"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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Tuesday, November 27, 2007
The Academic Generations

I got a nice review of my November 3rd concert on CVNC. The author was enthusiastic about the things he liked and politely silent about the things he didnít. I suppose I canít really prefer it the other way around.

As is often the case, my music was held up in contrast to ďdry, formulaic serialĒ works. I know that's meant as a compliment, but itís become such conventional wisdom when applied to my generation of composers, I canít help feeling weíre overdue for a fresh look at the post-WWII era. The generation of American composers that came of age in the mid-20th century is pretty consistently reviled these days, blamed for everything wrong in the music world. Having inherited the world they created, I canít say Iím completely objective, but a dismissal of everything they stood for seems a bit harsh. I donít have first-person insight into those times, but I think questions need to be asked about what those generations were up against, and what they were trying to achieve.

A young American composer c. 1950 was entering a music world in which the most respected living composers were Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith, and the most performed composers were of the Respighi/Rachmaninov ilk. The previous decades had seen a wonderful and unprecedented surge of composer ťmigrťs: musicians fleeing the Holocaust and the privations of war. Many of these Europeans came with prowess and experience that US-trained composers couldnít match, and they were soon snapping up much of the Hollywood and orchestral commission work available.

What was left for a young composer trying to pay the rent? Well, there were a number of options, but one of the most fruitful possibilities was this nationís belief in education: more than any European country, America believed that one could, through talent and hard work, become anything one wanted. In the early years of the Cold War, this belief in the value of education meant that resources were poured into the nationís universities as never before. It soon became clear that professorships held a promise of patronage and security for the American composer on a level no other profession could match. More and more composers came to this oasis for the arts, and drank deeply.

The cost? In order to obtain and retain these professorships, composers had to focus on their intellectual and scholarly qualifications to an unprecedented degree. When it came time for tenure review, you had better be able to prove to your peers in other disciplines that you werenít just dabbling in something frivolous; you had to show that what you were doing was just as complex and erudite as anything else in the sciences or humanities.

What was it like for these academic composers, when they came up for review? I wasnít there, but I can only guess: it must have been hard to be taken seriously by scholars from other disciplines who were increasingly dividing the music world between the classics of the past and the fun-but-not-serious music of pop culture. What could composers do to protect their livelihoods? Publish articles in scholarly journals, shout out their credentials, take pains to distance their work from music whose calling card was the catchy tune.

It doesnít seem fair to blame them. As I noted above, there were other options for putting food on the table, but this was one of the best. Sure, many of them abused their positions, destroying the lives of competitors, championing artistic stances simply because they stood in antithesis to what had come before. But is that so different from any generation of composers, in which the majority is just trying to stay afloat as the gatekeepers of musical employment shift from the bishops to the princes to the middle classes?