Interview: James Dillon

First published in The Herald in November, 2011

“Nothing really changes.” James Dillon shrugs as he describes his childhood as a contradiction. “I was a Mod teenager who was obsessed with the Delta blues. I discovered the Stones when I was 12 and found this name, Muddy Waters, on the back of their LPs. It took me ages to figure out he was actually a person. Nobody was called Muddy Waters in Glasgow.”

Now 61 and arguably the most singular and innovative Scottish composer of his generation, Dillon is four years into a professorship at the University of Minnesota. This, too, is a bit of a contradiction, because he is largely self-taught and by his own admission “not made for institutions”. He started a foundation year at the Glasgow School of Art when he was 18 but dropped out before his exams. He’s no diplomat, either; he speaks his mind and seems prone to making instant enemies of bureaucrats. He has a reputation for difficulty, both musically and, if you ask many orchestral musicians and managers, temperamentally. The image of him coaching college students in the heartland of ‘Minnesota Nice’ is baffling.

“It does make me a little schizophrenic,” he explains as he shows me into his West London home. “When you teach, you start taking on problems that aren’t yours. I can’t seem to let go.” He’s just back from the States, on his way to Norway to oversee rehearsals for a new work to be premiered at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival on Saturday. He’s feeling “a bit odd”: the jetlag, and the change in the sky colour from St Paul’s watery blue to London’s grey.

When he arrived in Minnesota the university had no ensemble to perform student works or contemporary repertoire, so he set one up. He hasn’t made things easy for himself: he refuses to use the university concert hall because it’s ugly, and banned American music for the first two years. “There was a mass intake of breath around the room when I announced that one… In the third year I allowed some Morton Feldman.”

“So many professors just pick up their salary while the kids rack up enormous debts. If there’s anything I can offer, I’d like them to leave school more open minded than if they hadn’t met me.” Even the alternate persona Dillon adopts in Minnesota seems to bemuse him. “There is probably a gregarious side to me. I probably enjoy it. I’m probably okay at it.”

More of a concern is that he can’t compose over there. It’s not the time spent teaching, he says, but the mental space it occupies. And so he returns to London whenever he can, to this brick terrace house by Queen’s Park where he has lived for 25 years. “The minute I walk in here I start to compose,” he says. The living room is dark and muted, blinds down, floors spread with rugs. Neatly stacks of books and CDs and vinyl line every wall. “I’ve written a lot of music here,” he says. “Maybe that leaves a trace behind — an aura, as Walter Benjamin would say.”

Dillon first came to London as a retreat. He needed to get away from a communal house in Cornwall which, he says, was killing him. “Everyone was into psychedelia and there was a lot of acid around. My body wasn’t made to cope with that kind of abuse. I ended up with TB in hospital. Then I met a girl. I was 19 and she saved me. Together we escaped to London.”

Ironically, he had moved to Cornwall to escape the vices of another scene: Glasgow’s folk clubs in the late 1960s. He’d signed up for an architecture degree at Glasgow School of Art but learned how to drink more than paint. He bought a guitar in a junk shop on Great Western Road and started strumming along at pub sessions. Years later he took the composer Toru Takemitsu to one of his old Argyle Street haunts but found it “full of tourists eating à la carte.”

Back in the 1960s enjoyed the authenticity of the folk music (“or at least, the authenticity of its delivery”), but after a year he felt burnt out and claustrophobic so headed south. That was the second time he left Glasgow. The first was aged ten when his family moved to Huddersfield — “of all places!” There he battled through high school with a funny accent and supporting the other team at football. His Scottish identity “was honed by going to school in England; I’m no nationalist, no flag-waver or kiltie, but I am Scottish.” Now his accent speaks like an audio biography: Glasgow solidly at its core, softened by Yorkshire and London and even mid-west America.

He offers various guesses at why, in the past, he’s found his relationship with Scotland strained. “Maybe it’s because I’ve chosen not to live there and people resent that. Or maybe it’s because I’m seen — simplistically — as an arch-Modernist. If Britain has struggled with so-called Modernism, Scotland really has.” This is the only point in the conversation when, as he mulls over the “idiotic” labels that have been attached to his work, Dillon comes close to irritable.

It’s true that labelling seems futile. Dillon’s style is self-incubated, born of playing the pipes as a seven year old, of that teenage love of the blues, of being related to Jimmy Logan and Annie Ross, of a chance encounter with a Webern record in Cornwall. For me, the fascination of Dillon’s music lies in the extreme juncture between all these, and his microscopic attention to novel sounds of all sorts.

His new piece for Huddersfield is the second of three triptychs, each named after its commissioning city. 2009’s Leuven Triptych is an extraordinary response to the art of Rogier van der Weydan; next summer a New York Triptych is due for premiere at Darmstadt. The current preoccupation is Oslo. “I’ve gone and given the musicians cheap voice transformers to play with,” he says; they sound “nasty and interesting” but are temperamental. “If the performers get it wrong I look like an idiot! Which is why at the last minute I’ve decided to go over to Norway…”

He “tries not to freak” in such situations, “or sometimes the freaking is done back at the hotel when I ask myself why I didn’t stick to architecture at the School of Art. But there is nothing more chilling than walking into a rehearsal room with all these eyes glaring at you. Most of them don’t want to be there. Half of them opened their score for the first time that morning. They see my dots and think ‘Oh Jesus…’”

And well they might, because Dillon’s music is notoriously difficult. He says that’s mainly because he’s after particular sounds — sounds that are only attainable from extreme parts of instruments. But he admits there’s an element of provocation, too. “It’s about demanding concentration and engagement. Players are so highly trained these days that they easily drift into a comfort zone.”

At the heart of his polemic is concern with performance experience. Going to a concert should be like “stepping into a magic circle,” he says, and much of his work explores ways of finding that circle. Nine Rivers, staged by the BBC SSO last year, tried to find it through vast proportions. The current triptychs retreat to a more intimate scale, possibly a more pragmatic one. But they continue the search.