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James Dillon

Book of Elements Books 1-V

Noriko Kawai (piano)
NMC D091 [83 mins]


East 11th St NY 10003; Windows and Canopies; La femme invisible
Music Projects London/Richard Bernas (conductor)
NMC D004 [56 Mins]

James Dillon is a curious case for me; a modernist composer of horrendous complexity, whose structures I shall never understand, but whose music intrigues and delights, albeit superficially.

Noriko Kawai's account of the five books of The Book of Elements is an astonishing feat of pianism, its rhythmic complications impossible to grasp on the (visually beautiful) page [Edition Peters], yet adding up to a natural, expressive flow of music which pleases the ear once any idea of conventional melody or harmony is cast aside.

Each book takes about a quarter hour to hear, after an unconscionable number of hours to learn. They have decreasing numbers of movements, ther first book eleven short pieces that are said to reflect Beethoven's eleven bagatelles Op 119, the last a large, single 'vision of fragility', writes the composer. To my mind the books are best taken one at a time and I have found them compelling and, dare I say, beautiful.

Also for NMC, Richard Bernas and Music Projects London have brought together three instrumental works for percussion ensemble, chamber orchestra and an ensemble of woodwind, piano and percussion to finish. The titles are labels which don't take us much further. For many of us East 11th St NY 10003 may be the hardest; a 20 minute span for mainly unpitched percussion (six players) with glockenspiel and tubular bells at the end 'to be perceived as an italicised version of more veiled areas of timbre'. Dillon's music is here, and generally, precisely notated. I found it long; a live performance with the spatial arrangements as prescribed would probably be more compelling. Perhaps Windows and Canopies (1985) is the one to approach first? For a mixed group of a score of instruments, it opposes the twelve strings and the others against each other, the strings music 'completely independent for each player. A thicket of sound is created.' La femme invisible is music in which 'a single thread of phrases is disrupted by - - a deliberately cinematic technique of cuttin' and re-ordering material.

I won't write on, and you may do best not to read before listening; you can sample a minute of East 11th St NY 10003 on NMC's website.

See also my review of the first complete performance (without interval!) of Book of Elements, with Ian Pace's analysis of this important addition to the contemporary piano literature in a cultural context.

© Peter Grahame Woolf