Interview with James Dillon

Fonema Consort's history with visionary Scottish composer James Dillon began a year ago, when soprano Nina Dante and double bassist Kathryn Schulmeister traveled to Minnesota to work with him on his fiery duo A Roaring Flame. During this visit, the two performers interviewed Dillon on the piece and his music as a whole, which we are releasing in anticipation of our April 15 Chicago concert with Dillon.

Nina Dante : Who was A Roaring Flame written for, and what brought about its creation?

James Dillon : I worked a lot in the early 80s with a group called Lontano, and the director was a Cuban lady called Odaline de la Martinez and she asked me to write a piece for her bass player who was the principal bass player with the royal opera house, but he liked to play new music so he was an unusual orchestral player in that sense. And Josephine Nendick was the singer and she had a long career (she was really at the end of her career at that time) but she had worked a lot in the 50s with Jean Barraqué. She recorded things like Séquence with Barraqué. She worked with Boulez and Maderna in the 60s. But the piece was part of a planned cycle, a small triptych of pieces, all written for three different ensembles. Come Live with Me was written for a group called Suoraan; and the third was Who do you Love. But I planned them as a cycle in the beginning. They were all written around the notion of erotic texts. So Come Live with Me was a setting of an extract from the Song of Songs and Who Do You Love returns again [as in A Roaring Flame] to another Gaelic text, a Gaelic love song.

Kathryn Schulmeister : The bass part of A Roaring Flame is virtuosic, technically challenging, and full of unique sounds. What were your thoughts when you were writing for this instrument?

JD :
 Well, probably on two levels. One, just the nature of the instruments itself. It’s this massive resonant
thing, this big box with strings drawn across it and horse hair and rosin and all those noisy aspect of it. So I’m thinking of it acoustically to some extent, of course. It was a request so I had to really think about what I’m going to do with the instrument, but its was also part of the way I was thinking about classical instruments at that time. I was trying to find a way to bring something to the instruments which was being denied by classical training, so I was really looking for something was that closer to a vernacular tradition than a classical tradition. And I wanted also something that had an intensity to it, and an intensity that didn’t let up, that was changing, that was alway in flux. And so hence I planned the piece around these sections which were extrapolated from the text itself. I cut the text up and I made this insert of a poem in Provençal. Once I laid out the structure of the text, it was a question of the textures around it. I wanted to maintain the same density of change from start to finish. Sometimes the changes are really big textural changes, other times they are just small nuanced micro events. But it was really just maintaining this onslaught of sound, in that sense unclassical.

ND : Since these are mainly new sounds, and since at the time you wrote them you wouldn't have heard them on a bass before, how did you find the sounds? Were you experimenting with the instrument, were you creating sounds in your mind?

JD : One of the things I never do is I never consult players. I don’t really want my imagination restricted in that sense. Players will tend to be a little bit conservative. I’d rather take a risk that’s impossible, but do what I need to do. If you look at works from that period like Spleen - Come Live With Me is slightly different, I think I begin to play with a certain refinement in Come Live with Me - but in Over, I’m playing with a kind of crudity, a deliberate crudity, a thing whereby if something’s impossible (I mean physically impossible) on the instrument, then I’m interested in what are the solutions to get around it, something that you can’t notate, so all I can do it circumscribe a space, draw the parameters around it and then say To physically achieve that is impossible, so what do you do? I guess that’s what I mean by crudity. I was curious about that transaction between me and the performer, how we come to that thing within this continuum, within an intense space.

ND : I know that that’s an element in the double bass part of A Roaring Flame, but of course you can’t help but noticing in this piece, that the voice part, there’s something so much more familiar about it, something rooted deeply in folk tradition. And we are curious why there is such a departure from what we are familiar with in the bass, contrasted with this more traditional voice part. Still very complex and difficult obviously, but something more recognizable.

JD : It seems materially the connection is tenuous at time. The connection for me is one of sound. When I talk about that kind of vernacular, when I’m looking for a certain rough sound, I think that’s something the two parts share in a way. Although you’ve got this sort of crazy bass part swirling around the voice, and the voice makes these allusion to a folk tradition in a way, the connection was to me that actually you don’t sing it with vibrato, it’s in a non classical form of expressivity. It’s a different kind of expressivity. It’s a rougher a more direct thing. So that was the connection between the two, but there are undoubtedly some incredibly virtuosic parts in the voice. A lot of the material keeps returning (particularly in the Invocation part) to something that’s more singable, shall we say. I don't’ mind taking risks, but there are certain risks I won’t take in the voice.

ND : What are these risks?

JD : One of the things I really don’t like, mostly, there are one or two exceptions, is the kind of vocal music that was written in the integral serial period in the 50s, which is all these leaps everywhere.

ND : As in the Boulez tradition?

JD : Well, one of the exceptions is Le marteau sans maître, which I think is a masterpiece. But there is a lot of really bad writing in that period, just ignoring the nature of the voice, and based on tempered tuning, which makes no sense because if you are singing in tone rows and your pitch is not absolutely digitally right on, what the point? Singers’ relationship with pitch is different from an instrumentalists’. And every singer has their own particular way of dealing with pitch. For me, all this means that I’m probably closer to a lyrical tradition than people suspect.

ND : I would agree. Something I love about your writing for the voice is that you don’t try to ignore the cultural role the voice has played as an expressive force, a narrative and dramatic force. Was this a conscious choice for you when you decided to write for the voice?

JD : Yes, I think so. There is one exception. I wrote a piece for solo voice called Evening Rain and that was probably as far as I’ve pushed the voice. I’m really treating the voice like an instrument in that piece. Its a very onomatopoeic piece, the voice actually ends imitating the rain, making small vocal sounds. And it’s not only onomatopoeic, its pantheistic. Its the image I had of a singer who is singing in a landscape and then becomes the landscape.

ND : Enthusing with her environment?

JD : It starts out imitating small droplets of rain and it ends up the same way except even smaller sounds. Really, you need a radio mic to pick up these small sounds. The first section starts with these isolated consonants, and again the form is a kind of arc. It starts with the rain and in the end its the rainwater running off a building into a drain. And in between she goes through these various vocalization, but the vocalization (the actual singing) turns into onomatopoeia, gradually. That was a piece where I really treat the voice instrumentally in a way. If you look at all the range there's a top E and a low F.

KS : Could you explain a little bit about the structure of A Roaring Flame? Working on the piece we noticed there’s these clearly defined sections and returning material, and we are wondering how everything relates to each other, how do we get from the beginning to the end of the piece?

JD : Well its difficult to talk about the structure in this piece because its based on the way I cut the text up and the repetition. I created a kind of form from the thing by inserting a glossolalia [a short poem in Provençal between two halves of a Gaelic Invocation], but apart from that, I suppose there's a kind of ritornello in it, it keeps returning again to this invocation. Meanwhile like I said, this turbulence is happening around [in the bass], which is constantly changing. So this sectional aspect of it was based on the text. There's no A-B-A or anything like that, but it is that kind of feeling at the end where I really wanted to… I mean the title A Roaring Flame, I didn't want to represent a roaring flame, I wanted to bring it into being. So when I say to you [Kathryn] at the end that you have to catch fire, be wild, I really want to bring something into being, not just represent it. So its not symbolic in that sense. That kind of Heideggerian sense, its something that has an imminence, that just bursts forth. Something that’s latent that reveals itself. Heidegger uses this word Lichtung, which means clearing.

KS : So do you think that the section 11 [the last section of A Roaring Flame] for the bass should really be something that transcends the piece at the end, different from how I approach the rest of the piece?

JD : For sure. All of a sudden the instrument’s caught fire, everything's going up in flames. Really to bring that off it has to be done without any inhibitions. It has to be done with a kind of abandon, almost like the Whirling Dervishes.

ND : Kathy and I have spent a lot of time discussing the relationship throughout piece for the voice and the bass. You told us earlier in the rehearsal how you envisioned the relationship and what inspired you on this island [the image of a singer throwing her voice into a strong wind]. Can you tell us a little of that on the record?

JD : I don't’ want to push that too much, because in part, rehearsing it again with you two, a lot of things came back that informed what I was doing. It was really in the mid 70s I was really beginning to formulate what I think I wanted to do. Up to that point it was very abstract for me, making this transition from playing in bands to the written tradition itself. I went through various phases, most of them completely mentally lost, where I was actually teaching myself serial technique, for example and feeling very distant from it. Whilst I could to some extent master the technique, it meant nothing to me, it was just kind of exercise in abstraction. And it wasn’t until after that I got the confidence again then to return to the sound world I knew, but I was bringing it from one world to another world. And I suppose the person who really gave me the license to do that was Xenakis. Listening to Xenakis in the 70s, I began to realize that in fact the relationship between harmony, timbre and pitch can be a lot more complex. Then I realized I had to be more detailed with what I was doing. You don’t just write and E followed by an Eb followed by an F#. That its actually where is that C, in what register is it, where is it on an instrument? A C# on bass and the identical C# on a piano is the same pitch but in vastly different sound worlds. So that’s when I began to realize that I really needed to think much more acoustically if I was going to do this in a way that I had any control over. Xenakis unlocked something for me in my mind. I wasn't interested in the style of Xenakis, I was interested in the fact that one of the things Xenakis does in book Formalized Music, is he goes back to the Greek and then retraces an alternative history to himself from the Greeks, which ignored most of Gregorian Chant and the Baroque. He stays with acoustics in the vernacular tradition. And that gave me the confidence to … You know, I started at the age of 9 playing the bagpipes. Your ear is not the same if you're doing scales. And I think some of the least developed ears are often pianists, because they ever need to think about anything like turning or intonation. And those tiny little things are music in the end. The smallest nuance the smallest transition. If you listen to Heifetz, the first thing that strikes you is the extraordinary right hand this guy’s got. Every time he puts that bow on, its just this cutting sounds, its so confident. And then you begin to listen to the speed of his vibrato, its a very small, fast vibrato that he plays. And all those things accumulate into ah, its Heifetz playing. So it was really going into the grain of sound again that gave me the clue on how to progress in terms of doing something else. I’ve always had a slightly problematic relationship with the avant garde anyways, because I don’t come out of this tradition, I come out of a folk tradition. I think one of the problems that we have here in America is the way these things are cut up in the schools of music into these boxes. And its completely inauthentic.

ND : I think it interesting that you come from a rock and folk tradition but now you're the standard bearer for New Complexity and the kinds of things that young composers in university are studying and trying to imitate or take further.

JD : Of course, but that just shows you the stupidity of categories and their lack of subtlety. You know, first of all there was no such thing as New Complexity. There was a musicologist called Richard Toop, an Australian, who created the notion by interviewing four post-Ferneyhough composers, who couldn‘t stand each other anyways, we never even talked. The relationship was the notation, the complexity of the notation, but we all reached that point through completely different paths. And this is the problem now. I was teaching in Stanford a couple weeks ago, where this things is now becoming industrialized. New Complexity is now becoming an industry, and the kids are poring through the scores, mimicking the gestures, mimicking the figures. One of the things I try to do is break that down in a young composer, and say you need to find your own voice. Everyone mimics someone at some point, but you’ve got to have the courage to shed it. Look more inside and trust your own judgement and instincts. Some composers want to create acolytes, who go out in the world and reinforce the fact that they are godfather.

KS: Yesterday you brought up Indian singers and vocal ornamentation, and it made me think about the lack of oral tradition in classical music training. As a composer and you said you think about the acoustics and sound world of everything. How do you reconcile this culture we have of reading text [scores] rather than relying on a detailed and specific oral tradition?

JD : If you look at it, we’re talking about classical tradition. What is the definition of classical tradition. If one looks at the definition of other classical traditions, like the Hinudstani or the gamelan tradition of Indonesia, what makes the Western classical tradition unique is the text. In gagaku they have a tablature, but it’s not a notation because it leaves so much to the chosen players. So one of the things that fascinated me when I moved away from the vernacular tradition was the text itself. But it ran parallel with other interests, much earlier. One of them was Kabbalah, the relationship between Kabbalah and hermeneutics. The Hebrew scripts can be read both as letters and numbers, which is the way they can embed secret codes or symbolic information, sort of multi-layer. So one of the things that when I turned again to the idea of working with notation... one is acutely aware that one will make sacrifices, and that those sacrifices are something that - you use the words reconciliation which is a word I don’t like, because I really like contradiction, messy things. So I knew that I was hoping that I was only temporarily losing certain things, that I could find a way back where I was working with notation but also something that had multiple readings. By that I mean layers of reading whereby some of them could mock the idea of spontaneity coming almost from a highly structured position, rather than the other way around. So I knew the risks, but I’m also fascinated by the way that the western classical tradition has developed. Because if you look at the other classical traditions, they probably haven’t changed in a thousand years. You know, I studied Indian rhythm in 1971 with a lady called Benita Gupta, she was a sitarist. I got a contact and I went to contact her and asked her to teach me about tala and how it worked. And she said you have to play, which was the last thing I wanted to hear. I mean she was a sitarist but she taught me tabla. She took me to a place where they sold serious instruments - there is a big Indian community in London, so it’s possible to find good instruments- and I would go every Saturday morning to have lessons with her. And after 3 or 4 months she took more into her confidence more and told me her own history. She told me that she started sitar when she was 9 years old, but she wasn't allowed to touch the instrument until she was 14. She had to learn to sing the entire repertoire. She said it took about 18 month for her fingers to find their way around the instrument, because the music was in her body.

KS : And its all completely by ear, they imitate.

JD: Right, so it some ways it threw me this, but it was such a beautiful image for me, this notion of music being in the body. And I suppose also that made me aware that if you make this transition toward notation, if you try to be detailed with things that the question then emerges of just how detailed are you. Like was talking about, the accumulation of small nuances make music. I knew that I wanted to access other things, like putting noise into the whole equation, but I wasn’t quite sure yet. I knew how to become more detailed, but I wasn’t quite sure what it meant for the reading of the text. And for me it meant taking a big risk. It wasn’t until I was working with good musicians that I realized I could modify things and see what works and what doesn’t work, so up to that point it’s a kind of informed guess work. But I was and still am fascinated by - I talked yesterday briefly about the editions of the Beethoven Sonatas by that great Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel. He died in 1951 but he was the first to record all the Beethoven sonatas in the 1930s and he was also a famous teacher. He made an edition of all 32 Beethoven sonatas which were published in 4 volumes, but he discouraged his students from using his editions. He made them for pedagogical reasons. But he always - and was the first person to do this because it was unknown in the 1930s - would tell his students to find the Urtexts. That became fashionable in the 60s but it was something new in the 30s. But if you see these Schnabel editions, you get a line of a sonata and the rest of the page is notes, different ways of looking at layers in the music, different ways of interpreting it. Again, he insisted his students didn’t use his editions, because it was his, and he said next week I changed my mind [about the interpretation], it was a fluid thing. Talking about New Complexity, Schnabel probably influenced me more than anybody else in terms of actually realizing just how many ways you can deal with text and subtext and sub-subtext and that kind of fascinated me. So I knew I would lose something but I knew I was gaining something. It was like stepping through the rabbit hole and coming up in another world.

ND: Speaking of text, I would actually like to ask you about the texts of A Roaring Flame, because there are actually 3 texts: the Invocation, the Provencal and then this beautiful quote at the beginning of the peace from the lament of Liaden “A roaring flame has dissolved this heart of mine” that doesn't appear, the singer never speak this. I curious how you came upon the texts, why these texts spoke to you, why you needed them, and of course the significance of the quote at the beginning.

JD : I started with the quote but for some reason I never really wanted to set it. I knew the title was in there somewhere and it was pretty obvious in the end what it was going to be. So I had a kind of mystical image of the moth entering the flame whereby it surrenders totally to the inevitable. Most of the text, all of the texts I’ve set- there is one exception- but most of the texts are anonymous. I like ancient texts, you don't know who the author is. I’m not destroying someone’s poetry. You know I have thing that poetry is a music in itself. I just don’t get why one would want to set it, you usually destroy it. The Carmina Gadelica, which was compiled by Alexander Carmichael. I've set a lot of texts from this. It's a collection of invocations, prayers and folk recipes. Carmichael in the late 19th century decided that the gaelic tradition was being lost. He was a self-taught anthropologist and toured the islands visiting mostly women at home who had these old invocation and prayers. And its in 7 volumes. My grandmother used to make “mouth music” with no text, she comes from that Gaelic tradition. For me, it was also something in my roots. I knew the moment that I made this transition toward the classical tradition I had to bring something authentic to it, something authentic to me, and so it was really just working out how to do that.

KS : You were saying that you've been sort of inappropriate categorized.

JD : I think its lazily categorized

KS : We are wondering how A Roaring Flame fits within the body of work that you've done up to now. Also, have you ever considered revising this instrumentation?

ND : Right, what retrospectively your thoughts on the piece are, now from this view.

JD : Well, the latter question, no I haven’t thought about going back to the instrumentation, although I think its an instrumentation that works. I don’t really think about my past work much. I am conscious that from work to work I like to make small modifications, at micro-levels that I’m experimenting with. So I think the work grows in a more organic way in that sense. But I don't like to look back too much. The other thing I’m conscious of is that I don’t like to repeat myself, so I like to just somehow just move on. So its a journey in a way for me. I suppose that if I see my work in any way at all, it's more like a journal entry, and I’m not trying to build anything in particular although I do get involved in these large cycles. And I guess one of the multiple things about the way I work is that things are either in cycles of series, there are very few single works. It began as an unconscious thing and then I realized actually why I was doing that. And I realized that it was something that I brought up earlier- a dissatisfaction with the concert format. So I began to make cycles where the hope was that the cycle would be the program. It sounds egotistical (there's ego in there of course) but more to do with someone trying to maintain this notion of the concert being enchanting, it should be magical. I think the moment the audience steps into the space where they're going to sit down, somethings going to happen and they should feel it, before anything is onstage. And its not stepping out of reality, its stepping into another reality. Which for me, is the essence of music anyway. I don't mean that in an escapist way, which I suppose is also why I really wanted to keep an element of the vernacular in things. It feels more real to me.