She is holding two musical scores.
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“This” is the music of James Dillon, the Glasgow-born international composer, 60 this year, whose music has a legendary reputation for its complexity and impenetrability. Orchestras have fallen into the ditch of failure trying to get his music off the page. One performance of his orchestral work Via Sacra, recorded for broadcast on Radio 3, was so bad it was never put out on the airwaves. Whether the fault lay with the orchestra, the conductor or the composer depends on who you speak to.
None the less, in international terms, Dillon is a major figure, so when the Royal Albert Hall Proms office phoned the RSAMD some months ago, and invited the academy to put together a group to participate in a Dillon event, the academy went on a major musical alert. A big piece of Dillon’s had been scheduled for a Proms performance this summer, and the BBC wanted to stage one of their Proms Plus events as a taster for the main concert that night.
This would take the form of a composer portrait, to be held in the concert hall of the Royal College of Music, just before the main Royal Albert Hall event. Four of Dillon’s shorter pieces, chosen by the composer himself, would constitute the programme. Dillon will be present, and give a rare public interview.
The RSAMD is sending its specialist contemporary music students down to London for the gig. This is the RSAMD Music Lab, which includes pianist Ed Cohen, who will play two short “fiendish” piano pieces. It also includes two instrumental ensembles. Jessica Cottis, conducting fellow at the academy, was asked to take on the job of conducting the ensemble pieces, which are called …Once Upon A Time and ZONE di Azul.
I asked the 30-year-old Australian-born conductor to bring the scores to our meeting to see if we can get under the bonnet of the music to any degree. The music leaps out at me, but it doesn’t translate. Contrary to my expectations, I’m not confronted with swarms of notes. The pages aren’t as black and dense as I expected, though they are chamber pieces and not orchestral scores. However, looking at the detail, I find I can’t read it. It doesn’t translate into sound in my brain. The rhythms are almost indescribably intricate and complex. What does the young conductor make of it?
For a start, she says, she’s in the mindset for this stuff. An entire strand of her recent experience has been in conducting difficult contemporary music: she’s just conducted six world premieres with the London Sinfonietta, had a Scottish tour with the Red Note ensemble playing Bill Sweeney’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, and had to prepare, at 24 hours notice, an entire programme of tough modern music in case BBC SSO conductor Ilan Volkov, stranded beneath the recent volcano ash cloud, didn’t make it back to the UK.
Looking at the Dillon pieces, she makes a few observations. “I don’t know if there’s an actual narrative – Dillon doesn’t give anything away – but, looking at them, particularly Once Upon A Time, there’s a real sense of atmosphere here, a sense that you can pick up from a landscape or a scene. Somehow or other it locks into memories, and the sound is incredibly evocative.”
But what of the technical problems? “On the page the music looks impenetrably dense. There are notes everywhere.” But it’s the rhythmic and metrical configuration that present the real nightmare, she says. “Here in the woodwinds
he asks for 13 notes to be played in the time of 12, and, in the next bar, the clarinet has to play seven notes in the time of six, while the horn has to play 10 notes in the time of nine.
“What I would say is this, and it goes back to that whole thing about evoking images: the more familiar I become with it, the music is actually transparent.” (I have never heard the word “transparent” used of Dillon’s music.) “It’s not noise, in any way, shape or form. The music is very linear, and there are incredible lines which I hope to bring out that are just colours and hazy, distant images.
“I have a mathematical mind, as you know, and it seems to me that this music is amazingly beautiful in its mathematical structures.”
She doesn’t understate the difficulties faced by her players. “No- one could come in and sight-read this stuff. They have to prepare. They have to listen to their fellow musicians and know who’s coming in when and with what. And it’s up to me to point that out and provide them with a framework. And it’s nothing to do with density: it’s just sheer complexity within one instrument and within one bar.” She points to a particular passage in ZONE where complex arrangements of notes are in combination. “But the players have to fit these into a context where every individual bar is speeding up or slowing down. There is an absolute fluidity of motion that goes on throughout the piece. It gives the music an organic feel, but the players have to be able to pace these difficult rhythmic configurations within a bar that is changing its pulse all the time.”
And what about the audience? What will they hear and what will it mean? “I hope it will be quite evocative. It’s an evocative sound world, and we hope to a sense of somewhere else; and with this music we have a real vehicle to do this.
“It’s a case of transcending the technical difficulties and letting the music evolve organically.”
The academy has given her 12 hours of rehearsal for two short pieces of eight or nine minutes each. She hopes it’s enough. They will run the programme next Tuesday in Glasgow at the academy.
Is Cottis scared at the high-profile London exposure on August 19, which will be recorded for Radio 3? “This is a massive deal for me. No, I don’t get nervous: I get excited. The adrenalin pumps, but I feel focused and one-minded, in both my body and my mind. It is really brilliant to get the players at the Proms and really brilliant to test us with such difficult music. I can’t wait.”
RSAMD Music Lab, Tuesday June 29, RSAMD, 1pm.