"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 creates works that connect past and present in attractive and unexpected ways, provoking Gramophone to exclaim, “Each score is an arresting and appealing creation, full of fanciful and lyrical flourishes within traditional forms that are brightly tweaked." His music is characterized by a keen sensitivity to color, a mastery of form, and what the Louisville Courier-Journal has called a "compelling, innate soulfulness." Despite losing 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 immediately 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.
Dillon's music, in the words of American Record Guide, is "lovely...austere...vivid and impressive." Three recordings of his music were released in 2010-2011 on the Bridge, Albany and Naxos labels. His works have been commissioned and premiered in the last four seasons by the Emerson String Quartet, Le Train Bleu, the Ravinia Festival, the Daedalus String Quartet, the Lincoln Trio, the Seattle Chamber Music Society, the Cassatt String Quartet, the Mansfield Symphony, the Boise Philharmonic, Wintergreen Summer Arts Festival, the Salt Lake City Symphony, the Quartetto di Sassofoni d’Accademia, the University of Utah and the Idyllwild Symphony Orchestra.
In October 2010, Bridge Records released “Insects and Paper Airplanes,” a disk of Dillon’s chamber music featuring the Daedalus String Quartet and pianist Benjamin Hochman. Gramophone called it "highly recommended," saying, "Just when you thought the string quartet may have reached the edge of sonic possibilities, along comes a composer who makes something novel, whimsical and haunting of the genre."
Dillon’s recording “Appendage and Other Stories” made Fanfare Magazine’s 2010 Want List. Raymond Tuttle wrote of it, "This is a terrific work. In fact, it is so good it made me weep. And Dillon, with his vivid imagination and his ear for vocal and instrumental color, seems to be a terrific composer.”
In April 2011, Naxos released “Violin Music of Lawrence Dillon” featuring Sphinx Grand Prizewinner Danielle Belén. MUSICWEB INTERNATIONAL described it as "an hour of music that is often profound without being pretentious, sometimes light-hearted but never 'lite', humorous without being arch, and immensely appealing but never frivolous."
Lawrence Dillon is represented by Jeffrey James Arts Consulting.
This past week has seen three major deadlines come and go for my students. First, and biggest, was the deadline for compositions for the nu ensemble, the new-music band batoned by Saxton Rose. Their concert is on February 22nd; this past Wednesday was the deadline for penultimate drafts, so parts could be assigned. Now the composers have until January 15th to make whatever tweaks they please to make the pieces as fine as they can be. We’ve got a horde of pieces, from solo piano to chamber orchestra.
Next up was the deadline for flute ensemble works, organized by Tadeu Coelho. Tadeu was looking for pieces for 7-14 players, bass to piccolo, for a concert on March 22nd, a tour, and publication. After the seminar we had on flute ensemble back in September, students had a fair sense of the strange range of possibilities from various combinations of flutes. We had five submissions, ranging from prickly aleatoric to sweet lullaby. With all the flute ensembles out there (seriously, there are gobs of them), performance opportunities abound.
And last was a deadline for guitar ensemble works, for a performance on April 1st featuring music from the 16th and 21st centuries. Three guesses which century our students were charged with representing.
All of these deadlines have had my inbox and outbox jammed with PDFs, as I shared years of proofreading experience with relative neophytes. Now that all those deadlines are past, I’d like to take a deep breath – except Composition Jury packets are due this Thursday.
Gave a seminar on my music here last week. I’m 54 years old, and almost all of our students are considerably younger than that, so I began with an attempt to define the differences between my concerns 30+ years into a career in composition with the challenges that face them closer to the outsets of their compositional journeys. My purpose was to make sure they weren’t trying to do things that didn’t fit the stage their work was in. I told them I can dress like a 20 year old, but it’s best for everyone if I don’t. In the same way, I can write music like a 20 year old, but the results are more embarrassing than enlightening. All by way of illustrating that it’s important for them to do the things that one can only do at their age, and use me as a model either for the things they’d like to be doing down the line, or for the things they’d like to avoid as they get older.
Of course, these aren’t hard-and-fast rules, just guidelines. Fine for me to dress like a 20 year old in the privacy of my own planet.
A common truism in our profession is that Beethoven’s late quartets are still contemporary, that they stand outside of time. I can acknowledge the spirit behind this assertion, but I think students have long been misled by many teachers’ emphasis on these late works. For young composers, it’s important to place these works firmly in the 1820s, emerging from the pen of a guy who had a complete grasp of his materials and was stretching them beyond what had previously been imaginable. “Study the late quartets,” I told the class, “but also study Beethoven’s early quartets, from opus 18.” That’s when he was patiently mastering every element of the music of his time, making it his own, and writing excellent compositions to boot. I’ve seen young composers miss out on that step in the process of finding their way, reaching for the mastery of the late quartets without realizing that the path to mastery is a long one. (Another way to look at it: if you master something on the first or second try, you aren’t really setting your sites very high.) In particular, I’ve seen young composers who were singled out for their remarkable achievements struggle to find any depth in their work because their progress was short-circuited by being thrust under the spotlight.
I pointed out two opposing traps that young composers often fall into:
Sticking with what you are good at. Over time, artists tend to focus their work on the things that are most important to them. If you start from a very narrow foundation, you will focus yourself out of existence. Use this time to try things that are out of your comfort zone. The benefit down the road is huge.
Fear of commitment. Somehow (I have a few theories on this) it’s become fashionable for composers to feel like every piece has to invent its own rules and materials. To a degree, this is healthy. But at some point, we have to wonder when the relationship between composer and materials will ever get beyond the point of superficial acquaintance. As uncomfortable as it can be, one has to be able to say, “This is me, warts and all.” Make the commitment. Or you can be like me: make several.
Hopefully the students kept those ideas in mind as I proceeded to dig into my own work. I’m happy to be where I am at this point in my life, but I also know the value of young ears – that’s something I will never have again, and anyone who has them should make good use of them while they last.
Tonight is the first of seven performances of Fall Dance here, featuring the premiere of Brenda Daniels’ What Happened choreography. I wrote What Happened in 2004-05; how fantastic, all these years later, to see it come to life in physical gestures, gestures I never could have imagined when I wrote the piece but that seem perfectly right when I watch the dance unfold.
I won’t catch it tonight, but I’ll be there for the official opening night tomorrow night, and rumor has it that I’ll be onstage afterwards for a little post-premiere discussion. I’ll believe it when I see it.
I’ve mentioned a few times the piece I wrote – Passing Tones — in memory of Toby Saks back in August. Now the whole memorial event is on YouTube. The entire hour and ¾ is an amazing watch – fantastic performances by some of the finest musicians in the country, interspersed with tributes to this wonderful artist and human being. My piece shows up at 59:30, four minutes of a lovely, finely detailed performance by James Ehnes, Jeremy Turner, Robert deMaine and Andrés Díaz.
A full listing of all the performers, speakers and works can be found here:
“Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe.”
Just heard a composer speak approvingly of another composer who “changed the way we listen to music.”
I can think of two reasons to want to change the way people listen to music.
One is to elicit just the kind of admiration I heard expressed, as in: “wow, that’s amazing, he changed the way people listen to music!” I can understand wanting to change the way people listen to music in order to get that reaction – it’s always pleasant to be admired.
On the other hand, doing things just to earn admiration seems to be aiming a bit low.
Another reason to change the way people listen to music is because you believe there is something inherently wrong with the way people listen to music. Now I can nitpick with the best of them about the way people listen to music, ways that don’t suit my interests or beliefs, but I have to say that the ways that people have listened to music – I mean all over the world, throughout the millennia – may be one of the things I like the most about human civilization.
So, no, I don’t really want to change the way people listen to music. I’ll leave that to people who can come up with better reasons than I can.
Acknowledgements, appreciation and recognitions to share:
First, here’s a thank-you to the Mallarmé Chamber Players, who are performing my Bacchus Chaconne on their STRING JAM program at the Casbah Club in Durham, NC this Saturday night.
Then, best wishes to the Atlantic Ensemble in their European premiere of Saturn Dreams of Mercury, also this Saturday (although a good deal earlier, due to longitudinal differences) at the Accueil Musical de St Merry in Paris.
And finally, as I noted a couple of weeks ago, the Seattle Chamber Music Society is premiering Passing Tones this coming Monday at the Toby Saks Memorial Service in Benaroya Hall.
My relationship with the express train of technology has been utilitarian: not passionate, but appreciative. I board from time to time for a few stops, then get off where I need to be and let it rush on.
One of my misgivings about enrolling at Juilliard in 1981 was the fact that they had, at that time, no facilities for electronic music. The little work I had done with electronics in the 70s had me mad to do more, to explore all the possibilities of this exciting new medium. My first summer in New York, I enrolled in a course in electronic music led by Charles Dodge, a composer whose work I admired, at Brooklyn College.
By the end of that session, I had produced one bad composition and developed a deep appreciation for expertise. I found that the work I had done in electronic music a few years earlier was by then hopelessly outdated, and the current technology (again, this was 1981) demanded a dedication of time and an access to resources that I couldn’t manage, and that I wasn’t sure I would want to invest if I had it available. Instead, I devoted my time to developing other compositional skills.
One of the things I focused on was received notions of form: the meanings of traditional musical forms, how those meanings resonate today, and how they don’t. That focus allows people to easily peg me as backward looking, and I don’t deny that I enjoy the view over my shoulder, but I also like looking straight ahead, without flinching.
I remember men, proud corporate types, sipping scotches and grumbling about the death of the traveling salesman when I was a child. “People today think you can just get on the phone and make a sale,” they’d moan. “You just can’t do that. You’ve got to go there, meet people, form relationships.”
Of course, as it turned out, you could do that – the phone has become myriad communication devices and platforms, all substituting speed for presence. Some things are lost in the process, and others are gained. But, as much as one might wish to lament the losses, this is the nature of doing business as human beings: we have, as a species, an unappeasable itch to move on to new things. Assessing what we’ve left behind is important, but obsessing over the past is tiresome, at best. Every advance we make leaves something behind, and eventually we will be left behind ourselves.
That shouldn’t be news, though one hardly dares to raise the topic. The human race won’t last forever, and when it is gone much will be lost. Who is to say what will be gained?
So the train rumbles on, and I imagine it will continue making stops for me for some time to come. When it doesn’t, I’ll be happy to get a deep familiarity with the surrounding (hopefully quiet) terrain. Moving quickly has its advantages, and its drawbacks.
I’ve written a few times about my experience with the Seattle Chamber Music Society over the past year, but there is one more thing I would like to touch on — in many ways the most important of all.
In May, when I went to visit the SCMS commissioning club to talk about the piece I had written for them, I stayed at the home of seventy-one-year-old cellist Toby Saks. Toby founded SCMS about 30 years ago, so at my first opportunity (as it happened, over appetizers), I asked her how SCMS had come about, because I’m always curious about such things. She seemed very happy to share the story (which is, after all, pretty fascinating) and she gave me a mostly chronological narrative of the first 10-15 years of SCMS over the course of dinner and beyond. Listening to her story gave me wonderful insights into her character: passionate, uncompromising, courageous.
The next morning she asked if I would like to go on a stroll through a nearby park. I’m a big fan of getting a bit of fresh air, spending a half hour or so communing with nature, and so I took her up on it. This walk, much to my surprise, kept going and going. After two hours, during which we got lost several times, we returned to her home. It was noon, so I figured we were in for a well-deserved lunch after our exercise. Instead, she said, “Well, we may as well keep going, down to the waterfront, what do you say?” So I had another 90-minute hike ahead of me.
Indeed, I had nothing to complain about, for our conversation was lively and far-reaching, and when we finished our 3.5 hour “stroll,” the talk continued into lunch. We talked about music, of course — her time as one of the first women in the NY Philharmonic, teaching music fundamentals (which she had been doing at the University of Washington for many years), chamber music playing, music administration – but we also moved on to broader topics: marriage, divorce, parenting, aging, literature, history, friends, human nature, animals.
Funny, I’ve been on longer hikes before, but I believe this was the longest, non-stop, one-on-one conversation I’ve ever engaged in.
One part of our chat that stuck with me was her account of the relationships she had formed through SCMS and, in particular, the times when she had to stop inviting musicians who were no longer playing well enough, which she regarded as a painful but necessary part of her role as Artistic Director. Then the time came when she had to acknowledge that she was no longer the cellist she wanted to be, and she accepted that change gracefully, moving exclusively into the administrative work of the society. After a few years, she decided she had had enough of that work, and she handed her baby over to James Ehnes, stepping aside into the role of local contact and host for visiting musicians. She averred (and James later confirmed this for me) that she gave him complete autonomy in the operation, never interfering with his vision, which is a remarkable thing to do with something you have given so much of your life to.
I left Seattle the next morning eager for my July return, so we could pick up where we left off. But when I got back, her lovely home, which had been a calm refuge on my previous visit, was a chaotic whirl — the SCMS summer season was in full swing, dozens of musicians grabbing meals and rehearsing in various rooms — so I just managed a few quick chats with her. While my piece was being rehearsed, she stretched out on the sofa in the music room and napped peacefully, which I found completely charming.
On July 8th, my piece was premiered downtown, but she wasn’t able to make it because her son and grandson were flying in that evening from Europe. I returned home the next morning sad that we hadn’t had more time to talk.
A few weeks later, I got the shocking news that Toby was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis she had received just a few days before I had arrived for my performance. I found out that when she learned she was dying she wouldn’t hear of altering any SCMS plans: the home she shared with her husband Marty Greene was still the epicenter of the festival, which ran as scheduled through July 26th. She died on August 1st.
The way she approached death was of a piece with the way she approached life. “Death has never scared me,” she said to the Seattle Times shortly after I last saw her. “I’ve never been afraid of it.”
In the days after she died, I found a wistful little tune looping through my mind, and I sketched out a brief canon for cello and violin. The relationship Toby had with life and death, with SCMS, with violinist James Ehnes – all of these things seemed to be converging in a few notes, in the lovely way music has of finding connections among our least articulate thoughts. When I finished it, though, I realized it was a bit more prosaic and linear than was appropriate: cello leads, violin follows. I tossed it and began again, this time with three cellos playing in a splintered unison. The violin followed as a clearly defined voice, adding its own character to the cellos’ line. Instead of simply leading, the cellos led and responded to the violin line, sometimes as a single voice, sometimes as a warm, choral embrace.
I called it Passing Tones, a name that – like the loss of a loved one – is at once painfully simple and multifaceted. Toby has passed gracefully from this life, as she passed SCMS gracefully to James. The cellos pass a tune to the violin, which passes it back. And passing tones, in musical parlance, are the simplest, most common dissonances in Western Music, present in abundance in pretty much every piece Toby ever played, as she certainly knew, having been a teacher of music fundamentals all these years.
When I felt I had it right, I sent it off to James. I wasn’t sure what he would do with it, but I thought that although I was fulfilling a selfish need in writing the piece – as a way of coping with loss — the result might have some value for others as well.
I’ve since learned that there will be a memorial service for Toby in Benaroya Hall next month – October 14th — and this piece will be performed. I wish I could attend, but I’m hopeful that Passing Tones will have a meaningful presence in my absence.
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