"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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Sunday, December 03, 2006
Minutes and Seconds

A question on the Composers Forum has put me onto the topic of musical time.

In the mid-20th century, a trend arose in which composers began notating the passage of musical time in seconds. Typically, the score was a grid in which musical events were arranged spatially against an axis showing the passage of clock time. In this way, composers were able to liberate musical events from the tyranny of the bar line, meter, and rhythm.

The result was often music that was disorienting, as listeners had little or no physical connection to the passage of time within the piece. This sense of disorientation could be pleasant or unpleasant, depending on the listener, the piece, and the performance. In the best circumstances, listeners were swept away by the gestures themselves, without regard to how they relate to an articulated grid.

Before the mid-20th century, musical time had almost always been tied to a pulse – a more-or-less regular succession of beats that were directly and audibly connected to the shapes and pacing of each musical event. And, indeed, most music since has still used some form of pulse.

Don’t let anyone tell you that because one way is old and the other way is new, or one way is common and the other is unusual, either one is inherently superior to the other. They are both valid techniques, or at least they are as valid as the skills of the composer can make them.

Having said that, I have to admit I am not a fan of measuring musical time with minutes and seconds. Sixty seconds to a minute, sixty minutes to an hour – these are arbitrary, if convenient, ways to incrementalize the passage of time. They don’t have a concrete relationship to real time, or even perceived time -- and perceived time is one of the special aptitudes of music. When music passes in audible pulses, we inevitably compare it with our own bodily pulses – the standard through which we measure time, consciously or unconsciously. A musical pulse that outstrips our heart rates feels fast; if the musical pulse is slower than our heart rates, we perceive it as slow. Acceleration in music mimics the presence of adrenaline; deceleration resonates with relaxation and meditation.

And, of course, musical pulse doesn't just imitate our physical states, it can influence us very powerfully on a visceral level.

Clock time, on the other hand, is a cerebral construct – its use in music can tend to emphasize the cerebral end of musical comprehension. The results often foster an out-of-body listening experience – an experience that many composers (occasionally including me) strive for.

More often I like my music to hit me in all of my most sensitive spots: viscerally, temporally, intellectually, experientially, aesthetically, emotionally. The audible organization of rhythms into beats, beats into meters, meters into phrases and phrases into forms creates a layered artistic experience that carves me up and sews me back together like nothing else I know.