"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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Friday, January 20, 2006
Competitive Edge

Competitions are, as Bartok famously pointed out, for horses. I won a few when I was in my twenties, and quickly decided that they were great professionally, but a bit hard to deal with artistically. I found myself thinking too much about why I had won, or worse, why I hadnít won.

So I stopped entering competitions, for about fifteen years. Not a great choice professionally, I suppose, but professional success makes me queasy when it isnít coupled with artistic growth.

Many composers consider composition competitions hopelessly corrupt, with the prize seldom going where it is most deserved. I havenít completely subscribed to that notion myself, but I suppose itís a half-empty/half-full perspective Ė to me, awarding the most deserving work in any competition is such a difficult proposition, itís a wonder any competition ever comes close to succeeding.

In any case, Iíve started entering competitions again in the last few years. There are a few reasons. First of all, I feel more established in what I am trying to accomplish as a composer, and less prone to letting myself get too self-satisfied or too disheartened by the outcome. Secondly, Iíve come to realize the almost-too-obvious: that all competitions, however corrupt they may be, were originally established by a person or persons who honestly wanted to help living composers out. Thatís an idea I can support.

Seems to me there are many more composer competitions now than there were when I stopped entering in the late 80s. Is that a good or a bad thing? Itís a bad thing if we let them be the sole definer of quality. But it may be good in the long run, because it means that each prize carries less weight in the grand scheme of things.

I learned last week that my Revenant: Concerto for Horn and Orchestra won a nice prize from the International Horn Society. The news is gratifying, and also an opportunity to take a closer look at the phenomenon of composition prizes.

First of all, Iím very proud of the piece, which, as I reported about a year ago here, I worked on for about nine months, then completely rewrote in two weeks. As proud as I am, though, I am also aware of a few defects in the music Ė moments that donít quite accomplish everything I had hoped. In other words, I have the same relationship with this piece that I have with all of my music Ė appreciative, but highly critical, and wanting to do better next time.

This particular competition had anonymous entry, which is always reassuring Ė I hate to think that people are judging what they may believe they know of me, rather than the music itself.

Out of respect for the judges, it would be appropriate to assume that my piece stood out simply as quality music. But there are two aspects to the work that I think may have helped my cause in this competition. First of all, the scope: itís a twenty-minute concerto, after all, and that has to be more impressive than, say, a five-minute piece for solo horn. This is speculation, of course, but it seems reasonable to suppose that a jury would think that way.

Secondly, the recording I sent in featured David Jolley as the soloist. Again, the competition was anonymous, so the jury wouldnít have known that they were listening to David, unless they were unusually acute horn aficionados (which may be the case). But they had to at least recognize that they were hearing horn playing on the very highest level, which certainly could have played into their response to the piece.

So was my concerto the best in an absolute sense? Well, Iím not much of a believer in objective standards for music. In other words, I can easily imagine several ďbestsĒ in the competition, depending on what each judge felt was most important in a new work. Itís possible that my piece was ďbestĒ by one or more of these subjective standards. But I also know that the size of the piece and my good fortune in having the opportunity to write for a topnotch performer could have worked to my advantage.

So I accept the prize for what it is: an acknowledgement of accomplishment, though the exact nature of the accomplishment may be in question. Iím too seasoned to read any larger significance into it. Mostly, I appreciate the time and effort the jury has put into trying to make life for a few composers a little more pleasant. Thatís a worthy endeavor, regardless of the outcome.