James Dillon @ 70

Glasgow-born James Dillon talks to KEN WALTON about his latest new works and his unorthodox route to becoming a composer 

The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has been good to James Dillon. As an unknown 28-year-old in 1978 the Scots-born composer submitted a work that was adjudged the best of the bunch in the first ever annual Festival’s Young Composer Competition. Forty-two years on, Dillon’s 70th birthday is about to be celebrated in an online 2020 Festival programme that culminates with the world premieres of two of his latest works. 

Dillon, it has to be said, is not a household name. Not unless you are a really serious new music buff. First impressions of his uncompromising musical style can often be of bafflement and alienation. His scores are famously esoteric and complex, his visions on a truly epic scale that can tax even the initiated. 

On occasion such scepticism has infected the very musicians charged with playing his music, such as the infamous 2005 UK premiere in Glasgow of his 40-minute Via Sacra, a performance panned by the critics, not for the music itself, but railing against the RSNO and its then conductor who visibly and rudely demonstrated their disinterest. 

Dillon recalls the occasion sanguinely. “The press blew it out of proportion,” he reflects. “But the whole experience got off to a bad start. The Russian conductor [Alexander Lazarev] didn’t even greet me at the rehearsal, cutting me off from the players. But the last thing on my mind was to be critical of the orchestra.”

It was an isolated incident for Dillon, whose music is published by the reputable Peters Edition, who in the course of a singularly non-populist career has picked up seriously prestigious accolades including five Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, and whose reputation as an inspired teacher has taken him to Europe and the United States. All of that from someone who was essentially self-taught. 

Dillon was born in Glasgow in 1950, but his family moved to South Yorkshire when he was ten. “Going through an English high school with a Scottish accent brings out the fighter in you,” he recalls. “I felt I had been dragged to England, which made me want to become more Scots.” As a guitarist he played in teenage bands, teaming up with local boy Billy Currie who went on to play in Ultravox. He was also writing poetry and painting. 

Ironically, this was all happening in Huddersfield. “I couldn’t wait to get out,” says the man who was later to thank the Yorkshire market town for the vital springboard it gave him as a professional composer. Instinct led him back to Scotland and a place on the art and design foundation course at Glasgow School of Art, where his ultimate dream was to enter the School of Architecture.

“Going back to Glasgow was also about reorienting myself,” he reveals. “In terms of my health and everything else, though, it was a disaster. “I hardly turned up for classes because I was hanging around the Glasgow folk clubs, looking for anybody to jam with. I also learnt to drink!” 

A year later, Dillon headed for Cornwall and a hippy commune “where I did take a lot of drugs and was just hanging around”. But it was who he was hanging around with that really made a difference. “I met a guy called Robert Lenkiewicz, an extraordinary painter who was way outside the establishment, who could talk intelligently about contemporary art, yet painted like Velasquez. He wasn’t interested in what was current in terms of style; he was simply interested in making images.”

“And he had this enormous library that covered everything from the occult to contemporary literature. For some reason he liked me and offered me the keys to the library. That in a way helped me focus.”

Dillon moved to London in 1970, and was immediately attracted to the Roundhouse concerts given by Pierre Boulez and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  “I can’t for the life of me remember why I went along to one of these. I think probably I just saw a poster and was curious,” he recalls.

“But it was a turning point. Not only did I see amazing performances with Boulez conducting in his meticulous way. It threw me into a gloriously wonderful confusion about what I wanted to do musically. I didn’t know anybody in the classical music world, so just began to teach myself the rudiments of music.” In the course of that he met the composer Roger Marsh who suggested he enter the piano work that was to win him the Huddersfield competition. “I wasn’t even there to pick up the prize,” Dillon confesses.

The enduring prize, though, was confidence and recognition, and the start of a canon of substantial works that has defined his unschooled individuality, his penchant for the monumental, his unwillingness to conform to prevalent trends that make his music hard sometimes to appreciate in a single hearing. 
The most epic is Nine Rivers – a three-hour-plus sequence of choral, instrumental and orchestral works composed over two decades – which received its premiere (after many previous cancelled deadlines) in Glasgow 10 years ago in celebration of Dillon’s 60th birthday. 

The Book of Elements for piano, written in five volumes over seven years, is equally exhaustive in illustrating the composer’s obsessiveness in drawing every ounce of musical possibility before he declares a work finished. “I wanted this overarching idea where I take motivic material for different disparate things and gradually conflate them towards the final book, which itself is a single movement that almost becomes like the great Liszt B Minor Sonata,” he explains. 

Noriko Kawai: credit Xavi M. Miró

This weekend’s new Huddersfield premieres are further significant additions to Dillon’s catalogue: the hour-long ensemble work Pharmakeia, performed by the London Sinfonietta under Geoffrey Paterson; and the 30-minute echo the angelus for solo piano, featuring the composer’s partner and dedicated exponent of his keyboard works, Noriko Kawai. 

Pharmakeia started off as a single piece, Circe, a commission from the Köln-based Ensemble Musikfabrik, who stipulated a scoring for 16-piece ensemble including two pianos. Dillon’s initial reaction was, “Oh my God, that’s going to limit the possibilities, practically-speaking, for future performances”. But as ideas formed on how to capitalise on the group dynamic in a spatial sense, so too his mind turned to the inner meaning of the work and a larger vision way beyond Circe, which was eventually to form the centrepiece of a final five-part structure.

Commissioning of the complete Pharmakeia was picked up jointly by the London Sinfonietta and Ensemble Intercontemporain.

“Titles of works are always problematic for me, because my first instinct is not to lead the listener in a certain direction,” he explains. But driving it from the outset was Dillon’s belief in “music as a kind of sorcery”. Pharmakeia, linked to the word pharmacy, literally means sorcery, so became the overall title.

More helpful, he says, is the associated concept of “pharmakon”, as articulated by the 20th century French philosopher Jacques Derrida. “He’s drawing attention to the fact that actually in terms of medicine, often the cure means poisoning the body in the first place, so there’s this strange relationship between being poisoned and being cured. 

“This fascinates me in the sense that thinking about tonalities, the function of dissonance in terms of tension, the way that you can take a drug which is basically a poison to the system but trying to trigger things beneficial to the system, is very relevant today.”

Unlike Pharmakeia, echo the angelus is one of those works Dillon simply felt compelled to write. “I’m often working on things outside the commissioning process, having to re-oxygenate what I am doing away from the pressure of deadlines’” he explains. “So this is just something I was originally footering around with.”

The end result is anything but frippery, more the hard-earned product of the “exhaustibility” that drives Dillon’s creative process. “I find a frustration with the idea of finishing something. That’s why I write these big cycles. Are there beginnings and ends to things? I don’t know.”

In that respect, don’t be surprised if spectres of The Book of Elements surface in echoes the angelus. He suspects there may be subliminal links. “One of the slightly appalling aspects of looking back on a body of work is how you find your fingerprints all over the place. And maybe you’re moving towards gestures that you’re imprisoned within,” says Dillon, alluding in this case to “certain kinds of finger gestures from which I created three basic kinds of material, one quasi-scale, one chordal, another to do with resonance of the piano itself, shooting them around unpredictably until I’m happy with it. That’s basically the piece, which is very challenging for the pianist.”

Beyond the Huddersfield premieres, Dillon is already engaged in his next project, and it’s in Scotland for the Red Note Ensemble. The original commission was for a set of miniatures using some of the players as soloists. “It’s turned into a much larger work,” Dillon confesses. Who’d have thought?

The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival’s Dillon@70 concert is broadcast on BBC Radio 3, Sunday 22 Nov, 10pm. Details on the full online Festival programme (20-22 Nov) available on www.hcmf.co.uk

Image: James Dillon: credit Brian Slater