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New York Triptych - James Dillon

Commissioned by Talea Ensemble, New York and made possible by a grant from the Fromm Music Foundation is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet(s), piano, percussion, violin, viola and cello.

The triptych (from Greek tri— “three” and ptychē, “fold”) holds for me a certain fascination. Perhaps it is the symbolism, perhaps the symmetry? I first explored the form in the early 1980s. Here I differentiate the triptych as a threefold work from the simple tripartite design. Originally the term was used for the “folding” three-leaved wax writing tablets of ancient Rome, which were written on with a stylus and thus could be erased and overwritten. Pictorially of course we associate the triptych with the great medieval and early Renaissance (three-sectioned) altarpieces, which could be displayed “open” or “closed” by either folding in or displaying out the side panels. One important aspect of the triptych was the invitation to read them as a form of narrative to read across the panels.

New York Triptych is the third of three related triptychs:

1. The Leuven Triptych (2008–9)

2. Oslo/Triptych (2010–11)

3. New York Triptych (2011–12)

The titles derive simply from the location of the three commissions (Belgium, Norway, and the United States). As a group of works they share a number of features. The commission for the first of the triptychs, The Leuven Triptych, was from the city of Leuven in Belgium and the request was to make a connection between a new work and the Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden; Leuven, the city of his birth, was about to launch a major retrospective of his work. As a starting point, I focused on Weyden’s triptych in the Louvre known as The Braque Triptych, with its folding panels and bleak inscriptions. Inscriptions on paintings of this period are not uncommon and one can only speculate as to their function: one aspect is how they might influence our understanding of the painting or supplement the pictorial narrative; to heighten the narrative content of the work certainly influences our reading of a painting. Another aspect of these inscriptions was more esoteric, often containing occult messages or citing obscure sayings. More recent pictorial examples may include the disordered use of “graphemes” or the scratch writings in the triptychs of both Francis Bacon and Cy Twombly, in what appear as allusions to Renaissance inscriptions. Certainly the employment of inscriptions can impress as “graffiti-like” gestures, what Roland Barthes has called a “surplus of action,” in the context of my three Triptychs this “surplus of action” exists as (sonic) interference where musical discourse is momentarily confused or interrupted. This aspect of the Triptychs may be seen as “open,” throughout each of their three parts, layers across the musical textures are brief live or prerecorded supplementary inscriptions.

In The Leuven Triptych, for example, inscriptions (as “utterance”) derive from contemporaries of Weyden; these “utterances” may be prerecorded, live, or a mixture of the two. Various nonmusical texts are plundered and available to the ensemble, which they may choose to “fold” into their “reading” of the musical text. In this case the texts came from Weyden’s time, for example, Alberti’s treatise On Painting (De Pictura) or Nicholas of Cusa’s On learned Ignorance (De docta ignorantia). A segment of the motet Ave Regina Cœlorum by Weyden’s contemporary Guillaume Dufay appears in the first section of the work. In addition, the ensemble have access to material that is prerecorded (only ever heard as playback) and at certain points in the score, there is a drift where prerecorded material, archaic remnants, and live action mingle. In the Oslo/Triptych the supplementary material consists almost entirely of “signal noise.” Random and fluctuating shortwave radio material is woven live into the musical material to create “moments of signal confusion,” live musical material is refracted through this prerecorded “signal noise.” Here the esoteric nature of archaic inscription is echoed in the strange repetitive broadcasts of shortwave “number stations,” a space of cryptic propagation and weird radio messaging. Whereas musical organization oscillates between the stochastic and the symmetrical, “signal noise” imposes itself “graffiti-like” on the musical texture. In the New York Triptych (presented here) principles of order—a dialectic between “change” and “duration,” between continuous transformation and repetition—dominate the musical discourse. Woven into this as a kind of “ephemeral memory,” prerecorded moments from the previous triptychs emerge from the musical discourse as traces of the earlier “utterances,” “shortwave reception,” and a faded, deteriorated recording of Marcel Duchamp (here speaking in New York) mingle. The graffiti of archaic remnants drift through the three triptychs, contained within and across a formal narrative of “three parts,” as mirrored in three triptychs.

James Dillon