Three Reviews of James Dillon’s The Louth Work

The Journal of Music

Composer James Dillon and Eamonn Quinn of Louth Contemporary Music Society. Photo © James Joslin, Edition Peters.

Louth Ritual

Ritual is central to the latest commission from the Louth Contemporary Music Society, writes Brendan Finan – a major new work by Scottish composer James Dillon, performed by Peyee Chen and Crash Ensemble at the Drogheda Arts Festival. Brendan Finan

James Dillon’s The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments continues an 11-year string of commissions by the Louth Contemporary Music Society. Premiered at St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, on 28 April, the work is the latest addition to the Scottish composer’s already considerable body of chamber music, and reflects his taste for large-scale philosophical works.

The text derives mainly from the Ancient Greek ‘Hymns of Orpheus’ (the subtitle of the composition feels like it wants to be the title), along with work by later writers, from Petrarch to Gillels Deleuze, though the composer stresses that the words are subservient to the music, ‘primarily a vehicle for vocal colour’. At over an hour in length, with hardly a break between the constellations (Dillon’s word for the six sections of the work), and often featuring intricate, busy textures, it would be a technical gauntlet for any performing group.

Chen, a fixture in recent years at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, was at the centre of the ensemble, literally as well as figuratively, sitting between pianist/keyboardist David Bremner and Léonie Bluett on clarinets. Only four other members of Crash completed the ensemble: Alex Petcu, whose percussion played a very prominent role; Kate Ellis and Lisa Dowdall on cello and viola; and David Stalling controlling live electronics, all under conductor Sinead Hayes. Together, they proved that they could not just manage the acrobatics of the work, but revel in them.

Lighthouse flashes
This is complex music, but ritual is central, and in performance the ear was often drawn towards a single sound – a slow, steady beat on the gong, or cold interjections from the snare drum, or a driving cello motif on a single aggressive note – repeated at the heart of dense textures like a lighthouse flash in stormy waters. Distinct melodic strands – here a duet for clarinet and xylorimba, there an electrifying piano part with a slow song – soar around each other, coming into brief concord before diverging again.

The whole work is the same technique writ large. It first focusses on individual lines and instruments, beginning with a duet for voice and piano, Chen singing the words ‘Layers of shiny dew’ over Bremner’s steady, quasi-tonal chords. A clarinet-heavy second constellation follows, with percussion, especially bell sounds, gaining more and more prominence as the work proceeds. It culminates, in the fourth constellation, in a dense ensemble performance, before slowly disintegrating. Individual moments linger in the memory: a single plucked piano string reverberating in the air; a continuous alarm tone on tubular bell under siren-like glissandos in the strings; pulsing, percussive tonguing on the clarinet.

At other times, the music comes to a tense standstill, individual tones or trills passed from one performer to another over almost ambient electronic background. Amongst the acrobatics of the rest of the work, these were a tightrope walk, where the slightest slip in intonation, had it occurred, would have been magnified a thousandfold.

It was the quiet moments that really took the breath away. Dillon’s music, particularly in recent years, has drawn on clearly tonal resources as well as atonal, and this work has consonance at its core, from the slowly alternating opening chords to gentle, solemn snatches of song. It closes, incredibly, with a B-major chord. The chord is submerged immediately, and held under tense, still dissonance for the last minutes until it re-emerges, pure and clean, as though baptised.

Three Songs
The Louth Work
was preceded by Jennifer Walshe’s Three Songs by Ukeoirn O’Connor. Somewhat unfairly, this went almost completely without mention in the promotional material for the concert – so much so that, at its conclusion, a number of attendees grabbed their programmes as if to ask, ‘Is that it?’

O’Connor (a member of Grúpat, Walshe’s collective of artistic alter-egos) wrote the songs to explore an array of vowel sounds much wider than those available in English. Performed alone by Peyee Chen, who accompanied herself on ukulele, the songs are like an ancestral memory of long-lost folk music. Recordings are available on SoundCloud, including one by Chen, but the richness of the church’s acoustics added a new layer of warm resonance. At around just five minutes, the songs felt like an aperitif, light and crisp to whet the appetite for the work that was to follow.

Louth Contemporary Music Society’s next event is Silenzio Music Festival on 23 and 24 June, featuring the first visit to Ireland of Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino. For more, visit  Published on 15 May 2017  Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer living in Meath. He writes a blog at

 5 against 4 reviews James Dillon’s The Louth Work

It shames me to admit that, until February this year, i’d never heard of Louth Contemporary Music Society. On the one hand, it’s ridiculous that i hadn’t: for the last seven-or-so years they’ve been putting on fascinating concerts featuring music by, among many others, Terry Riley, György Kurtág, John Zorn, David Lang, Sofia Gubaidulina, Michael Pisaro, John Cage, Christian Wolff, Tan Dun, Alvin Lucier and Éliane Radigue, performed by the likes of Musicircus, Kronos Quartet, Carducci Quartet, Ian Pace, Trio Mediaeval, Garth Knox and the Hilliard Ensemble, as well as several of the aforementioned composers themselves. Not being aware of such fantastical goings-on seems entirely absurd. Yet on the other hand, not only is pretty much everyone i’ve spoken to about them in the last few months equally unaware of these concerts, i’ve not encountered any promotion or discussion about them in the usual new music places. Perhaps the shame lies elsewhere. Either way, it’s time to shout out loudly about what’s really going on on the east coast of Ireland, and it’s largely thanks to the tirelessly enthusiastic one-man-bandery of Eamonn Quinn, co-founder and curator of LCMS, whose efforts have at last been celebrated with his being awarded the 2018 Belmont Prize for Contemporary Music (Alex Ross won the prize in 2012), a belated but very richly deserved acknowledgement of Quinn’s exceptionally open-minded and energetic approach to concert curation.

The most recent LCMS concert took place last Saturday in the town of Drogheda, around thirty miles north of Dublin. The combined forces of soprano Peyee Chen and Crash Ensemble, conducted by Sinéad Hayes, came together to give the world première of James Dillon‘s new work for voice and five instruments, The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments. It was, in hindsight, a good thing that there had been virtually no information about it prior to the performance, but i wonder whether anything would have been adequate preparation for the experience of this piece. It’s fair, i think, to describe it as an epic—a calm, measured epic, certainly, but one that nonetheless spoke with stunning intensity and, despite the small number of performers and restraint in the music, with remarkable weight. Both structurally and musically, The Louth Work conveys a distinct air of ritual: it’s a heavily articulated piece, segmented and episodic, its sections – six ‘constellations’ comprising 44 ‘scenes’ – at times presented in a halting way that almost implied a long, deep intake of breath before they began. Bells are everywhere, both real and projected: on stage as tubular, Javanese gong and three tam-tams, supplemented with vibraphone, glockenspiel and antique cymbals; emerging from the speakers were sound files of more bells, both similar to those we could see as well as much larger ones that bestowed on the music a somewhat other-worldly loftiness and solemnity. It’s easy to reach for an adjective like ‘other-worldly’ and trot it out without qualification, but in this context it’s entirely appropriate. Because, in spite of the fact that we were sat within the handsome interior of St Peter’s Church, coupled with this sense of ritual and solemnity, there was nothing that could even remotely be described as a ‘religious’ quality. i wonder whether even the word ‘spiritual’ is pushing it; possibly the best descriptor would be ‘metaphysical’. Drawing freely on the Orphic Hymns, with a trio of ‘inserts’ from Petrarch and Apollinaire, Dillon has constructed what amounts to a kind of ‘mystery rite’, a heightened act of abstract ceremony devoid of dogmatic specifics, its credo rooted in poetic passions and evocations.

The music was also rooted: the (omni)presence of bells is one aspect of this, and Dillon also regularly underpins the work with varying forms of drone. Here they act not merely to fix but to transfix, establishing what might be thought of as ‘ecstatic pedals’, extended pitches and chords that allowed filigree movement around them while locking it into a kind of stasis, like motes of dust tumbling in a shaft of sunlight. These passages exhibited a complex consonance that reinforced this impression of inherent equilibrium. While they act as a foundation for the work as a whole, it’s hard to say whether they’re the music’s ‘default position’, as it were; Dillon contrasts these stases with episodes of intricate detail, the players splintering into individuated lines, often florid and gestural, occasionally assertive but – unusually for Dillon – never violent. The fact that the dronal sections consistently felt as though they were reuniting the ensemble is perhaps telling.

Considered from the perspective of both a work described as being for “voice and five instruments” as well as one with an overt demeanour of ritual, the role of the voice is interesting. In no meaningful sense of the word is it a ‘soloist’, acting rather as an integral member of the ensemble; furthermore, Dillon clarifies in the score that the text being sung is “primarily a vehicle for vocal colour” and to that end it is “not desirable to … attempt to convey ‘comprehensibility’”. (Hence why the programme did not include the text; not only would it not have ‘helped’, it would potentially have distracted from and undermined Dillon’s intentions.) This was abundantly obvious in the performance, Peyee Chen seated throughout and for the most part not so much projecting her material as delivering it with the intimate hush of an entirely private activity, as though singing to herself. Not always: she regularly teamed up with other players – the clarinet in particular – in duets and to form intertwined pitch and/or gesture unisons, and elsewhere extruded away and floated above them. But for large portions of The Louth Work the voice is entirely silent, underlining the fact that the work does not revolve around it, while at the same time making its occurrences seem more significant, an interesting ambiguity that added an extra frisson to Chen’s tantalisingly just-out-of-reach performance.

Questions remain. At almost 70 minutes’ duration, one would expect its structure to be micro-managed by Dillon, but the extent to which The Louth Work displays an incontrovertible sense of direction seems minimal. In no way did that come across as a negative thing: indeed, the work’s ebb and flow had an intuitively improvisational character that felt convincingly organic and could have continued indefinitely. Only after it had finished did it become clear how much time had passed; the way it positioned itself ‘outside time’ – as any authentic ritual will tend to do – was very striking and deeply impressive. As the fragile stasis that dominates its closing minutes faded away, one felt simultaneously enervated and energised, diminished by the magnitude of Dillon’s music – which, despite the breaks between sections, maintains an unbroken continuity of atmosphere – yet invigorated by its quiet ardour. The obvious intricacies of the material, continually qualified by a recurrent folk-like sensibility, allow The Louth Work to be elevated yet grounded.

This is seriously taxing music, and despite being at some remove from Crash Ensemble’s more usual fare (the ensemble is aptly-named), they gave a performance that wasn’t merely confident but which allowed the work’s ceremonial sensibility to emerge naturally without ever becoming mannered. Peyee Chen insinuated herself among them perfectly, undaunted by the need to often become a mere ghost, her half-heard material speaking with greater force due to its taciturn sense of reserve. The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments is an important work within Dillon’s output, one that for player and audience alike makes the greatest of demands, but with the lightest of touches.

Chen began the concert with a rendition of Jennifer Walshe‘s Three Songs by Ukeoirn O’Connor. It was a perfect way to establish the tone of the evening, the breathy, dreamy, sensual wonder of Walshe’s music coming across – as i’ve never heard it before (certainly quite different from how it seemed when Chen performed it in Edinburgh last year) – like another kind of ritual, a solitary one as if performed on some remote mountain-top, sung to the wind. Gorgeous, intense, contemplative, the purity of Chen’s voice floated beautifully over the rough twang of her ukulele, communicating something exotically foreign to everyone, yet innately understood by us all.

The Irish Times Reviews The Louth Work

Challenging music

I had to miss Perisonic, the multimedia finale to Music Current, in order to attend the first performance of James Dillon’s The Louth Work (Orphic Fragments), presented by Louth Contemporary Music Society as part of the Drogheda Arts Festival.

Dillon is a formidable Scot with a reputation for writing challenging music that’s more closely aligned with German taste in contemporary music than British. The Louth Work, performed by the wonderfully controlled Taiwanese soprano Peyee Chen and five members of the Crash Ensemble under Sinéad Hayes, is like an extended meditation, visually subdued (both singer and conductor remain seated) and with the voice often intentionally obscured behind the furling and unfurling of the instrumental writing. No texts were provided at this performance.

The Louth Work also includes electronics, the effect sometimes almost subliminal, like a food flavour you are aware of but can’t quite identify. On a first hearing, the work did seem rather too long, as if the composer somehow experienced difficulty drawing it all to a conclusion.