Mnemosyne celebrated by James Dillon and Pierre Bleuse

Concerts 19.09.2023

One concert, one work. For his Paris debut at the helm of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, Pierre Bleuse commissioned Scottish composer James Dillon to design a new stage configuration and special lighting to place the audience at the heart of the sound and mystery.

The idea is to place all the musicians (with the exception of the percussion) on a circular platform that will make one complete revolution during the 75-minute performance. The extreme slowness of the rotation makes the movement almost imperceptible and all the more hypnotic, in keeping with the long time frame of Dillon's new work. This slow but inexorable revolution nonetheless alters the audience's listening angle, depending on how close or far away the various instrumental desks are located. Valeria Kafelnikov's harp, the central figure in this "polyptych", is enthroned at the center of the spherical, slightly elevated stage, and is the only one to be illuminated at the start of the piece.

Polyptych: Mnemosyne... Acts of Memory and Mourning, is a score begun in 2022 under the impact of two painful events for the composer: the death of his mother and Vladimir Putin's declaration of war. It was during the course of the composition that the figure of Mnemosyne, personification of Mneme (Memory) and mother of the Muses, gradually imposed itself on the composer: memory and its multiple associations, carrying with it all manner of thoughts, memories, shuffled, blurred and fragmented images, which run through the musician's imagination and provide the impetus for this ample rotatory movement that ends as it began. James Dillon claims to have been inspired by Renaissance altarpieces (known as polyptychs) to animate this continuum of sound, articulated in five "panels" of two or three "shutters" each.

The first notes of the archaic harp, set against the dark, enveloping effluvia of the tam, immediately capture our attention: for the ancients, says the composer, " imagination was a form of memory ". Ringing tones (crotales, shimmering metals, tubular bells) are like signals inviting us on a journey, as the composer takes his audience into this flow of memory, moving between flashes and nostalgic stasis, transparency and opacity, in an ever-fluctuating temporality. The highly extended percussion set (skins, resonant metals and keyboards) is framed by two pianos and two organs used for the long holds thickened by the low brass that textures the sound space.

Dillon wrote his piece for the musicians of the EIC, whom he graces with superb solos (flute, violin, clarinet, vibraphone, marimba, piano, trumpet, etc.), small concerts, alone or accompanied, letting us appreciate a writing that is always inventive and highly chiseled. He also creates the most surprising combinations of timbres within long-lasting layers of sound. The surge of skins in the middle of the work marks the climax of the score, while a brass chorale closes the trajectory.
There are indeed many reminiscences in the course of the work, which seem to flow freely through the movements (rhythmic effluvia of popular music, ancient polyphony, bird clarinet) and enliven this theater of memory, to which the recurring gestures and slowness of the process lend a ritual dimension.

As master of ceremonies, Pierre Bleuse leads his musicians with a rare concentration, giving "this journey through the rituals of memory and remembrance" a power that is both immersive and hypnotic. 

Michèle Tosi

Cité de la Musique, Paris, 14-09-2023
James Dillon (b. 1950): Polyptych / Mnemosyne... Acts of Memory and Mourning for large ensemble (CM). Ensemble Intercontemporain; conducted by Pierre Bleuse.

Photos © Quentin Chevrier


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