"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.

Visit Lawrence Dillon's Web Site

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Itís convenient, and often accurate, to think of musical textures as comprised of foreground, middleground and background. Composers may vary in how they define these textural layers, but they tend to think of layers in one sense or another.

I often think of melodic shape, articulation and color as foreground. Background is harmonic structure and pacing. Everything else is middleground.

When Iím thinking this way, I will usually compose the background first Ė establish the pacing Ė and the foreground next. Once Iíve got those in place, Iíll pull together appropriate inner voices, rhythms, etc. Ė middleground.

Why compose the background first? Because formal pacing is a difficult thing to adjust once you have composed a lot of the surface detail. Itís easier to change your articulations or surface shapes to suit the undercurrents youíve established than vice versa.

But when I compose the background first, I donít just come up with some rationally defensible mechanism or structure that will dictate the musical flow. I actually listen to the music in my head as though through the wrong end of a telescope Ė letting all the details go by in a blur while focusing on the larger shapes of the music.

I first started this approach almost 25 years ago, after taking a wonderful conducting class with Roger Nierenberg. Roger suggested we study the Beethoven symphonies by listening to LPs at 78 RPM, rather than the usual 33. For those of you who have never used a record player, that meant that the music zipped by at more than twice the speed, and distorted the treble pitches into the stratosphere. In other words, the foreground of the music was unintelligible. What you could hear with complete clarity, though, was the background Ė the form, the phrasing, the harmonic rhythm Ė and the dramatic pacing.

That experience has had a huge influence on my relationship to form and consequently on my approach to composing. I heard how well-balanced Beethovenís forms were Ė not balanced in a rationalized, equational way, but in a way that was always organic and compelling.

Of course, as I noted before, there are many ways to think of foreground, middleground and background. Sometimes I think of it as what the music says, what it does, and what it is thinking. But thatís a topic to tackle in another post.