Would you describe yourself as a neo-romantic? Why (not)? Lawrence Dillon



Lawrence Dillon
Photo by Superieur Photographic

At the conclusion of Italo Calvino‘s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo responds to Kublai Khan‘s despair in words that may be paraphrased as follows:

We are living in hell. We have two choices: we can become a part of the hell around us, or we can find those things around us that are not hell, and give them a form that will allow them to endure.

Although many find the Western music tradition oppressive, for me it resides comfortably in the category of “not hell.” The combined creative energy of thousands upon thousands of musicians throughout the centuries, all striving to perfect their own little corners of the repertoire, is a continuing source of inspiration and sustenance. “Hell,” by contrast, is the mindless pursuit of novelty, our cultural obsession with chasing after the latest innovation. While I am open to and intrigued by new things, I would prefer to come upon them in the pursuit of honesty, rather than making newness the object of my search.

In this context, words like “neo-romanticism” or “neo-tonality” have little significance. While such societal trends may be of interest to critics and musicologists, they are irrelevant for individuals who invest themselves in the daily exploration required by any creative work. We simply write what we want to hear and haven’t heard before, and trust the process to take us places we have never been.

In terms of technique, there is too much confusion with the use of the term “tonality.” Schoenberg was frustrated when his music was called “atonal.” He preferred to describe his achievement as “the emancipation of dissonance.” Of course, dissonance is anything but emancipated in Schoenberg’s music—in fact, dissonance is the foundation of his mature language, as opposed to the dissonance in Mozart‘s music, which serves as an embellishment to triadic structures. Much of my music treats dissonance in this Classical manner, and yet the music itself often lacks a tonal center. There is no paradox here, for there are many ways to arrange chords without reference to a key.

Romanticism itself is a misleading term, for too often it is confined to describing the music of the 19th century, as if the concept had not existed long before. In its purest form, Romanticism is a fascination with the ways in which art affects the spirit. It is difficult to imagine a composer who is immune to every manifestation of Romanticism, just as it is difficult to imagine one for whom this purest form of Romanticism suffices.

My music seldom sounds as if it had been composed in an earlier time, and then only when the paradox of time is the subject of the music. More frequently, traditional procedures are intensified with contemporary rhythms and kaleidoscopically fractured tonality, connecting present to past in an effort to illuminate both.