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S & H Recital Review

James Dillon, The Book of Elements (first complete performance of all five volumes), Ian Pace (piano), The Warehouse, London, 8th May 2003 (JM)


Ian Pace is an extraordinary pianist. His performances are events, there's always a buzz surrounding them, especially when he programmes the performances himself. Pace seems to thrive on large piano recitals: he has played Messiaenís complete Catalogue díOiseaux, Michael Finnissyís History of Photography lasting five hours and James Dillonís now completed cycle The Book of Elements.

Having given the world premiere of Volume III of The Book of Elements - commissioned by the Berlin Biennale - and performances of this and other volumes in France, Germany, the USA and the UK - Ian Pace gave the first performance of the complete 80 minute long cycle in the presence of the composer at the Warehouse on London's South Bank.

The Book of Elements consists of five Volumes each commissioned for a different prominent pianist of contemporary music by various music festivals (Vol. I was commissioned for Roger Woodward, Vol.II for Noriko Kawai, Vol. III for Ian Pace, Vol. IV for Rolf Hind and Vol. V for Nicolas Hodges). Dillon adopted an aesthetic of the miniature, the fragment: there is no beginning, no end and no development. Musical thoughts and ideas appear, sparkle and vanish. Dillonís piano music is a glass bead game: there are complex references and memories of past music: Bartok, Scriabin, Messiaen and many more. But they appear not as quotations in a self-consciously post-modern way, more like shadows.

Dillonís music is rhythmically very complex. Ian Pace plays the different time layers effortlessly. But the music remains obscure: all the intellectual effort doesnít translate into a consistent experience for the listener. Volume III is one of the most virtuosic and absolutely brilliantly performed; Volume IV starts with beautiful, slow moving sound colours reminiscent of Debussy.

Dillonís The Book of Elements is a rich challenge for any pianist with an interest in contemporary music. Ian Pace took up this challenge with ease and gave it a truthful first complete performance. For the listener it was less satisfying - The Book of Elements gives the impression of an obscure scholastic exploration of pianistic possibilities, and not so much a development of new musical (and emotional) qualities.

Jean Martin

For more information about Ian Pace see



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