James Dillon: the soadie waste

Noriko Kawai; Irvine Arditti; Arditti Quartet; Hiroaki Takenouchi (NMC D131)

11 May 2008 4.5 stars

The soadie waste James Dillon is often thought of as being a member of the New Complexity school of composition. And it is true that his music quite consistently portrays an obscure source of inspiration by the means of largely discontinuous and highly stratified textures. But like the other apparent members of that school, he cannot easily be captured in one generic inscription. His music is surely highly complicated, but it is open at all times to stylistic reminiscences from across the spectrum of modern music. Folk music, folk tales, Renaissance theories of art, natural phenomena such as nebulae, Ligeti's late work, and the music of Sciarrino all sit comfortably beside Finnissy and Ferneyhough in his list of inspirations. Dillon's work is characterised above all by a quite instinctive program of emotions, which can be seen to vacillate wildly within each piece. His music communicates a powerfully expressive sensibility that rarely fails to affect quite directly and viscerally those who hear it.

The new disc of Dillon's works on NMC entitled The Soadie Waste exhibits each of the characteristics I previously mentioned. Focusing exclusively on chamber works mainly from the past 20 years or so, it is a powerful testament to the expressive and intellectual heights to which contemporary notated music, once it is performed with the degree of insight and ability it is here, can go. The recording unites Irvine Arditti with the pianist Noriko Kawai, both of whom are Dillon specialists. They each get a solo piece, and they join together for the disc's centrepiece, the third book of Dillon's Traumwerk. Hiroaki Takenouchi joins Kawai for the blistering piano duet black/nebulae, and the recording is completed with a ferocious and fascinating performance of the eponymous work, which brings together the full Arditti Quartet with Kawai.

Adumbrating quite nicely the music to come, the disc opens with the early (1976) piano piece Dillug-Kefitsah (Skipping-Jumping). As its title suggests, this small but quite wonderfully constructed miniature makes play out of constantly shifting textures and moods. The delicacy, control and colour of Debussy sit comfortably alongside highly evolving passages of almost integral serialist-like density, which then mutate into maximalist intimations of free improvisation, only for it all to break down and return to calm. The real skill here though, and credit should go to Kawai as much as to Dillon, is that these ruptures never compromise the feeling of a through-composed unity. The sense of purpose evident in this performance is quite astonishing, and the contrast between meek touch and precise pedal work on the one hand, and ferocious ten-fingered polyphonic attack on the other is always communicated utterly gracefully, and engagingly.

Del Cuarto Elemento (The Fourth Element) is an extended solo for violin, and like the preceding piece it gets much of its energy and tension from the exploration of a loosely programmatic bed of influences. In this case, it is the contrast between the fourth element (water) and its implication of an all-engulfing fluid mass of matter, and the hardened and rigid idea of land, that is at stake. The work is a tour de force of eclecticism and complexity. The varying timbres, articulations, rhythms and ranges of the piece require an almost constant application of virtuosity if the required sense of flux, and finally enveloping water, is to be reached. The soloist achieves this objective with a very high level of skill and dextrous insight. He negotiates the many contrasts of the work with consistent discernment, always subtly moving between what is a wide range of timbres and modes of articulation, and he spiritedly offsets the two poles of concrete touch and fluid sliding that catalyse the poetic sensibility of the work. Arditti brings his own poetic sensibility to bear on the piece; his performance stands almost as a re-composition of the text such is the flair and fullness of his vision. The final pages, with their dizzying array of glissandi and flanging exclamations, become in Arditti's hands a keening depiction of the immersing power of water.

Kawai's and Arditti's performance of the third book of Dillon's Traumwerk series of duet cycles brings to the fore the mysterious and beguiling gift that Dillon has for creating fragrant harmonies, and for constructing repetitious and accessible textures that are cleverly built around interlocking ostinati. The work is comprised of twelve miniatures that each in their own way suggest a sort of stasis that is absent from the other works on the disc. This stasis is not however a token of failure, it is rather a glorious and sustained intimation of something uncanny, something ineffable, that the musicians do their best to describe. Their performance is highly sensitive, and the two players show a fine sense of shared music-making that gives their interpretation the appropriate feel of a clashing, but collaborative, force. The fifth and twelfth of the short pieces particularly show in this performance the precise balance of evanescence and stasis on the one hand, and dialogue and movement on the other, that this third book requires of its interpreters.

The performances of the remaining two works on the disc, black/nebulae and the soadie waste, uphold the high standards of what's gone before. The two pianos of black/nebulae combine well to convey and expand upon an imagined scattering of crows, or indeed upon the titular swirling nebulae. The piece proposes a constant movement of rising and falling figuration; the flow is hallucinatory in its rate of change, and a reaction to it is perhaps best couched in terms of a visceral response as opposed to anything more considered. The performers clearly understand the frenzied nature of the music, and they execute their task with appropriate zeal.

If black/nebulae comes across as perhaps a little too schizophrenic for its own good, then the same could not be said of the closing item, the soadie waste. This final work seeks to depict (at least as a springboard for compositional adventure) the energies and sounds of Scottish wedding receptions, dances and housie housie (a Glaswegian variation of bingo). What emerges is a piano quintet of bewildering intensity and energy. The musicians launch into their task with a fervour that is revealed ultimately as unremitting. This is a work of absolute conviction, and thrilling joy. Each instrument, as in the earlier works, takes part quite distinctly in opposition to its partners. Yet out of these local asymmetries a general symmetry arises, in perception, that carries the music collectively forward through all of the many explosions and evolutions of the medium length score (about 13 mins in this performance). The music thus has the consistent appearance of unity, and of aesthetic resolution, notwithstanding its relative lack of repetition or of thematic reminiscence. The overbearing senza vibrato strings and playful and punchy piano part are somewhat redolent of Gerald Barry's chamber writing for similar forces, but if anything the intensity of the folk-derived colour and dynamism is even more potent, more dizzying, here. The performers, as they do throughout this fine disc, move beyond the realm of mere replication in their performance of the soadie waste, on into the highest echelons of musicianly nuance, and interpretative generosity.

By Stephen Graham

This recording is available as CD or download from the NMC website