"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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Saturday, June 23, 2007
Still Point

Seven pieces Im working on this summer:

Still Point
The Alchemist
Untitled nonet
Two as-yet untitled orchestra pieces

All of these works are in various stages of completion, and four of them are slated for fall premieres, but the one that Im really in the thick of hashing through is Still Point, a chamber setting of a sonnet. The text is lovely, but for this post I want to focus on the form, because Im always fascinated by the differences between clock and musical time.

This particular sonnet has an English, or Shakespearian, rhyme pattern:


but more importantly, each quatrain contains, in fine iambic pentameter, 40 syllables, and the final couplet contains 20 syllables. All other things being equal, the music for each quatrain should be of equal length, and twice as long as the music for the couplet. But in my first draft, here is how long each section lasted:

first quatrain - 1:00
second quatrain 0:44
third quatrain 0:42
couplet 0:38

These unequal proportions quickly make perfect sense: the first quatrain is expository, and the final couplet contains the volta, or change of direction, and so requires a bit more time to unfold than a straight setting of half the syllables would imply. Looking at the first draft indicates to me that I am responding not just to the number of notes required to get through the text, but the relative weight of the words meanings which, again, makes perfect sense. The result, in any case, is four sections of music, with the first section taking about one-and-a-half times as much musical time as the other three.

But the piece isnt all singing: there is also an extended instrumental introduction and interludes between each verse. Here is the pattern of the entire piece, in first draft:

Intro 1:02, first quatrain - 1:00
first interlude 0:20, second quatrain 0:44
second interlude 0:34, third quatrain 0:42
third interlude 0:38, couplet 0:38
coda 0:10

The longest section of the piece is the introduction, while the coda is the shortest. The three interludes grow progressively longer, until the third is twice as long as the first and equal in length to the couplet that follows.

I should hasten to add that I didnt plan out these proportions, and Im not sure that they wont change in the final version. My interest in this exercise is in finding the patterns that arise when I compose intuitively, and maximizing their implications. I also look for patterns that will tell me something about how I might proceed in a similar situation in the future either following something of the same approach, or deliberately setting up a contrary pattern.

At this point, Im on the fourth draft, and the relative proportions are roughly the same, give or take a couple seconds here and there. I find the telescoped pacing of the vocal line attractive, and the coda, at 1/6th the length of the introduction, seems to balance beautifully. Again, musical time and clock time have an interesting relationship they arent completely oblivious to one another, but they dont follow anything close to the same rules.