JAMES DILLON The Book of Elements
Ian Pace - Marathon Transcendental Pianist
Talking about Michael Finnissy's five hours History of Photography, Ian Pace has said "Above all, when playing the complete cycle, my top priority is to maintain the sense of the whole" and the same philosophy informed his decision to give Dillon's The Book of Elements without any interval.
This proved to be a not too demanding 80 minutes of music for the listener. Dillon is hard to place; it is more complex to read (Edition Peters EP7488) than to hear. As with so much contemporary music it puts extraodinary demands upon one brain and two hands, the chiefest difficulty the integration of rhythms, often coexisting in separate layers.
The volumes are of roughly equal duration but the pieces become progressively longer, Volume One conisiting of eleven aphoristic gestures, Volume Five a single continuous work. Of the undisguised influences, Messiaen's (including bird calls) was for me the strongest. Ian Pace is thinker as well as pianist (such was - is - not always the case with tigers of the keyboard) and extracts from his own notes are appended with permission.
The Book of Elements is music which is pervaded by a sense of reference to other music, and of cross references within itself. It will never become popular but may earn a proud place in the procession of allegedly 'impossible' piano music from Balakirev's Islamey via Rachmaninoff's Concerto No 3 to Debussy's and Ligeti's Etudes, each generation mastering the impossibilities, demonstrating that even if civilisation does not progress, pianism does. Amateur pianists in the audience will marvel, as always, that Ian Pace can present long recitals of cutting edge piano music with aplomb and seeming effortlessness.
His plan on this occasion to play The Book of Elements straight through without interruption was, in the event, not quite achieved; an enthusiastic blackbird counterpointed the music until ready to roost and take its rest and, during the performance of the last Book, all the music cascaded down onto the floor, requiring Ian Pace to laboriously collate the pages.
Whilst respecting his priority for continuity, ordinary listeners might have been glad of a scheduled opportunity to meet the composer, who was present, and to talk about the music during an interval; that would have made the evening a less austere and solemn occasion.
For the listener, The Book of Elements will reward rehearing, and it must be hoped that Ian Pace will be invited to record it commercially.
Peter Grahame Woolf
Upon hearing a performance of the first volume of The Book of Elements, I was quite bewildered; the ambiguous, fragmented nature of each short piece, eschewing for the most part any type of rhetorical closure, combined with the distinctiveness of the harmonic and gestural language, developed ever since Dillon's earlier cycle L'Evolution du Vol (though with clear antecedents in many earlier works as well) into a state of great fluency, within which one could discern resonanc~s and echoes of the music of Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Szymanowski, Enescu, Varese, Messiaen, Xenakis and numerous others, all of these things in combination made an unmistakeable impact but raised important questions: was Dillon making his impact merely by appeal to the bizarre, in an affected and mannered way that would by its very nature be finite and thus prone to banality upon repeated listening, or was this a uniquely insightful form of dialectical mediation, with the potential to offer penetrating illumination and expand the categories of perception?
From experiencing many musical works which are striking upon first impact, but the mechanisms by which such an impact is brought about are revealed all-too-transparently upon multiple hearings, reducing the potential conviction of the work as it as unmasked as an non- self-reflexive reification of musical 'truisms', I have become both alertful to this possibility from the outset, but also more inclined to suspend concrete judgement until after repeated listening and digestion. With this in mind, I nowadays have no hesitation in placing The Book of Elements firmly in the latter of the two categories described above. - -
- - It is clear that Dillon exploits a sophisticated network of reference, manifested within multiple compositional and perceptual strata: not only the types of harmonic and gestural resonances I mentioned above, also the incorporation of dance forms (most obviously in the seventh, eighth and ninth pieces within the first volume), the continual allusions to pianistic figurations and stylistic traits familiar to those versed in the history of the literature and its performers (including, for example, passages with slightly overlapping melodic notes or chords that almost parodistically reproduce a type of Russian school of legato playing, or melodic parts repeated in double notes, reportedly a common feature of Liszt's playing of even single lines), and whether in the totality of the shorter works, or within the subsections of the longer ones, an ongoing process of fragmentation which itself has a long 'tradition' as made clear in Dillon's own note on the piece.
But no music exists in isolation; it would be bold of any composer to claim otherwise about their .work. The relationships of negation to be found in, say, the works of Stravinsky with regard to the Wagnerian aesthetic, or in the post-war works of Boulez, Stockhausen and Cage with respect to many aspects of a Western tradition, or those types of conscious exploration of that which is conventionally 'excluded' in the work of Helmut Lachenmann, all serve to emphasize rather than marginalize the lineage; indifference might serve the latter purpose rather more readily, but that itself would open up another plethora of more arbitrary allusions which would be no less tangible to a listener by virtue of their arbitrariness. Even the music of such a supposedly 'blank sheet' composer as 1annis Xenakis would be unthinkable without that of Varese and Stravinsky, in Dillon's opinion (I would personally add Bartok and Brahms to that canon)
However, the exploitation of quotation and reference has a rather chequered history in recent times. Such much of what goes under the banner of the 'post-modem' consists of an unmediated, undialectical musical 'reality', manifested in the form of a loose assemblage of empirically discovered gestures, harmonies, rhythms, etc., whose juxtaposition resembles as much as anything else the layout of goods in a supermarket. - -
- - Dillon, on the contrary, would appeal to the riches and depths of tradition as a way out from the self-consciousness of much contemporary composition and performance, veering between the purportedly opposed poles of commercialisation and institutionalisation (which both in reality share some similar properties of reification). Dillon's tradition is in no sense a nostalgic appeal to some hopelessly idealized 'Golden Age', but an attempt to reinscribe the depth of history into culture existing in a late capitalist age, which seeks to render history itself as just yet another commodity.
- - it stands to Dillon's immense credit how he is able - - to create a visionary music which is autonomous while engaged, subjective while formalistic, ambivalent while affirmative, pensive while embracing. - - His strategies and techniques are many, .though never reducible to a mere agglomeration as such; throughout the force and irreducibility of the subjective will asserts its presence gloriously. Most of the musical material (much of it proclaimed in the first volume) is subject to a variegated range of perspective. New types of meanings are created as fragments from one part of the cycle are presented in different surroundings; elsewhere something seemingly straightforward is richly coloured by varying syntagmatic juxtapositions (as for example with the rhetorical flourish that opens the first piece in Volume 3, or the material that opens Volume 5 and recurs in very different forms). Different categories of material have different degrees of mobility, some returning in relatively fixed forms, others transformed through continual subtle alterations of pitch and rhythm. Passages of a crystalline clarity are set into relief against that which is veiled, made half-present through incorporation of foreign pitches or dynamic envelopes used to create a state of fragility. Terse, aphoristic, incomplete, utterances create expectations and generate corresponding momentum within the larger structure: sometimes these expectations are fulfilled, at other times they are pointedly thwarted to create a sensation of almost infinite sadness. While the cycle progresses in a linear manner in terms of the durations of the individual pieces, still the whole maintains something of a fragmentary and ambiguous nature, right up to the final gesture; this both enables the possibility of a genuinely subjective and individual reaction on the part of the listener, and also implies the potential for much more fruitful composition beyond.
Dillon is not an 'ironic' composer in the sense in which the term is fashionably used nowadays (a crude 'ironic' gesture can often serve as a 'Get out of jail free' card for those whose only real ability is to create simply bad music). But if irony is seen instead as a means of defamiliarisation of the surface properties of a musical 'object', by a variety of techniques, as has been practised in music for many centuries, then this is indeed something that Dillon applies in a sophisticated and multivalent manner. For this and other reasons, the music could rarely be said to be 'naIve', perhaps in some of its individual components, but not in the worldliness of the whole.
results is an intricate, multi-layered, but ultimately coherent
trajectory through a myriad range of under-stated emotions, reflections,
assertions, memories; the qualities of tenderness, brooding, elation,
passion, melancholy are rendered all the more vivid by virtue of
the various distancing techniques employed, a wholly different result
to that of an unfounded mystification.
This is all very generalised, though; what I know from three years of study and performance of the various chapters of this piece, often working closely with the composer, is the scale of the challenge involved, how to situate that pivotal place that lies between the opposite poles of hyperbole (as a type of excessive rhetoric that fetishises clarity to the point of triteness) on one hand, and opacity on the other. When one encounters that potent place, where presence is implied without being actually manifest (maybe 'under erasure' as Dillon might say, after Derrida), the result can be electrifying. The methods by which Dillon place his musical material 'at a distance' paradoxically make the emotional qualities more; rather than less, penetrating.
A not inconsiderable amount of the cycle inhabits this sort of area, brought about in different ways, sometimes by the flow of the musical argument (and the continuous dialectic between states of continuity and discontinuity), sometimes by key details of voicing, pauses between aphoristic gestures, approaches to such key pianistic gestures such as tremolos, legato playing, repeated notes, pedalling, and all the associated history, both compositional and pianistic. Dillon is indeed an aficionado of the marvellous history of piano music and in particular of the pianists from the earlier half of the twentieth century; for one performing his music, these influences show clearly, but a response of idle pastiche is surely not the answer, rather one must consider how to make some of these traditional qualities meaningful in a music that has been touched by more recent histories as well?
Notation defines itself negatively, it delineates the space within which can operate by a process of exclusion (pitch has a more positivistic quality on the piano, but few other parameters can be defined so unequivocally). The score of The Book of Elements would be unlikely to strike one as being 'over-notated' in any sense; a greater amount of notional detail might seek to deny the particular type of spontaneity which is so clearly present in the compositional process, and necessitates an equivalent response from the performer (very unlike the Stravinskian model which is much more common amongst many composers today). So much of the music is pregnant with implication, with multiple possibilities of meaning and feeling, it does indeed liberate the performer to find their own 'subtexts' from this omnidirectional music (I would argue that the highly detailed notation of Brian Ferneyhough can also 'liberate the performer' in a different way, but that is for another piece of writing!).
Dillon, like Ferneyhough and Finnissy, works aloof from the dominant musical and cultural traditions of their country, relatively unbound to the institutions which propagate and reinforce those traditions, and as such have no particular need to effect either a reconciliation or an outright statement of opposition (many a would-be radical has ultimately discovered that straight negation only reinforces the paradigms they seek to oppose). This is indeed a situation that has a great potential for liberation - -
(For full text email Ian Pace)
© Peter Grahame Woolf