5 against 4 on 9 rivers

Having just written about one contemporary epic, it seems like a good time to draw full attention to someone else’s writing on another, given its premiere almost exactly a year ago.

At the end of last month, Simon Cummings of 5 against 4 embarked on a nine-part series of posts on James Dillon’s Nine Rivers cycle. It’s a giant undertaking for a blog, and a fitting tribute to Dillon’s masterwork. As readers have come to expect with 5 against 4, not only is each post a lucid and forceful critique of the music, but each is lavishly supplemented with original programme notes, audio recordings and, in many cases, the scores themselves (courtesy of Peters Edition). Here’s a run-down of them all.

1. East 11th St NY 10003

East 11th St‘s rigorous grid-based foundation perhaps brings the calculated structures of the Constructions in Metal to mind, & the interrelationship of indeterminate & pitched instruments isn’t dissimilar to that of Ionisation, but … the compositional aspect that’s projected with greatest force is timbre

2. L’ECRAN parfum

At 10 minutes’ duration, it’s the shortest piece in the cycle, but there’s absolutely nothing slight about it; on the contrary, L’ECRAN Parfum is a searing demonstration of Dillon the dramaturgist, cramming into its brief span a bewildering & almost infeasibly intense dramatic outpouring

3. Viriditas

Having moved seamlessly between its first two components, Nine Rivers enters an entirely new area with its third piece, Viriditas … Timbrally disjunct from its predecessors, Viriditas also stands apart from them in the complexity of its material

4. La femme invisible

La femme invisible is a decidedly difficult work to get a grip on; despite the clarity of its structure, & indeed its familiarity (the CD has been available for almost 20 years), the work still seems as impenetrable as ever—fascinating but enigmatic, allusive yet elusive

5. La coupure

Simultaneously redolent of its heritage & unmistakeably of its time, La coupure is nonetheless decidedly left-field

6. L’ouevre au noir

Despite being heard in the wake of almost two hours of incredibly intense & intricate music, L’œuvre au noir comes as a genuine shock; Dillon’s piercing gaze into the abyss, & the sheer scale of its blackness is breathtaking

7. éileadh sguaibe

The electronics … are negligible, so the piece is simply heard as one for brass septet & percussion • Despite éileadh sguaibe‘s brief duration … Dillon establishes a fascinating relationship between these two groups, which in many ways feels like a continuation from L’œuvre au noir (& almost sounds like a larger incarnation of Richard Barrett’s superb piece for trombone & percussion, EARTH)

8. Introitus

The overall interaction between the instrumental & synthetic aspects of Introitus is strikingly effective • But most impressive is Dillon’s string writing, the sheer inventive range of which is exhaustive, & the interrelationship of the three groupings, particularly the long episode where the quartet is in the foreground, is thrilling despite the quietening taking place

9. Oceanos

Having explored eight different kinds of ensemble, Dillon finally unites them; it’s not explicitly described as such, but with nine woodwind, seven brass, six percussion, piano, harp & 11 strings, plus live electronics & a choir of 16 voices, Oceanos is undeniably a work for choir & orchestra—not a large one, to be sure, but an orchestra nonetheless • As such, captured in that evocative title, it has a breadth of scope far beyond that of its predecessors, a broadness that also results in some of the slowest, most weighty material in the entire cycle


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