"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 20, 2006
The spark

The following is the second part of a chronicle I am keeping on the composition of my second symphony. Part one is here.

How do we begin?

The initial inspiration is a fascinating topic for many people. “Where did you get the idea for that?” “How do you start a new piece?” It’s difficult to explain that the initial idea for a new work is often mundane. Sometimes the simplest ideas – how much can I get out of these five chords, for example – can accrue more and more significance over time, until the final composition takes on a meaning dramatically removed from the initial flirtations.

In some cases, the first music I write down for a piece ends up getting discarded somewhere along the way. So for me, these questions of “How did you start?” rarely yield interesting answers.

With this symphony, the first idea was very simple: I wanted to write a large work for orchestra in which one movement would contain a chamber narrative: spoken text with very sparse accompaniment. That was it – shortly after the premiere of my first symphony, in 1999, I realized that was what I was going to do next.

What would the text be? That became clear pretty early in the process: it would be a narrative freezing one moment in time, a moment of crossing a street and being hit by an oncoming vehicle. It would be quiet, understated, magical, and multi-perspectived.

I suppose this topic has been a bit of an obsession with me most of my life, ever since I was a kid and hit by a car while crossing a street on my way home from school. I spent six weeks in the hospital, and six more at home in a body cast, and all these years later I can’t escape that moment as one that chose me, in the sense that it has keyed certain themes of my life, certain ways of observing the universe.

Many composers strive to distance themselves from the deeply personal; for me, that distance is difficult and undesirable. The more I dig into the pivotal moments of my life, the greater the likelihood that I will be able to speak to a common humanity, creating a psychic experience that others can share, either empathetically or metaphorically. It’s not necessary for anyone else to know what personal experiences I am drawing on, but they can be helpful in the compositional process, especially when the intensity of involvement translates into a powerful artistic focus.

But more on the text later. The initial concept was there: spoken narrative over a chamber setting for one of the movements. I turned that notion over and over in my mind, waiting for a commission to give me an opportunity to delve. The commission has yet to materialize, and I can’t wait any longer.

So, earlier this month, I thought about how to begin the piece.

And that will be the subject of my next post.