Lawrence Dillon@Sequenza21.com

"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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Thursday, September 20, 2007
Beyond Tapestries

In the mid-80s, I wrote several pieces that featured interwoven rhythmic patterns: polyrhythms, polymeters, and inequal phrase lengths. I called these pieces Tapestries, to reflect their design: the threads intersected at odd moments to create an overall pattern that was far more interesting than the individual strands.

The pieces were somewhat difficult to play, though not outlandishly so. Each performer had a pretty simple part; the difficulty lay in matching them up with one another. One could say that each performer had to be a bit antisocial: each part required sticking to ones pattern and ignoring what was going on in the other parts. The listening experience was very similar to viewing a tapestry in which individual strands emerge at various points to provide telling sparks of color that contribute to the overall image. There was a nice surface complexity resulting from pleasingly simple mathematical relationships.

In time, I found myself unhappy with the dullness of each individual strand of my Tapestry pieces Ė the combination of 7 against 6 against 5 against 4 can sound fascinating, but when each line is a steady stream of notes, or a simple, repeated figure, you are, in effect, creating a attractive babble in which each voice is saying next to nothing. While I can acknowledge a certain cultural resonance in that result, I couldnít see myself pursuing it very far.

In the early 90s, I became interested in a different kind of rhythmic complexity: the complexity of spoken language. We learn the rhythm of our native language as toddlers, expand our rhythmic repertoire throughout childhood, experiment with other rhythms in adolescence, and refine our personal spoken rhythmic mix in adulthood. As a result, each of us speaks in a set of patterns we all can recognize, yet each one of us has a unique fingerprint, if you will, in the way we speak the language.

And what a fingerprint! Steve Reich pointed out some of the possibilities in works like Itís Gonna Rain and Different Trains, but he made his points through repetition, which doesnít interest me so much, just as I donít get very excited about anybody who says the same thing over and over again in any other context.

Iím more interested in exploring what spoken rhythms communicate, what our personal patterns say that our words leave unsaid. I think this is particularly pertinent in America, as opposed to Europe, because Americans tend to use rhythm, as opposed to pitch, to emphasize their points when they speak.

What we donít do is speak in a steady stream of eighth-notes. Instead, we play off of the pulse in ways that are far too complex to track with conventionally notated rhythms and meters. And yet, I believe there is an underlying pulse over which our words provide multiple layers of syncopation.

This interest in spoken text has translated into my instrumental pieces. Iíve written a number of works that play with the idea of an implied pulse, sometimes establishing a regular, lyrical beat, sometimes throwing the beat through all kinds of nasty convolutions. But no matter how complex the result, I avoid using mathematical formulas Ė the sevens against sixes against fives against fours Ė that I used to rely on. Instead, I work with intuitive timing relationships, because they are more connected to a world I donít understand and want to know more about, a world I experience every moment, yet canít quite grasp. For example, I might ask for an accelerando that begins gradually, then picks up slightly, tapers off, then suddenly speeds up enormously Ė something seasoned musicians can do fairly easily, with a little rehearsal, but not something I can notate with an arithmetic formula.

In any event, the temporal push-and-pull Iím after is always in service of what I am trying to say in a given phrase, or a given passage, just as the rhythmic inflections I use in conversation are never random, they always are connected -- sometimes in ways I hardly realize -- to what I am really thinking.