Back to:   Index of Composers
Dillon, James

Born in 1950 in Glasgow. In 1982 his composition Parjanya-vata for solo cello won the Kranichsteiner Music Prize at the Summer Courses for New Music Darmstadt. The title refers to Vedic hymns in the Sanskrit language, where parjanya and vata are personifications of rain and wind. During the early 1970s Dillon studied Indian music with Punita Gupta, and some of the rhythmic techniques that he encountered then are referred to in his 1978 composition Ti.reLTi.keLDha for solo percussionist.

Dillon was reinvited to Darmstadt several times in the 1980s and 1990s. His String Quartet no. 1 was premiered by the Arditti Quartet at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 1983. Since then the ensemble has closely collaborated with the composer, performing his later quartets, and Huddersfield is now one of many festivals regularly to feature Dillon’s music (including a large-scale retrospective in 1995).

In the mid-1980s Dillon began work on his German Triptych, a set of works based, as he explains, on the idea of “illumination as an emanation from darkness”—a recurring theme in Western art. Überschreiten from 1985 was commissioned by the London Sinfonietta. This was followed two years later by helle Nacht, Dillon’s first work for large orchestra, a massive work described by Richard Toop as “music full of figures which, like the stars, are intense, yet seem almost infinitely far away.” In 1994 a collaboration between Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh (Rex Foundation) and the BBC led a recording of helle Nacht, together with Dillon’s 1992 BBC Proms commission ignis noster performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Tamayo. In 1996, the German Triptych was completed with the flute concerto Blitzschlag, which was premiered at the Edinburgh Festival by soloist Pierre-Yves Artaud and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, James Dillon worked on Nine Rivers, an ambitious group of large-scale works that the composer conceived not as a cycle, but rather as a collection of works with certain “internal symmetries.” These nine works are scored for various forces, ranging from solo percussion and electronics (in La coupure) through ensemble pieces (East 11th St NY 10003) to the largest-scale compositions (Viriditas for 16 solo voices and Oceanos). This last piece, “the ocean of oceans,” is a kind of Nine Rivers delta, bringing together all the forces previously deployed throughout the series and involving more than fifty musicians as well as live electronics. Commissioned for the BBC Proms 1996, Oceanos was first performed by Music Projects / London under Richard Bernas. Commissioners for other pieces in the Nine Rivers series included, apart from the BBC, also IRCAM, Ensemble intercontemporain, the Oslo Sinfonietta, and Glasgow – the 1990 European City of Culture.

Dillon claims that the Nine Rivers project was conceived as an escape from the “atomistic” nature of a composer’s activities. The intricate references of this massive and complex meditation on time range from environmental concern to the nature of musical language connected through the metaphor of the river. Other works in this group include: L’évolution du vol, a song cycle for female voice and chamber ensemble; Traumwerk – a series of violin pieces, of which the first book for two violins won the 1997 Royal Philharmonic Society award for chamber-scale composition; and The Book of Elements, a cycle in five volumes for solo piano, written for the pianist Roger Woodward (Volume 5 won the composer a second Royal Philharmonic Society award in 2003).

James Dillon’s Violin Concerto was his third BBC Proms commission, and was premiered to great acclaim in the 2000 season by soloist Thomas Zehetmair and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins. The composer used the piped drones and nimble fiddlework of the Scottish folk tradition, and juxtaposed them with dense virtuosic orchestral textures characteristic of his idiom. Similarly as in Blitzschlag, both soloist and orchestra are engaged in a dance; there is a strange attraction, like the moth and the flame.

Other recent orchestral works by Dillon include the four-movement Via Sacra, commissioned by the Société Philharmonique de Bruxelles to celebrate the city’s millennium, and La navette, a single-movement work commissioned by SWR for performance at the Donaueschingen Musiktage 2001.

One of Dillon’s recently staged works, the opera Philomela, further explores the material of La navette. Premiered in Oporto (Portugal) in September 2004, Philomela sets Dillon’s own libretto, based on the myth of Philomela’s rape and torture by Tereus and her subsequent weaving of the story.

In January 2005, Dillon completed his String Quartet no. 4, which was premiered in March 2005 by the Diotima Quartet. His future projects include a piano concerto, and a large multi-movement piece entitled Anthropologies.

Dillon is closely associated with a number of leading ensembles. He has been a guest lecturer at many universities throughout the world, and was named Distinguished International Visitor by New York University (2001–2). In 2003 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Huddersfield. Since 1982 his works have been published by Peters Edition.


Major works (since 1995): black/nebulae for two pianos (1995), Redemption for clarinet, violin and piano (1995), Traumwerk I, 12 violin duos (1995), Blitzschlag for flute and orchestra (1996), Oceanos for 16 voices, orchestra and live electronics (1996), Todesengel for clarinet and vibraphone (1996), Hyades for 12 voices (1998), String Quartet no. 3 (1998), Eos for cello (1999), Residue for double choir (1999), Vapor for vocal quartet and string quartet (1999), Via Sacra for orchestra (1999), La coupure for percussion and electronics (2000), Violin Concerto (2000), Two Studies for Accordion (2001), La navette for large orchestra (2001), Traumwerk II for violin and harpsichord (2001), The Book of Elements I–V for piano (1997−2002), Traumwerk III for violin and piano (2002), The Soadie Waste, Part Two: Anthropology “Wedding receptions, dances and housie housie” for piano and string quartet (2003), String Quartet for Arditti Quartet’s 50th anniversary (2003), Philomela, opera in five acts (2004), Diogenes for bass clarinet (2005), String Quartet no. 4 (2005), Piano Concerto Andromeda (2005), The Magic Stick for piano and percussion (2005), The Hesperides for violin and piano (2007), Theatrum: figurae for wind instruments and percussion (2007), String Quartet no. 5 (2008), Physis I & II for great orchestra (2008), Upon a Cloudy Night for countertenor and piano (2008), Charm for piano (2009), Dragonfly for piano (2009), The Leuven Triptych for ensemble (2009), Torii for ensemble (2009), Fujin for piano (2010), Stabat Mater for choir and ensemble (2010), String Quartet no. 6 (2010), Oslo/Triptych for ensemble (2011), White Numbers for great orchestra (2011), New York Triptych for ensemble (2011–12), String Quartet no. 7 (2013).