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Q&A With Lawrence Dillon


A Habit of Composing Remains

Though a childhood illness took 50 percent of his hearing, Lawrence Dillon (M.M. ’83, D.M.A. ’85, composition) began composing as soon as he started piano lessons at the age of 7. Filled with love for his much older piano teacher, Dillon discovered his inspiration and drive: he began to woo her with wordless love songs that he wrote each week in her honor. Though she ended up marrying another man, Dillon’s habit of composing remained. Since then, he has produced an extensive body of work, from brief solo pieces to a full-length opera. In 1985, he became one of the youngest composers to earn a doctorate at The Juilliard School, and shortly thereafter he was appointed to the Juilliard faculty. Born in Summit, N.J., in 1959, Dillon is now composer in residence at the University of NorthCarolina School of the Arts, where he has served as music director of the Contemporary Ensemble, assistant dean of performance, and interim dean of the School of Music. In 2010, three recordings of his music were released on theBridge, Albany and Naxos labels. Increasingly in demand, Dillon has completed commissions in the last two yearsfrom numerous ensembles, among them the Emerson String Quartet, the Ravinia Festival, the Cassatt String Quartet,the Mansfield Symphony, and the Idyllwild Symphony Orchestra. He recently answered some questions about his life and career with oboe doctoral candidate Toni Marie Marchioni.

Alumnus Lawrence Dillon is composer in residence at the North Carolina School of the Arts. His favorite piece is always “the next one.”

(Photo by Creative Communications)


How did your hearing loss as a child affect your entrance into music? 

I can only guess about the emotional effect my hearing loss had, since I was just 2 years old and have no memory of it. My father died of a brain tumor that same year, which makes me wonder if my little mind connected those two losses—hearing and love—through music, which seems to be intimately connected with both. But who can say for sure? 

Were you discouraged, either personally or by others, from being involved with music? 

Fortunately, nobody ever discouraged me from pursuing music. I was, early on, self-conscious about my hearing, but I may have been guilty of exaggerating its importance. I can think of a few composers who did just fine with less hearing than I have.

At what age did you decide/know you wanted to become a professional musician? 

In my teens, when I was a major troublemaker, my mother had the very fortunate idea of sending me to a music camp in Vermont, where I met my first living composer, a lovely fellow by the name of Edwin Finckel. I hadn’t, up to that time, realized that composing was something people could spend their entire lives doing, but once I met him (I think I was 14), there was no turning back.

What are your musical influences? 

This is a great question—but I’ve never been able to answer it! Short list: Machaut, Josquin, Lassus, Monteverdi, Bach, Scarlatti, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Wagner, Brahms, Mahler, Debussy, Puccini, Webern, Bartok, Carter, Cage, Britten, Berio, Glass, Sellars, American popular music from roughly the 1920s to the 1960s. Plus everything else I’ve ever heard. No exaggeration, really. Everything I hear influences me one way or another. 

Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve written? 

My favorite piece is always the next one. It’s always going to be much better than anything else I’ve ever written.

When you receive a commission, do you write for those particular players, or do you let your musical ideas dictate the product? 

The musicians I am writing for always influence what I write to some degree. I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate over the years with some amazing performers, from whom I’ve learned so much. Having said that, I have to add that it’s always best to have some compositional idea that transcends any personal reference.

Your blog is quite impressive and extends back many years—how did you become interested in sharing your thoughts in this medium?

Thank you! I started the blog because I had a lot of thoughts to share on subjects people might find interesting, and a blog seemed like an ideal medium. Some people write books, some write theoretical essays—I prefer the informality of blogging. It suits the way my mind works. As for how I got started, Jerry Bowles, the founder of [the collaborative blog] Sequenza21, contacted me in 2004 about participating in an online Composers Forum. I said sure, but I’d also like to have a blog on the site. He set one up for me. 

Any advice for young composers entering the field? 

Be adventurous. There’s plenty of time later in life to be stodgy—um, I mean focused. Now is the time to try everything. You never know what experiences will pay off 10, 20, 30 years down the line.


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