I promise I’m not trying to pick on David Patrick Stearns. “Outwardly,” he writes in his philly.com review of the American premiere of James Dillon’s multi-night extended work, “Nine Rivers would seem to be music that can be fathomed only by an ultra-intelligent few and enjoyed by no one,” just before acknowledging, startled, that such an impression isn’t borne out by the experience of Dillon’s music itself.
This sentiment—namely, surprise—you can find in more than a few early reports from Nine Rivers’ New York performance. In most cases, the critics who have enjoyed this particular aha-erlebnis have put it on the music: Dillon’s opus looks forbidding from the outside, but once you get in the door, it envelops you very pleasantly with torrents of numinous, variegated sound.
On the contrary: It is you, critics, who are surprising—but only to yourselves. You’re smart people. You approach music thoughtfully; you write about it every day. Of course you are capable of reckoning with a piece of music, no matter how complex (a word I use in spite of, not because of, Dillon’s putative association with “new complexity”). Even under the quilt of self-imposed man-on-the-street make believe that critics often don so as to simulate the aesthetic responses of a Normal Person, the fact remains that music is for everyone. If you observe that a newly encountered work “can be fathomed only by an ultra-intelligent few,” it’s probably not because you don’t know how to listen to it—it’s because you know how not to listen to it. There’s a sense that music by Dillon and other composers with whom he is sometimes lumped is supposed to be difficult to understand—but all music is difficult to understand, really; girding one’s loins beforehand is probably counterproductive. Next time you hear a piece of music that casts a scary shadow, don’t freak out: just turn on the light.