Marathon performance of Scottish composer James Dillon’ masterpiece – a unique experience.

Nine Rivers

James Dillon

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Three of The Netherlands’ most outstanding ensembles join the virtuoso American percussionist and conductor Steven Schick for a marathon performance of Scottish composer James Dillon’s masterpiece Nine Rivers. This vast, ambitious work consists of nine parts for varying instrumentations, ranging from solo percussion and a cappella choir to strings and electronics. The piece focuses on the river as a metaphor for time and memory, while also playing games with the memory of the audience. Dillon was inspired to write Nine Rivers by Rimbaud’s Le Bateau Ivre. Just as the boat in this famous poem crashes through the river towards the ocean, Dillon’s music moves from weightless hyperactivity through bleak horror to Wagnerian grandeur in a long, continuous, ever evolving ritual.
Programme book


Part 2 – La Coupure is performed at the Bimhuis. You can choose to attend this part of the concert either from 6.30 - 7.30 pm or from 8 - 9 pm. If you wish to order your tickets online, you can choose the top option for the early concert at the Bimhuis (5 pm) or the bottom option if you wish to visit the later concert (5.01 pm).

From 6 to 7.30 pm and from 8 to 9.30 pm you can enjoy a special menu at the Zouthaven restaurant. Please order your meal with your tickets.

The cumulative power of it all is massive, the range of musical experience vast.

The Guardian


James Dillon
conductor, percussion
Steven Schick
Daniel Reuss
sound design
Jaime Oliver, William Brent
video design
Ross Karre
performed by
Cappella Amsterdam
Slagwerk Den Haag
Holland Festival

background information

The Scottish composer James Dillon (1950) has a passion for large structures holding multiple separate compositions. His masterpiece is Nine Rivers, an extensive cycle of nine works which are linked by a range of themes and 'tropes', such as transformation and the river as a metaphor for time. The total duration is three and a half hours. One of the reasons for Dillon to undertake this massive task was his frustration over the fragmentation in the concert format, which combines often unrelated compositions. He wanted to conceive a concert night as one whole. Just as at the world premiere in Glasgow in 2010, Nine Rivers will be performed in its entirety on one night at the Holland Festival. Parts 1 and 3, which each consist of multiple shorter parts, are performed at the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ; part 2, which consists of the long percussion solo La coupure will be performed at the Bimhuis (which is situated in the same building).

Dillon composed the first work of Nine Rivers in 1982. He finished the cycle in 1999. The separate parts were often premiered as autonomous works. A performance of the entire cycle was long seen as practically unfeasible, until this was disproven in 2010. The instrumentation of Nine Rivers, which was awarded the Large-Scale Composition Prize by the Royal Philharmonic Society, demands a large ensemble of woods and brass, percussion, keyboards, harp, strings and electronics. The performers at the Holland Festival are Asko|Schönberg, Slagwerk Den Haag and Cappella Amsterdam, led by conductor/percussionist Steven Schick, who will also perform the solo part La coupure. “Nine Rivers is a mythos of imagined waters, of fairies and snake-gods, a melancholy of flow, a requiem for poisoned rivers, an odyssey, a theatre of memory …” This rather dramatic description from Dillon's original synopsis of the cycle makes it abundantly clear that Nine Rivers is a musical work that bursts its banks. But also, judging from the metaphors of water and flow, that the thematic unity of the work is firm. Dillon started working on Nine Rivers from a number of loosely related themes and ideas, starting with the idea of the river as a metaphor of time. It's an idea that was famously expressed by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus when he stated that “no man ever steps in the same river twice.” In another, less well-known epigram Heraclitus compares time with a “child playing the game of draughts”. Whereas the first aphorism refers to constant change, the second suggests that chance plays an important role in the cosmos. Both ideas have informed Nine Rivers. Dillon's third starting point was Rimbaud's poem Le bateau ivre, in which a freed boat crashes along the river towards the ocean.

The cycle has been divided into three parts of approximately equal time-lengths, which are identified with the three principal stages in the alchemical transformation of matter: 'leukosis' (whitening), 'iosis' (reddening) and 'melanosis' (blackening). In alchemy, iosis is the last stage: the colour red was associated with gold as well as with the philosopher's stone. The three parts of Nine Rivers represent various stages in the transformation of timbre which the work passes through. In addition, there are parallel transformations of musical figures and of space, starting with the grid-like organisation of East 11th St NY 10003 (1982) for six percussionists, and ending with the apparent chaos of Oceanos (1985-1996) for 16 singers, chamber ensemble and electronics.

The fifth work, La coupure, which forms the second part, 'iosis', on its own, was the last part Dillon composed. Measuring approximately one hour it is by far the longest composition of the individual pieces in the cycle and takes the central position between the other two parts. It is also the only piece written for one single performer, a percussionist. In La coupure electronics are introduced into the work. According to Dillon, the work cuts into the acoustic universe of the first part. The cycle very appropriately culminates in Oceanos, named after the river of rivers which according to ancient Greek mythology flows round the world.


James Dillon (1950) is a Scottish composer. He studied art and design, but as a composer he is self-taught. In the early 1970's Dillon studied Indian music; its rhythmic techniques recur in many of his compositions. He teaches all over the world as a guest lecturer and since 2007 he has taught at the School of Music of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. In the mid 1980's he started his German Tryptich, which includes helle Nacht (1987), his first work for large orchestra. Dillon has grouped many independent works together in this way, the most important example being Nine Rivers (1982-1999). Dillon has received commissions from the BBC, IRCAM, the Ensemble InterContemporain, the Société Philharmonique de Bruxelles, Oslo Sinfonietta and ‘Glasgow 1990 European City of Culture’. His work is performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the Ictus Ensemble, the Arditti Quartet and the Talea Ensemble. He's received many awards, including the first prize at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 1978 and the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis at the Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt in 1982, which led to a number of invitations to return with new work. Four times Dillon won a prize for composition awarded by the Royal Philharmonic Society: for Traumwerk in 1997, the fifth book of The Book of Elements for solo piano in 2003, for his Fourth String Quartet in 2005 and for Nine Rivers in 2011. This makes Dillon the most acclaimed composer in the history of the Royal Philharmonic Society. In 2003 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Huddersfield. Dillon's opera Philomela, for which he wrote the libretto himself, premiered in 2004 in Porto. The CD-recording of the opera was awarded the Grand Prix du Disc.


Since 2008, the Asko Ensemble and Schönberg Ensemble have been united in Asko|Schönberg: not an ensemble, not an orchestra, but a flexible group of musicians who can appear in formations of any needed size to perform twentieth- and twenty-first-century music. The music of great, established composers such as György Ligeti, György Kurtág, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel, Louis Andriessen who have secured their place in music history. But also the music of a younger generation, composers such as Michel van der Aa, Martijn Padding and Julian Anderson, and even the youngest generation, whose compositions are still wet from the ink.

Asko|Schönberg has presented all of this in its own Contemporaries series in Amsterdam in the Concertgebouw and Donderdagavondserie -PROMS - at the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ - as a guest of the renowned ZaterdagMatinee concert series, in the Holland Festival and with De Nederlandse Opera. Neither are the youngest audiences neglected: Asko|Schönberg is involved in educational projects for 7-year-olds, composition projects for secondary school students in the graduating class, and collaboration with composition departments of conservatories. All of this is being done by this dedicated group of versatile musicians, conductor Reinbert de Leeuw, permanent guest conductor Etienne Siebens and many guest conductors and soloists from the Netherlands and abroad.


Cappella Amsterdam was established by Jan Boeke in 1970 and has, since 1990, been under the artistic leadership of Daniel Reuss. In recent years the choir has occupied a prominent position in the field of Dutch music and has also enjoyed great success in Europe and beyond. Cappella Amsterdam has thus played a vital role in the European Tenso Network of choirs. Cappella Amsterdam is renowned for it’s homogenous, refined consonance and its extraordinary versatility. The choir excels in both modern repertoires as in music by the old masters and especially embraces the works of Dutch composers.

Not only does Cappella enjoys success with her own productions but also through collaborations with other renowned choirs, ensembles and orchestras. Harmonia mundi has released several CDs by Cappella Amsterdam, which have all been received with praise. ‘Lux Aeterna’, for instance, which included works by Görgy Ligeti and Robert Heppener, was crowned with the ‘Diapason d’Or de l’année 2009’. The productions of Sweelinck and Frank Martin’s Golgotha (released by the same label in 2010) also welcomed rave revues. In November of 2009 Cappella Amsterdam won the VSCD Klassieke Muziekprijs in the category ‘most impressive achievement of a small (chamber) ensemble’. The choir has again been recognised in 2010 and was been shortlisted for the Amsterdam prize for the Arts, the Edison Classical Listeners award and the VSCD Classical Music award. For a recording of Martin's Golgotha, conducted by Daniel Reuss, the choir was nominated together with the Estonian Philharmonic Orchestra for a Grammy for best choral performance.


Since its founding in 1977 the musicians of Slagwerk Den Haag (The Hague Percussion) have focused on performing and developing contemporary percussion music in its most diverse forms: from existing repertoire, via a large number of new commissions and ongoing collaborations with composers, to researching the furthest limits of organized sound. As a specialized ensemble Slagwerk Den Haag has built up a leading position, both nationally as well as internationally; a position, which has brought them to virtually all European countries, the United States, the Middle East, Japan and Korea.

In its use of instrumentation as well as sound sources Slagwerk Den Haag is noticeable for an enormous diversity. Equally broad is its programming: from specialized research projects to accessible programs for a general public and from concerts for the youngest generations to large-scale (inter)national co-productions. Slagwerk Den Haag actively pursues collaborations with other ensembles and disciplines as well - such as dance, theater and visual arts. Due to the regular rejuvenation of its line-up over the years, Slagwerk Den Haag has not only maintained its vast experience, but also an openness of character. A characteristic, which is also apparent in the way the musicians present their concerts and manage to communicate with large and diverse audiences.

This performance was made possible with support by