ignis noster

James Dillon (1950)

ignis noster 1992

4444 - 6541 - 2timp.perc(4) - harp - piano - strings
Duration 
25
Genre 
Commissioner 
Publisher 

‘On the blessed wave of fire

I write your name’

Paul Eluard: from ‘Liberté’

The title of ignis noster – literally ‘our fire’ – derives from a number of alchemical treatises dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and may be more accurately translated as ‘divine fire’, a principal element of the philosopher’s prima materia, essential to the art of transformation.

Both Heraclitus and Parmenides were to associate fire with origins, Heraclitus with the ever-living, Parmenides with an ontological nothingness. Throughout ancient literature one discovers a cross-cultural complex of related metaphors: fire as destruction, as energy, as consummation, as passing, as transience and betweenness, etc. The alchemical idea of ‘transformation’, ‘origin’ as a consuming energy, and a dialectic between the two, are the three principal themes which pervade ignis noster.

The poetic allusions of any musical construction are the most problematic of its determinants, for they necessarily adduce an extra-musical discourse as a point of departure. Metaphorical associations, however, whilst inextricably linked to a poetic intention, are destined to recede into a series of traces. The chain of associations within a musical work proceed not simply as an analogue to extra-musical thinking, but are themselves transformed in the act of musical construction, consumed by the oneiric flames of the imagination.

I must stress, however, that if ignis noster has a programme, it is not in the mode of representation or illustration. It could be argued that all the music has a programme. What are generally regarded as abstract technical matters – the significant decisions taken about the construction of a musical work, and about the relationship of these decisions to the intention of the author – may themselves contain programmatic elements, and read as a narrative.

How does one, then, describe a ‘form of existence’ without recourse to descriptive convention? My initial intention (in some ways straightforward) was to project an imperious, vertiginous form. One significant technical shift in ignis noster – and for me a fairly radical one – was the movement away from a strictly relational approach to construction (as exemplified in my other work for large orchestra, helle Nacht), to what may be described as the (confrontational) iteration of rival techniques. In helle Nacht I derived almost all of the musical material from a single universe of reference, namely the harmonic spectrum constructed upon a single frequency. In ignis noster I am ‘planing’ – to use American musicological jargon – a number of generative processes which run in parallel, and whose connection lies only in the fact that they coexist within the same reality. In a single and fluctuating progression ignis noster divides into eighteen linked sections, each in a state of continuous and dense transformation. The sections are defined as three virtual states: the first potentially static – material which is clearly stratified and confrontational; the second potentially dynamic – material which is interlaced or mixed; and the third a dialectic between the two and within the same section.

Ignis noster was commissioned by the BBC for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and was composed between October 1991 and June 1992. The work is scored for large orchestra and is dedicated to Aon and Roa.

JD

Performances 
July 1992, Royal Albert Hall, London: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Lazarev
4
Flute
2nd doubling piccolo
4
Oboe
4th doubling cor anglais
4
Clarinet
4th doubling bass clarinet
4
Bassoon
4th doubling contrabassoon
6
Horn
5
Trumpet
4
Trombone
1
Tuba
2
Timpani
4
Percussion
16
Violin
14
Violin II
12
Viola
10
Cello
8
Double bass
1
Harp
1
Piano
doubling celeste and harmonium
(Esc)