(Un)easy Listening? James Dillon

Our latest (Un)easy Listening post uncovers the music of one of the UK’s most celebrated but under performed composers, James Dillon. Philip Cashian, Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, unearths the complexities of Dillon’s Nine Rivers ahead of our London premiere of his new Stabat Mater Dolorosa on Wednesday 21 January.


Despite international critical acclaim and major performances worldwide James Dillon (born Glasgow, 1950) remains on the fringes of the British music scene. You could say this is to be expected from a self taught composer who has always very much chosen his own path and avoided the main stream establishment, but I think it’s because of the fundamentally conservative nature of the British music scene and the lack of rehearsal time in the UK that makes composers of complex music like Dillon difficult to put on.

Growing up in the early 1960s listening to The Rolling Stones, Beatles and Frank Zappa and dropping out of Art College after a year and going to live in a commune in Cornwall (where he took acid) I can’t help thinking of Dillon as belonging to the generation of Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis even though he despises prog rock as being phony. He describes his epic Nine Rivers project as ‘a mythos of imagined waters, of fairies and snake-gods, a melancholy of flow, a requiem for poisoned rivers, an odyssey, a theatre of memory’.

Uneasy image

Dillon gives a couple of interesting insights into the complexity of his music in a recent interview with Igor Toronyi-Laiic Dillon:

‘The Baroque interests me because of the function of ornamentation in music. I’m fascinated by ornamentation. Ornamentation for me is like a particular type of movement, a flutter. I love it. I don’t think ornamentation is something of a surplus. And I’ve always been fascinated by how you deal with it in a structural way rather than merely as decoration.’ For example:

‘I was fascinated by the act of performance as a visual spectacle in itself.’ For example:

Nine Rivers (1982-2000) is over three and a half hours long and consists of nine works for a huge variety of forces, ranging from La coupure for solo percussion and electronics to Oceanos for voices, large ensemble and live electronics.

East 11th St. NY 10003 is the first work in the cycle and is scored for six percussionists. At 4:27 listen to the rattles and trills passing through different types of percussion like a melodic thread being passed around on the surface of the music. From 5:24 the timpani start to very slowly rise up through the ensemble to a climax at 8:46.

La femme invisible (1989) is part four of Nine Rivers and is scored for an ensemble of percussion, piano and wind. There’s real clarity in this bristling, busy music and musical ideas are easy to follow – such as a clarinet solo at 0:39 and an oboe solo at 0:52. I particularly like the rhythmic, dance-like interjections at 1:54 and 2:13 and the piano solo at 2:46.

Other composers who, along with Dillon, belong to the so called British school of new complexity include Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy and Richard Barrett.

Early influences on Dillon

Webern: Bagatelles
Varese: Ionisation
Xenakis: Thallein
Muddy Waters

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