"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, July 14, 2006
Speak, memory

The following is the fifth part of a chronicle I am keeping on the composition of my second symphony. Part One is here, Two is here, Three is here and Four is here.

Iíve known a number of people who shudder at the suggestion of combining music and spoken text. There is a good reason for their reaction: it is very difficult to combine music and spoken words effectively. Itís difficult to combine any two forms of artistic expression without somehow diminishing one or both. But the difficulty of the task is no reason to assume that the results will never work.

At this point, Iíve written a number of pieces with spoken narrative, and Iíve learned a lot of dos and doníts.

Iíve also learned the value of workshopping materials.

About a month ago, as I was first seriously thinking about this piece, I noticed that some friends of mine Ė a soprano, a guitarist and a horn player Ė were planning a joint recital in April 2007. I contacted them and asked if they would be interested in premiering a new piece on their concert. Their response was enthusiastic (Iím lucky to have a number of friends who feel this way Ė of course, maybe thatís why I consider them friends). So, before composing a note of the symphony, I began sketching a piece for soprano, guitar, horn and narrator Ė to this same text.

A month later, the music for this chamber version of Singing Silver is pretty much finished. I will polish it over the course of the summer. But the real value for me is having a chance to set these words in a way that is similar to the way I am setting them in the symphony. Iíve worked out a pacing that I think will be effective; Iíve had ample opportunity to learn which parts of the text are most difficult to convey. And Iíve learned these things on what amounts to a smaller canvas.

Needless to say, the symphonic version will be very different Ė but the lessons I have learned from this chamber version will come in handy.

I love working on several pieces at once, especially if they are loosely related in some way. The biggest difficulty I have as a composer is having far too many ideas for the piece at hand, so it helps to have a few pieces going at once. In this case, I was able to critique each idea in terms of scale Ė ie, I could jettison an idea from the orchestral setting for being too intimate, yet find that it suited the chamber setting perfectly.

When I was working on Wright Flight, which is a huge, multimedia piece, I realized that some of my ideas were too complex, too oblique to communicate in that environment. So I worked simultaneously on my second string quartet, which is subtitled Flight. Wright Flight is an event; the second quartet is enigmatic, full of contradictions and mixed emotions that play beautifully in an intimate setting, but would have undermined the epic scale of a larger piece.

With two versions of Singing Silver, I get to have the best of both worlds: the epic scale of a symphonic work and the introspection of chamber music.

I like creating narration that wanders back and forth between specific rhythms and ametric speech. With a good performance, it becomes impossible for the listener to tell if the music is following the narration or vice versa. The difficulty, though, is that the narrator has to be musically literate. For the chamber performance in April, I will do the narration Ė a task I have taken on numerous times at this point.

I havenít yet settled on what type of training the narrator for the symphony will require. In a way, actors, although they can have lovely voices, are overqualified, since there is no character for them to inhabit. On the other hand, they are underqualified, in terms of functioning effectively in an orchestral environment.

So I could end up having myself in mind as the ideal narrator, which would be fine if thatís the way I need to go.