement, Deliver us from evil, concludes the piece with a raucous accelerando.

Although he has written a synthesizer concerto, Bates prefers to use electronics as just another section within the orchestra. Rusty Carolina exemplifies this approach, and shows the influence of one of Bates’s primary teachers, John Corigliano. (an aside: I think of Corigliano as one of those composers whose creative range extends far beyond the pigeonholes people have attempted to squeeze around him. But that’s another story.) The piece is scored beautifully – not always with the greatest of practicality, but practicality is not the most important virtue to which music can aspire.

One of the fun things about Mason’s music is his realization that electronica has a fundamental kinship with pointillism. His music careens around the color spectrum and throughout the registers of the orchestra, all in careful counterpoint to an insistent beat.

The title, incidentally, refers to the sound of the summer air in the South – Bates grew up in Richmond, Virginia – a buzzing and rhythmic chirruping that can modulate in and out of pure white noise.