"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.
After performing his Violin Futura program a gazillion times all over the map in the last six years, Piotr Szewczyk is bringing it to NYC next month.
What is Violin Futura? In the words of Santa Fe New Music, it is an “enthralling program [that] shows off the diversity and range of the contemporary violin.” As Piotr says, “I created the Violin Futura project because I wanted to expand the contemporary violin repertoire with pieces that are exciting to play and listen to while bringing something new and unique to the repertoire. Violin Futura is currently in its 3rd edition and I have over 40 pieces written for me by composers from United States, Germany, England, Japan, Canada, Mexico, and Australia.”
The version he will be playing at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall includes works by Kari Henrik Juusela, John Kennedy, Marc Mellits, Gary Smart, Adam Schoenberg, Richard Belcastro, Sydney Hodkinson, Clifton Callender (World Premiere), Moritz Eggert, Piotr Szewczyk, Ethan Wickman, and Lawrence Dillon (World Premiere).
The admission price is $10. Anyone interested in an introduction to what the 21st-century violin is about can have it all at an excellent price.
End-of-the-year recording session coming for my students on Friday, the last day of classes. The Cassatt String Quartet will be in town to record three of my students’ works:
Kenneth Florence: Aeon Transfer
Nicholas Rich: Songs at Sunset
Bruce Tippette: Tranquil Lullabye
All three works are challenging, but I’m sure the composers are going to be mighty pleased with the results. As for me, it will be great to reconnect with this wonderful group: I’ve known violinists Muneko Otani and Jennifer Leshnower since 1997, when the quartet premiered Furies and Muses at the Swannanoa Festival.
Constantine and I go back quite a ways: he was one of the factors that enabled me to survive my adolescence. We split our high school years between goofing off and waxing profound on musical matters. Since then, Constantine has had quite a career as an in-demand maestro — Music Director of the Queens Symphony Orchestra and Chatham Opera, and guest conducting all over the map. Though I can’t make it to south Florida to hear his performance this weekend, it tickles me not a little to think of my old pal leading an orchestra through my swirling 16th-notes.
A week ago today, I spoke about my music at the Blair School of Music, as a part of their Nightcap series. At the conclusion of my talk, the audience had great questions, and then we listened to the Atlantic Ensemble play four works.
Though I spoke of a number of concerns, the central topic of my talk was the set of string quartets I am presently completing. Here’s is an excerpt:
…At the very end of his novel Invisible Cities, Calvino says “we are living in hell, and we have two choices: we can become a part of the hell around us, or we can find those things around us that are not hell, and give them a form that will allow them to endure.” I love this image, this idea that no matter how bad things get, there is a certain nobility in finding the good things and passing them on. It sparked in me a desire to explore traditional, Classical forms in a really detailed manner, to figure out what makes these forms effective or not effective for us today, what they can tell us about ourselves.
I set myself the task of writing six string quartets, each one focusing on a specific traditional form. That was back in 1998, fifteen years ago, and I’ve been working on this idea steadily since – I’m currently on the sixth and final quartet of the cycle.
One of the fascinating things about art is the way it connects the personal and the cultural, the world of experience and the world of imagination. As I look back on the fifteen years I’ve devoted to these quartets, it is clear that while I thought I was exploring traditional forms as intellectual constructs, I was also responding in a very personal and even broadly cultural way to these forms.
The first quartet focused on scherzo, which is a form that is closely associated with humor in music. The piece is in four movements: three scherzos followed by a nocturne. I wanted to use the Classical concept of scherzo as a means to explore a personal and cultural concern I had at the time, the late 1990s. I felt that I was using humor – and we as a society were using humor, frivolity – as a way of distancing ourselves from real engagement, and that though this was a comfortable stance, it wasn’t necessarily a good one.
A few years later, I wrote my second quartet, zooming in on the concept of fugue. The word fugue means, literally, flight, so I created a quartet of six fugues dealing with different aspects of flight. I was working on this piece at the same time as I was fulfilling a commission to commemorate the centennial of the first flight of the Wright Brothers, so I very much had the exhilaration of flight on my mind, this astonishing idea that humans could fantasize about the ability to fly for thousands of years – and then actually make it happen. That’s an incredibly capacity we have as a species. But this was also in the immediate wake of the September 11 attacks, so the concept of flight was also very terrifying – it was a time when it felt like boarding a plane could never be the same. The resulting piece confronts these conflicting feelings, all through the musical device of fugue.
Flash forward a couple more years, and I was ready to take on my third quartet, in which I had decided to tackle the tradition of aria. In contrast to where I was when I wrote the first quartet, I found I was unable to detach myself from that tradition, I was unable to attain any ironic distance, and instead I wrote a passionate, unapologetically romantic quartet in aria form. Again, in retrospect, it’s clear where I was coming from: I was a newlywed, and like many newlyweds I was swept up in the power of love, I was finding it very difficult to think objectively. Critic Alex Ross called the piece “unlawfully lush,” and I have to agree. In a sense, the third quartet is the least self-aware, self-conscious – and, again, that is appropriate: like most species, we humans tend to become very narrowly focused during mating season.
My fourth and fifth quartets were composed simultaneously, the fourth focusing on rondo form and the fifth on the idea of variations. Once again, what started out as explorations of tradition ended up as expressions of extramusical concerns, almost in spite of my intentions. You see, shortly after my third quartet, my wife and I had our first child, and then our second a couple of years later. The world I was living in at the time of the fourth and fifth quartets was aswarm in toddlerhood, and my music could hardly be expected to escape that influence. The fourth quartet ended up being a very joyous, playful piece. The fifth is an ode to anxiety and sleep deprivation. Those of you who have had small children will be familiar with those two poles of experience: exhilaration and exhaustion.
As I said, I’m currently working on quartet number six, in which my intention is to explore the traditional concept of fantasy. I’m deep in the process of creating it and it’s fair to say that at this point I have no idea where it is going to take me. But this again is one of the great beauties of art: we don’t tell it where to take us, we release ourselves into its custody…
I mentioned a month ago my appearance on the Composers Now Festival courtesy of the American Composers Alliance, now I have the proof: post-concert pics and video, courtesy of the intrepid Gina Genova of ACA.
I’m heading out this afternoon for a residency at the Blair School of Music. Tomorrow night I give a lectern-lecture on my music, followed by a Nightcap Concert featuring The Voice, Saturn Dreams of Mercury, What Happened and String Quartet No. 4: The Infinite Sphere all played by the Atlantic Ensemble. If you see me, tell me I sent you. Details here.
Fun weekend on tap: Tomorrow the world premiere of Kenneth Frazelle’sThe Book of Days, commissioned by the Secrest Artist Series (the same bunch that commissioned Lang’s Love Fail) and performed by the Strata Trio. The next night, bassoonist extraordinaire Saxton Rose is the soloist for Avatar by Dana Wilson on our Wind Ensemble concert. Then, on Saturday night, Composition student Bruce Tippette has his Master’s recital, with performances of Evening Glimmer, Intrigue, Quartet Fo(u)r Bassoons, Motion, A Sprightly Dance and Chai.
And one matinee: if you can get yourself to the Bach’s Lunch program on Friday at Starmount Presbyterian in Greensboro, NC, you can catch Low and Lower giving what I believe is their 12th performance of Poke.
Coached a fine young flutist who was working on my flute concerto the other day. The piece was completed in 1994, so I would have been working on it about 20 years ago. Going back to a piece that old is an exercise in wonderment – surprise at how good it is, surprise at how bad it is, and the disorienting experience of coming face-to-face with a composer in his early 30s who happens to be me, a me I could never be again – nor would I want to be.
These are familiar sensations to all composers, to one degree or another. But I also found myself confronting another experience I haven’t heard discussed so often.
Every musical idea has multiple potentials. Composing is, in a sense, a matter of choosing which potentials to tap into once an idea has been set in motion. That same idea, in a different work, could just as easily head off in a completely different direction. I frequently find myself going back to ideas from previous works, trying out new trajectories, exploring characteristics left untouched in earlier compositions. In that sense, an idea gets developed within a given piece, but also gets developed over the course of my output.
Looking through the 20-year-old flute concerto, I found a number of seeds that bore different fruit in other works, some earlier, some later. There were even a couple of notions I still find useful today.
And then there are the dead ends: ideas that served their purposes in the concerto, but have had no further use. As I study them, I can’t help but wonder what they lacked, why certain collections of notes, rhythms or gestures have a more powerful personal resonance than others. It’s as though some musical ideas promise hidden kernels of truth that keep me digging away, through the hours, through the years, hoping to uncover them.
Faced with a number of short flights in recent weeks, I grabbed a copy of Composers Letters, edited by Jan Fielden, that I found in my home (not sure how it got there, having never read it before). The book, which came out roughly 20 years ago, presents selected correspondence of European composers from Monteverdi to Britten. Perfect bite-sized chunks for bouncing from terminal to flight to terminal to flight.
Reading it brought me face-to-face with the belief that successful composers need to be vicious people. There is a long and honorable tradition in this regard: as the editor quotes Auden’s words to a young Benjamin Britten, “If you are really to develop to your full stature, you will have, I think, to…make others suffer, in ways which are totally strange to you at present, and against every conscious value that you have, i.e., you will have to be able to say what you never yet have had the right to say – God, I’m a shit…”
At the time this book came out, I don’t think I would have admitted to subscribing to this belief, but twenty years later, I’ve come to realize the degree to which it appealed to me at that time. I was in a place where I delighted in exposing the raw underbelly of history, and of human interaction. Now, though I suppose raw underbellies deserve to be exposed as much as anything else, I’ve learned the danger that lies in zooming in on the underbelly to such a degree that all other aspects fall from view.
Flipping through the book, it is easy to say now that Lully was a special flavor of crème du chien, while Haydn was most assuredly not. I’ll leave it to others to argue as to which one was the better composer. Although perhaps that is beside the point, since Auden specifically referenced “stature,” by which standard it makes sense to say that Lully achieved great stature in the musical world at a younger age than did Haydn. And maybe that’s what all of this is about.
Having known a good many composers — close friends, enemies, teachers, students, acquaintances — I feel safe in saying that some of them are, or were, pretty vicious people. The vicious ones are sometimes excellent composers, and they sometimes have tremendous stature within the profession. But I have known vicious composers who accomplished little and gained little from their accomplishments. I’ve also known composers who were perfectly lovely people, and their accomplishments and gains have varied as much as have those of the meanies.
In my case, I like to think that I have become a bit more benevolent over the years (though I still have to keep tabs on my propensity for putting people who take presumptions in their place – it doesn’t do anyone any good), and my music is, on the whole, marginally better than it was when I was less accommodating, which is to say I still write really fantastic stuff from time to time, and the stuff in between the fantastic stuff is mostly pretty decent, with an occasional misfire. Or, to hopefully put it more clearly, becoming a kinder person has not had a detrimental effect on my work, nor has it improved my work noticeably. Any improvement that’s occurred is solely a matter of practice.
But the concept of the horrid person who creates sublime art is a powerful paradox. People who are as easily seduced by paradox as I once was will find it difficult to resist.
Generally speaking, if you want to find me-the-teacher, it’s best to visit the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, where I can more dependably be found than anywhere else. For a few days in June, though, I’ll be in residence at the Charlotte New Music Festival and Composers Workshop, the brainchild of the remarkable young composer Elizabeth Kowalski. Elizabeth launched this frigate last summer, and I was a happy sailor in its maiden voyage. She organized a full roster of events, classes, lessons and concerts last time around, and she’s got another great lineup going again this summer. Read all about it here, and sign up if you want to catch my act on June 24-25. Also on board: composers John Allemeier, Armando Bayolo, Craig Bove, Mark Engebretson and Ronald Parks.
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